18 August 2010

Visualising a Robust Biomass Network

Compare the hierarchical network on the left with the widely distributed flat network on the right.  It should be obvious that the flat network is more resilient to the loss of any particular node than is the hierarchical network -- which can be rendered disconnected by the removal of the one central node!  Consider the vulnerability of the US petroleum industry created by its central focus on Gulf of Mexico ports and refineries. Every year during hurricane season, the nation holds its breath, hoping its petro-refinery infrastructure will not be damaged.

A national biomass network should resemble the widely distributed flat network on the right, more than the hierarchical network. Biomass can be grown almost everywhere, and can be densified by local fast-pyrolysis units, which are simple and inexpensive enough to be located close to where the biomass is aggregated. Pyrolysis oils can be cheaply shipped to the central nodes -- regional gasifiers and refineries (F-T etc) -- which will become inexpensive enough to be located near both medium and large population centers.

Biomass crops with ever-larger yields are being developed each year. Crops such as Giant King Grass can be harvested up to 4 times a year with yields up to 50 dry metric tons per acre.   The baled grass can then be transported a very short distance to the local pyrolysis plant where it is converted to pyrolysis oil. Pyrolysis oil has far higher energy density than raw biomass, and can be shipped via tanker (or pipeline) to regional gasification plants of various size. Some of these gasification plants will generate both heat and electricity (CHP) for towns, cities, or special campuses. Other gasification plants will be connected to bio-reactors and refineries to produce advanced liquid fuels or high value chemicals.

Gasifiers and gasification plants can be built to a wide range of capacities, to scale to different industrial and population needs.   The larger the underlying biomass network, the more reliable the flow of bio-energy between the nodes and at terminal ends.

A national network of this type will not arise overnight.   Other types of nodes will be added, such as torrefaction facilities, plants for producing biomass pellets, logs, and briquettes -- and doubtless a number of other ways of increasing the energy density of biomass very close to the source. Solid torrefied biomass can be co-fired with coal (as can liquid pyrolysis oil), and bio-syngas can be fired in gas turbine generators. So it is likely that the new bioenergy networks will widely overlap with pre-existing energy infrastructure, at least initially.

It is important that farmers, entrepreneurs, bankers, and planners at all levels of industry and government be aware of the types of bio-energy networks that are likely to grow up -- seemingly out of nothing.  The economic feedback within and between communities will be immense.

As has been stated before on this blog, bioenergy is not the same type of "get rich quick" energy scheme as fossil fuels have been.  But when integrated into robust networks of economic activity, bioenergy can be a huge and sustained boost to economies from rural to semi-urban to urban scales.

Taken from a previous post at Al Fin Energy


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Blogger gtg723y said...

Our system would resemble the flat evenly distributed network if the Government would unshackle the market and let it truly be free. "The government is the problem, not the solution." According to an economist I saw on Neal Cavuto's show we could demolish the fed and put the money supply back the way it was with no gradual transition with little more than a hiccup, nothing compared to the recession we are in now. I bring this up because our money supply is set up similarly.

Wednesday, 18 August, 2010  
Blogger gtg723y said...

Hey Al, I used to work for a company designing portable biomass pyrolysis machines, you want to go into business?

Wednesday, 18 August, 2010  
Blogger Borepatch said...

You clearly gain in robustness, agreed. But the analysis needs a mention of energy delivered at point of use per dollar spent at point of use.

IOW, if you convert this to gasoline (or #2 heating oil), what does it cost per gallon? I expect the answer is "lots".

Wednesday, 18 August, 2010  
Blogger al fin said...

gtg: I suspect we will see the same type of economy of scale going into the creation of pyrolysis, gasification, and catalytic synthesis machines as we have seen in automobile and electronics manufacture.

The complexity of the machinery is not that great -- but we still have to climb a steep learning curve in terms of production and distribution economics.

Borepatch: Very true, but the costs are changing as we accumulate experience at all stages of the production and distribution chain. The evolution of fast-growing biomass and development of ingenious micro-organisms used in fuel production etc etc are picking up speed.

The network's nodes are forming now, in isolated fashion, but in an economic manner. As the network grows in number of nodes and connections, the economics only get better.

Bioenergy is happening a lot more quickly than one might comprehend, if one is not paying attention. Co-products of biomass processing such as animal feeds, plastics, high value chemicals, etc etc should also be watched closely in addition to the fuels, electricity, and heat produced.

Of all forms of large scale energy, nuclear makes the most sense. Coal, gas, and oil can be made cleaner, cheaper, and more abundant than at present -- under a more enlightened energy regime.

Big wind and big solar are almost hopeless -- except perhaps in terms of electrolysis of water into hydrogen. The hydrogen will be incredibly valuable for chemical processing of a wide range of feedstocks.

I am describing a network that will have to evolve alongside other competing networks, over time. We are not talking about corn ethanol, but something much larger and longer term.

Wednesday, 18 August, 2010  

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