Ensyn: Biofuels’ Big, Fast Cracker, in pictures

November 19, 2012 |

Ensyn – moving rapidly towards scale as a transport fuel technology after decades in smaller, high-value markets.

What does Ensyn’s signature RTP technology, that’s making such a splash, look like?

There’s a jeu d’esprit that Canadians repeat amongst themselves about how much better Canada is at basic research than applications development. At some point, someone mentiones the old cartoon showing two Canadian cave-men dragging a newly-invented wheel, in a sledge, across the US border, one saying to the other, “I wonder what the Americans will think up to do with this?”

The flip-side of that story has to be a company like Ensyn, which has developed applications, for renewable transport fuels, for its basic RTP biomass technology, and is now exporting the technology through partenrships in Brazil, Malaysia, Italy and, well, the US.

Thereby, Ensyn has become a signature part of one of the biggest stories in the past two years in bioenergy. Namely the arrival, at commercial scale, of thermocatalytic technologies for renewable fuels – with KiOR one of the most prominent examples.

Ensyn is not a new company – in fact, it has been around for more than two decades with extensive operations in producing flavors & ingredients, upgrading heavy oils from fossil fuel drilling operations, and renewable fuel oil for power generation. Overall, the company has produced more than 125 million litres of renewable fuels and chemicals from wood residues.

Staring in the mid-2000s the company began its move into renewable transport fuels – with a signature establishment in 2007 of a 75 ton per day plant in Renfrew, Ontario in 2007, and establishment in 2008 of the Envergent joint venture with Honeywell’s UOP, aimed at stand-alone upgrading of the Ensyn liquid product to drop-in transportation fuels.

UOP was selected by the US Department of Energy to demonstrate this technology, and has been awarded a grant of US$25 million for a demonstration project in Hawaii. This facility, which will upgrade RTP fuels into drop-in gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, is currently under construction and is expected to be commissioned shortly.
Rapid thermal cracking, in a nutshell

Though a complex technology, this class of technologies is based in a simple concept. Rapidly heat up biomass under the right conditions, you gasify the materials into a stream of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that, when rapidly cooled, densifies into a trio of carbon-based soup, a solid bio-char, and a remainder of flammable, renewable gas.

The key to making a commercial technology is an affordable supply of biomass, a technology for efficiently heating and cooling the material, as well as optimizing the mix of carbon-rich liquid, char and gas.

The general process has been aptly described as a time machine, since it accomplishes in around two seconds what Nature would accomplish with the same biomass in a couple of million years using geologic heat and pressures.

Ensyn’s technology, in pictures

In the case of Ensyn, the technology utilizes a hot (510C) , fluidized bed of sand to rapidly heat pulverize biomass – it’s notable for being a relatively low-pressure system, which improves cost and safety. The sand is recovered and is reheated by burning the char – so that, once started, the system is completely energy self-sufficient.

Ensyn's main RTP processing unit


Ensyn external cooling unit

Ensyn external storage units

Wide shot of 75 ton per day demonstration plant in Renfrew, Ontario

Ensyn project in assembly phase - much of it modular in nature, rather than stick-built on site

The limitations

Pyro oils are acidic – typically at a pH of around 3 – corrosive for traditional fuel infrastructure and vehicles. And the oils generally have too much oxygen and are too tar-like and have the wrong flash point to work in diesel engines. Hence, the work with UOP to upgrade the fuel on a standalone basis and to optimize it to be usable with standard refinery equipment.

Expansion to Italy – wood and sawmill residues

The Coll’Energia Project is being developed by Industria e Innovazione, an Italian power developer with a particular focus on renewable energy. The project is located near Siena in Tuscany. The project will process approximately 150 tons per days of a mix of pine forest residues and clean by-product from local wood industries into RTP Renewable Fuel Oil (RFO). The RFO will be used as a fuel for a stationary diesel engine to generate electricity.  Industria e Innovazione has signed a contract with Envergent Technologies for preliminary engineering and design.

Expansion to Malaysia – palm waste

Ensyn has established a joint venture with Premium Renewable Energy (Malaysia), a Malaysian renewable energy development company, regarding renewable energy projects in Malaysia and Indonesia, and has a strategic relationship with Felda Palm Industries, the world’s leading producer of palm oil.
The joint venture involves the conversion of palm and bagasse residues to RTP Renewable Fuel Oil (RFO).  The RFO will then be used for power generation, heating and for upgrading to transport fuels. The first project is to be located in Felda Sahabat, Sabah.

Expansion to Brazil- eucalyptus and wood fiber residue

Last month, Ensyn and Fibria established a Brazilian JV. Fibria has current production capacity of over five million tons of pulp per year, focused primarily on fast-growth eucalyptus and a forest base of one million hectares across seven states in Brazil. The company owns and operates three pulp mills in Brazil and also owns 50% of Veracel, a joint-venture with Stora Enso, also in Brazil. As part of the strategic alliance, Fibria has invested $20 million in Ensyn equity, and Fibria has been granted the right to appoint one member to Ensyn’s Board of Directors.

The bottom line

We’ve heard that financing projects has been tough for Envergent, to date – but signature collaborations such as the work with Fibria indicates that the purse strings are loosening, to some extent, as the company has emerged from the stealth-mode it adopted during the development phase with UOP.

Some things to like about Ensyn.

There have been three mantras in biobased technology projects, in recent years – work with multiple feedstocks and geographies (to control costs), produce multiple products (to maximize revenue opportunities) – and, most importantly, start with the higher-value opportunities using smaller markets as a means of assembling the corporate strength and scale to tap the fuel markets.

If that’s how to get it done, right, that certainly marks Ensyn as a key sector pioneer. Not only in terms of its signature technology but as a model of how to expand as a business, generating revenue at each step of the path to world-class fuel scale.

Meanwhile, back in April, Ensyn and Honeywell announced two breakthrough claims at the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference. First, that their pyrolysis process is capable of producing RTP fuel at scale, a crude oil competitor for a price of $45 per barrel (of oil equivalent). RTP fuel can be upgraded at the refinery – using modified but standard refinery equipment.

At the time, we surmised that the approach could bring refiners into the game as producers, rather than an obligated blender, of advanced biofuels. Consider this: for years, refiners have had to deal with early-gen biofuels that have cost them time, money and aggravation to handle, while cutting in to their refining volumes. Their role was limited to buy, blend and suffer. Since we haven’t yet heard of any deal flow – it’s either a long sell-through, in terms of the technology. Or the opportunities to enter the fuels and chemicals refining business are more compelling to biomass players like Fibria than are opportunities to enter the biomass business for refining partners like, say, Tesoro.

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