16 April 2008

The Future of BioEnergy I: Biomass to Liquid (BTL)

This image illustrates one reason why biomass to liquid (BTL) approaches to producing biofuels will quickly surpass current food-to-fuel government mandated schemes. BTL is simply more efficient, does not use food as feedstock, and does not require high quality food cropland to grow the feedstock. BTL is an example of biomass gasification to liquid fuel, which has been discussed here at Al Fin many times.The particular version of BTL highlighted here is the Choren venture, which is heavily backed by Shell Oil, and partnered by Mercedes and Volkswagen. Here is more on Choren, from Spiegel:
€180 million ($285 million) has been injected into the Choren venture, says Tom Blades, who has led the company for the past four years. The savvy Brit, who formerly worked for the oilfield drilling giant Schlumberger, turned out to be just the man for one of the company’s major diplomatic missions: An oil company had to come on board, ideally one that was a leader in green technology.

It took Blades a little over a year. In the summer of 2005, Shell acquired a stake in the company. The oil corporation contributed a key component in the refining process, the Fischer-Tropsch technology, which converts the synthesis gas into a BTL (biomass-to-liquid) fuel.

Researchers at the oil conglomerate appear to be completely convinced: “BTL is a dream fuel,” says Wolfgang Warnecke, CEO of Shell Global Solutions in Hamburg, "the best of all the biofuels."

Toward the end of the year, the plant at Freiberg will go into operation, fed primarily with old, untreated bits of lumber and other scrap wood. It will take approximately five tons of dry material to produce one ton of fuel. The small refinery will consume nearly 70,000 tons of waste wood a year. “It should be pretty easy for us to get our hands on this amount,” says Michael Deutmeyer, who is responsible for supplying biomass to Choren.

It will be considerably more challenging to keep up with the needs for raw materials at the full-scale refineries Choren is planning to build. The first of these larger plants should go into service in 2012 in the eastern German city of Schwedt, right near the border with Poland. The planned facility will produce 200,000 tons of BTL diesel a year -- and devour a million tons of wood and other dry material. Waste products alone won’t be enough to satisfy this hearty appetite.

To meet this increased demand, Deutmeyer is planning to plant trees. Wood is the most suitable raw material for biofuel processing. Three years ago, just east of Schwerin, the capital of the federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Choren converted 20 hectares (50 acres) into experimental “rapid sapling-to-sawmill plantations,” where willows and other fast-growing trees are flourishing.

Such cultivation, says Deutmeyer, requires significantly smaller amounts of pesticides and fertilizers than crops like rapeseed. This type of forestry also reaps considerable public subsidies. The Ministry of Agriculture in the state of Brandenburg has already indicated that it will provide government funds for the plantations destined to supply the wood for a plant to be built in Schwedt. Up to 45 percent of the investments for saplings, preparations and soil-improvement measures will derive their financing from state coffers.

The experimental fields in Mecklenburg have already been harvested once, the trees reduced to wood chips by a special chopper from Sweden. The results look very promising. Annual yields of up to 20 tons of dry material per hectare can be harvested from good soils. This would work out to a top production rate of four metric tons -- or 5,000 liters -- of BTL diesel. Until now, rapeseed fields that are comparable in area have only yielded 1,500 liters.

With numbers like these, BTL is the first plant-based liquid fuel that could constitute a viable replacement for fossil fuels while not directly competing with food production. According to the FNR, up to six million hectares of land in Germany could be used to grow energy-producing plants. This corresponds to over a third of the area currently used for agriculture. The agency says this acreage could form the basis for BTL products to satisfy a quarter of Germany’s domestic fuel needs. On a Europe-wide scale, the replacement potential could even reach as high as 40 percent, owing primarily to the vast areas available in the new EU states in Eastern Europe. __Spiegel
Although this particular approach to large scale biomass-to-liquid-fuel is better financed than most, and more advanced in terms of production schedule, it is by no means an isolated example of BTL by gasification. As knowledge of this obviously superior approach to bio-fuels and bio-energy slowly percolates up through the layers of bureaucracy in government, academia, and the media, perhaps you will finally hear about it in the mainstream North American press. But don't hold your breath. Currently, the media is too busy scapegoating biofuels to waste its time looking at genuine solutions.

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Blogger SwampWoman said...

Kudzu may once again be taking its rightful place as a savior for the southern farmer.

/Nervously adjusting kevlar clothing.

Thursday, 17 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Perhaps, SW, perhaps.

The thing is, plants can be re-programmed genetically to produce a lot of different things. Eventually, we'll be able to get plants to do almost anything we want them to do, within reason.

The current biofuels witch hunt is like a lynching party on a global scale. It will eventually die down as the better informed people are given a public voice, but for now it just reminds one of the basic irrationality of the human race.

Thursday, 17 April, 2008  
Blogger Thomas said...


5 tons of wood for 1 ton of biodiesel
6m hectares produce and 20 tons of wood per hectare/year makes 120m tons of wood and Choren turns it into 24m tons of biodiesel. Germany currently consumes s.th. like 32m tons of biodiesel per year.

Now let us all hope that it can be grown sustainably (no bark beetles eating up your wood), the energy input is low (EROEI!), the subsidies continue and - they can all drive on wood. Great. Well...

Friday, 18 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Other benefits of gasification of biomass can include production of biochar fertiliser, and CHP--combined heat and power. The process waste heat can be used to generate electricity, or to create steam for industrial/commercial/other heating uses.

As biomass and bio-energy processes become more sophisticated, there will be a lot of spinoffs--many of which will decrease local and regional dependencies on petroleum and petroleum-derived products.

Biomass is a regional solution to regional and local problems. Not a global or national solution at all. Think local and regional!

Some people despair over problems. Others get rich devising solutions.

Friday, 18 April, 2008  

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