Monday, 21 March 2011

BEK arrives in Malaysia

On Friday and Saturday this week, I visited the team at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB... the research arm of the Malaysian palm oil industry) who were assembling the first BEK in Malaysia.  This may also be the first BEK in SEA but, as previously reported, GEK has arrived already in the Philippines.

This initiative is part of the biochar research collaboration between MPOB and UniKL MICET, as reported previously by Dr Robert Bachmann (BIG-SEA, 18Jan11).

"The BEK (Biochar Experimenter’s Kit) is a reconfiguration of GEK components to create a multi-mode pyrolysis machine for characterized biochar and bio-oil making.  The BEK supports multiple pyrolysis process modes in direct combustion (updraft, TLUD and stratified downdraft), indirect combustion retort, and sweep gas through bed heat transfer." (BEK website)

1st run on palm kernel shell
Jay from  ALL Power Labs in Berkeley, California was on hand to guide the assembly process and provide some initial training. The first solids consumed by the BEK were palm kernel shell, one of the more easily digestible biomass waste feed-stocks from the PO industry. More difficult wastes such as EFB will be targeted for production research and soil trials. More on this in the future, as BEK develops an appetite for a high fibre diet (the baby currently does not have any teeth).

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Envergent Technologies Designing Plant to Convert Palm Biomass to Renewable Fuels

"DES PLAINES, Ill., Mar. 10, 2011 – Envergent Technologies LLC, a Honeywell (NYSE:HON) company, announced today that it has been selected by Premium Renewable Energy (Malaysia) Sdn. Bhd. to perform the engineering design for a project that will use Envergent’s RTP® Rapid Thermal Processing technology to convert palm biomass to renewable heat and electricity. The initial Premium RTP facility, to be initiated in late 2011 and completed in early 2013, will be Malaysia’s first plant to use RTP for the production of a clean-burning liquid biofuel derived from biomass. The RTP liquid fuels will be used to generate renewable electricity and heat."

This press release made the local papers here in Malaysia today. This is a 'flash pyrolysis' technology... probably similar to Dynamotive in Canada (and a number of other technology providers in various stages of commercial development). The business model for flash pyrolysis is very much focused on biomass to energy - principally bio-oils and liquid fuels.  Residual carbon from the process is being identified as a source of biochar. Dynamotive have been supporting biochar soil trials by BlueLeaf over the last few years with exciting results. A search on the Energent website for biochar pulls no results so it does not look like they have the supply of biochar in their immediate plans.

As oil prices rise, so will the intrinsic value of waste biomass, such as EFB (the likely target of Energent for biomass feed-stock).  Supply currently exceeds demand so EFB probably has a disposal cost rather than an income - particularly for independent palm oil mills (with no access to plantation disposal). This is set to change in the future and I am predicting competition between slow and fast pyrolysis technologies for the attention of the big plantation companies and their biomass wastes.  The two technologies vary in a number of ways: 

Flash pyrolysis
  • Flash pyrolysis is focused on liquid biofuels but could also provide CHP integration into the palm oil mill. Some high temperature biochar may be available depending on the technology but this will be a minor component.
  • The technology is often more complex and expensive than slow pyrolysis so will demand larger project scales with a more centralized model (maybe a bold assumption!). This may work well for POM integration but not so well for the massive plantation replanting program that is required in the industry (and currently being deferred by high palm oil prices!).
  • The biomass and carbon is removed from the agricultural system. Additional inputs will be required to replace these losses. This will carry an additional cost to the plantation or to soil / crop productivity, if not replaced.
Slow pyrolysis
  • Slow pyrolysis technologies can also produce bio-oils and energy gases for CHP and power production but must sacrifice some on the potential energy value when locking it up as recalcitrant carbon. This 'charcoal', when applied to the soil as biochar, has multiple benefits... principally related to soil enhancement, environmental management and carbon sequestration.
  • Slow pyrolysis will generally be smaller, simpler, cheaper and may be much more variable in scale and efficiency. It may offer a more 'distributed energy' solution that will lower biomass handling costs. It can offer mobile solutions to capture biomass that may otherwise be lost as co2 to hungry bacteria (replanting of palm requires chipping of old palms to control beetle infestation... a great opportunity for mobile pyrolysis).
  • Slow pyrolysis biochar has different properties than flash/fast. It remains to be seen which product has greater benefits under specific agriculture conditions. And this may depend on soil type / condition, agriculture and environmental considerations.
  • Slow pyrolysis may have greater control over process conditions for the manufacture of designer biochars. Mainly because biochar is likely to be the focused product.
The competition for this biomass will be based on hard-nosed economic decisions by plantation companies.  Personally, I'm punting on biochar and slow pyrolysis... but it looks like the flashy guys have got the lead! If market devices are allowed to drive this, then biochar must prove its self in the 'field'. It will have to have a higher economic value as a soil / crop enhancer and carbon sequestration tool than as a combustion fuel. The plantation companies are only likely to factor in the environmental benefits if they can be quantified and converted to an economic value (or environmental marketing opportunities?).  Bring on the soil trials! 

I am currently aware of four separate groups planning biochar soil trials and targeting the palm oil industry. Other project proposals are looking for funding.