Is it the future of fuel? New Battelle mobile pyrolysis unit nets 130 gallons of bio-oil per ton

November 11, 2013 |

fuel-convoy-2If you can’t afford to bring the biomass to the refinery, why not bring the refinery to the biomass?

A new, farm-scale mobile pyrolysis may travel by 18-wheeler — munching feedstock, making fuels.

In Ohio, Battelle engineers and scientists have developed a mobile device that transforms residues such as wood chips or agricultural waste into bio-oil using catalytic pyrolysis. As currently configured, the Battelle-funded unit converts one ton of pine chips, shavings and sawdust into as much as 130 gallons of wet bio-oil per day.

The what

This intermediate bio-oil then can be upgraded by hydrotreatment into a gas/diesel blend or jet fuel. Battelle’s testing of the bio-based gasoline alternative suggests that it can be blended with existing gasoline and can help fuel producers meet their renewable fuel requirements.

The Battelle bio-oil created by the mobile pyrolysis unit is similar to naturally occurring fossil oils harvested from underground.

Additionally, all of the waste materials produced by the unit’s process-liquid, solid and gas-have been taken into account. The liquid waste stream is water that can be safely recycled or disposed of, the solid char contains inorganics that can be used in fertilizers and the venting gas is monitored for safety.

The mobility

Because of its small size, the pyrolysis unit is installed on the trailer of a flat-bed 18-wheel truck, making it mobile and thus transportable to the waste products. This feature makes it ideal to access the woody biomass that is often left stranded in agricultural regions, far away from industrial facilities. It’s potentially a significant cost advantage over competing processes represented by large facilities that require shipment of the biomass from its home site.

Alternative feedstocks

Currently, Battelle experts are using mainly pine waste in the transportable pyrolysis unit, although the high-tech machine can be modified to use other types of unwanted agricultural field residue known as stranded biomass, including corn stover, switch grass and Miscanthus.

Alternative markets

An alternative use of Battelle’s bio-oil is its conversion to a bio-polyol that can be substituted in chemical manufacturing for polyols derived from petroleum. Battelle’s bio-polyols have been validated by a third-party polyurethane producer as a viable alternative.

The where

Battelle is evaluating this one-ton-per-day system at its West Jefferson, Ohio facility. The pilot-scale system is the culmination of Battelle’s second-stage development of the mobile pyrolysis technology.

The background

In the first stage, which took place over the past four years, Battelle created a bench-scale machine that converted 50-pounds of woody waste per day, demonstrating the novel concept. The next step will be to work with a strategic partner/investor to produce a tenth-scale demonstration unit.

Reaction from Battelle

“We have something quite compelling,” said Kathya Mahadevan, Business Line Manager in Battelle’s Energy and Environment at business. “We’ve got it producing oil and have proven viable applications for it. As we increase scale, we will be able to further refine efficiencies such as thermal consumption and yield.”

The bottom line

Could be huge. As in, huge. On two fronts. One, the 130 gallons per ton — way, way ahead of what we see from anything else coming close to scale in the world of cellulosics. Only ZeaChem has posted these kinds of numbers — and in their case, making ethanol instead of energy-dense bio-oil.

Perhaps most importantly, the mobility. There are the domestic fuel implications to consider — its perhaps a first transformative step towards the cellulosic combine harvester that grabs biomass and pyrolyzes on the spot. And just mows down the acres of switchgrass — or ag residues or wood — a true Fields of Fuel, as it were.

Lest We Forget

It’s November 11th, friend. Veteran’s Day. End date of the war to end all wars. Let’s think about this development from Battelle, in the context of defense applications.

But consider the in-theater opportunities for militry application. No more fuel convoys in remote areas with rickety one-land roads that are a natural target for the enemy. A version of such a harvester that included a weapons platform would be something quite out of the ordinary — the perpetual warfighting machine. Makes its own fuel, makes its own water. Leaves soil amendment behind.

Keep in mind the opportunities with biofuels made from bio-oils in terms of surface-to-air performance. We covered those here. Best way to summarize is this: Up to 7 percent gain in range or payload, pick your fave.

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