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VTT develops new gasification approach to turn forest biomass into biofuels and biochemicals

In Finland, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has developed a new technique based on gasification, which it says offers a sustainable way to turn forest industry byproducts, such as bark, sawdust and forestry waste, into transportation biofuels and biochemicals. The new technique reduces carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) by approximately 90 percent compared to fossil fuels.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Bioruukki piloting centre in Espoo, Finland has developed a new technique based on gasification, which it says offers a sustainable way to turn forest industry byproducts, such as bark, sawdust and forestry waste, into transportation biofuels and biochemicals (photo courtesy VTT).

Whilst biomass gasification itself is not new, VTT’s new approach uses gasification to turn biomass into intermediate products – liquid hydrocarbons, methanol or methane – in production units integrated with communal district heating (DH) plants or forest industry power plants. The intermediate products are processed further in oil refineries to make renewable fuels or chemicals.

VTT developed and piloted the new gasification process and evaluated the competitiveness of plants based on the technique in the course of a recently concluded project called BTL2030. The distributed generation process developed by the project team makes efficient use of the energy content of biomass.

Approximately 55 percent of the energy content is turned into transportation biofuels and a further 20–25 percent can be used to provide district heating or to produce steam for industrial processes. The new technique reduces carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by approximately 90 percent compared to fossil fuels.

Smaller-scale enables better overall efficiency

The process is based on VTT’s low-pressure, low-temperature steam gasification technology, simplified gas purification and small-scale industrial syntheses. Thanks to the small-scale approach, the heat generated by the process can be used throughout the year, and the process can be fuelled with local waste.

At the end of 2013, Göteborg Energi fired up GoBiGas 1, a unique biomass gasification demonstration plant to produce biomethane from woody biomass.

At the end of 2013, Göteborg Energi fired up GoBiGas 1, a unique 20 MW biomass gasification demonstration plant project in Gothenburg, Sweden to produce biomethane from woody biomass. In April 2018, the facility was shuttered after successful completion of the project operation.

Finland’s previous plans have involved considerably larger gasification-based plants to produce renewable diesel, the raw material demands of which could not have been satisfied with locally sourced waste. Moreover, according to VTT, it would have been impossible to make full use of the heat by-product of the large plants, thus the energy efficiency would have been easily less than 60 percent.

Not one of the large gasification plants of more than 300 MW that have been planned for Europe has been built yet. The almost EUR 1 billion investment needed together with the risks associated with new technology has proven an insurmountable obstacle. The smaller scale of our solution makes it easier to secure funding for building the first plant based on the new technology, explained VTT’s Senior Principal Scientist Esa Kurkela.

Cost competitive

Apart from VTT, BTL2030 project consortium partners included Fortum Oyj, Gasum Oy, Helen Oy, Kumera Corporation, Gasification Technologies Inc, Oy Brynolf Grönmark Ab, ÅF-Consult Ltd, Oy Woikoski Ab, Dasos Capital Oy, Kokkolanseudun Kehitys Oy and MOL Group from Hungary.

The team estimates that the production costs of transport fuels made from domestic waste would amount to EUR 0.8–1 per litre of petrol or diesel. The new technology is set to become considerably more competitive as the costs of the raw materials of competing technologies increase, and the process is expected to be highly competitive at least from the year 2030 onwards.

The project involved mapping out the path from pilot-scale development to demonstrations and commercialising the technology with participating businesses. Even in the short term, the ultimate competitiveness of the new technique hinges on the prices of crude oil and CO2 quotas as well as the taxation of renewable transport fuels.

Significant technology export potential

According to the IEA’s “Renewables 2018 Market Analysis and Forecast to 2023“, bioenergy will be the most rapidly growing form of renewable energy between 2018 and 2023. In the longer term, limiting global warming to two degrees requires almost quadrupling bioenergy’s contribution to the world’s energy consumption, from the current 4.5 percent to approximately 17 percent by 2060.

According to VTT, it is estimated that, in addition to other measures, Finland will need sustainable biofuels to account for 30 percent of the energy consumption of the transport sector by 2030. Supplying half of this demand with domestic waste would require 5–10 locally integrated energy production plants.

The 3.6 percent target set for advanced biofuels in the European Commission’s recently adopted Renewable Energy Directive II (REDII)) equates to 11 million tonnes of oil equivalent, which would mean approximately 200 gasification plants in Europe alone.

Fortum Otso (“bear”) bio-oil is produced at its combined heat and power (CHP) plant in Joensuu. In production since 2013, the bio-oil is produced from renewable wood-based raw materials using fast pyrolysis technology (photo courtesy Fortum).

In addition to transport fuels, the biomass gasification technique can be used to produce renewable raw materials to replace oil and natural gas in various chemical industry processes. Synthesis gas applications, on the other hand, could help in the attainment of several circular economy goals, such as closed-loop recycling of plastics and other packaging materials.

R&D to continue through EU projects

The development of gasification technology is set to continue through two EU Horizon 2020 projects coordinated by VTT. The projects focus on gas purification and increasing the efficiency of synthesis technology and aim to demonstrate the performance of the entire biofuel chain at VTT’s Bioruukki piloting centre in Espoo, Finland.

The first project, Compact Gasification and Synthesis process for Transport Fuels (COMSYN), aims to develop modern, intensified reactors, which have a high production rate compared to equipment size.

The second project under development is Flexible Combined Production of Power, Heat and Transportation Fuels (FlexCHX) – a flexible hybrid process based on biomass and solar and wind energy, which can either be run on just biomass or be boosted with electrolysis.

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