Saturday, August 18, 2018 by Edsel Cook
A decade’s worth of studies on biomass gasification has finally delivered “huge” results for Swedish researchers. In a Science Daily article, they announced breakthroughs in conversion technology that would let countries like Sweden produce large amounts of renewable fuels without the need to build expensive new power plants.
Chalmers University of Technology (Chalmers) energy expert Henrik Thunman claimed full conversion would allow Sweden’s current power plants to produce enough renewable fuels for 10 percent of the aircraft in the world.
The new technology will not just provide a sustainable supply of electricity, fuel, and heat. It also maintains the relevance of existing industries by giving them the ability to create renewable products.
This could be good news for industries that hesitate to move from fossil fuels to renewable fuels. Heavy industries have very long investment cycles, so they must choose as early as possible. Yet they are deterred from doing so by the massive expenses of replacing their equipment and facilities with newer, cleaner equivalents.
Thunman and his Chalmers colleagues offer a new solution that can be applied to both new power plants and the thousands of older installations in the world. They suggest the implementation of biomass gasification in every power plant. (Related: Duke suspends its plans for a new gas power plant and will focus on generating energy from pig waste.)
Subjecting biomass to high temperatures turns it into gas. Refinement of this gas creates end-products that are normally made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. One of the possible end-products is biogas, which can replace natural gas as a fuel for power plants and heating systems.
The main problem of gasification is that biomass releases tar during the process. The tar makes it much more difficult to convert the rest of the biomass into biofuel.
But Chalmers has that problem covered. Researchers from the university’s Energy Technology division developed new chemical processes that can raise the quality of the biogas.
They also demonstrated new ways to handle tar. Finally, they presented new heat-exchange materials with higher efficiency. When all of these advancements are combined, they make it much easier and more attractive to convert various plants into biomass gasifiers.
Chalmers associate professor Martin Seeman explained that an option to convert existing boilers will be very enticing to certain industries. The ability to produce renewable fuels and chemicals alongside the usual heat and electrical power would be icing on the cake.
Thunman reported that his team implemented the new technologies on their research boiler in 2007. The results from the prototype plus the much larger Gothenburg Biomass Gasification demonstrator of 2014 led him to believe the technology is now ready.
District heating plants, sawmills, oil refineries, paper and pulp mills, petrochemical plants, and power plants can all be converted to produce biofuel.
Another professor at Chalmers, Göran Berndes, believes that biomass cannot replace fossil fuels on a one-to-one basis, at least not without becoming unsustainable. However, he adds that biomass can improve the energy supply.
Furthermore, he is interested in the conversion of existing power plants to biogas production. He says gasification increases the efficiency of biomass to meet non-energy needs.
“Regardless of how biomass is used in the end, it is important to ensure that it comes from sustainable forestry and agriculture. Laws, regulations and market-based sustainability certification schemes provide better conditions for sustainable production, but countries and individual actors differ in terms of sustainability priorities. It is therefore likely that the changeover to renewability will still be characterised by a debate regarding the sustainability of different solutions,” Berndes advised.
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