A Sustainable Way to Convert Forestry Waste into Chemicals and Transport Fuels

A new method based on gasification has been formulated by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. This offers a sustainable means of converting forest industry byproducts, such as sawdust, bark, and forestry waste, into chemicals and transport fuels. The new method decreases carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by about 90% compared to fossil fuels.

The development of gasification technology takes place in VTT’s Bioruukki piloting center in Espoo, Finland (Photo by: VTT)

The new method uses gasification to convert biomass into intermediate products—liquid hydrocarbons, methanol or methane—in production units combined with communal district heating plants or forest industry power plants. The intermediate products are processed further in oil refineries to create chemicals or renewable fuels.

VTT created and piloted the new gasification process and assessed the competitiveness of plants based on the method in the course of a newly concluded project called BTL2030. The distributed generation process formulated by the project team makes efficient use of the energy content of biomass. Approximately 55% of the energy content is converted into transport fuels and a further 20–25% can be utilized to provide district heating or to generate steam for industrial processes. The new method decreases CO2 emissions by approximately 90% compared to fossil fuels.

Sustainable bioenergy plays an important role in the fight against climate change

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), modern bioenergy plays an important role in building a cleaner and more sustainable energy system. Bioenergy presently makes up for approximately 50% of the world’s renewable energy consumption, and the IEA estimates that bioenergy will be the most quickly growing form of renewable energy between 2018 and 2023. In the longer run, limiting global warming to two degrees entails, according to the IEA, nearly quadrupling bioenergy’s contribution to the world’s energy consumption, from the present 4.5% to approximately 17% by 2060.

Bioenergy is required, particularly, for reducing emissions from air transport and shipping and as a back-up fuel for road transport as more electric cars are added. The utilization of forest industry by-products, such as bark, recycled wood, forestry waste, straw or other biomass as raw materials does not influence the carbon sink effect of forests, and they do not vie against forest industry raw material procurement or food production.

By-products to provide heat throughout the year

The process is based on VTT’s low-pressure, low-temperature steam gasification technology, simplified gas purification, and small-scale industrial syntheses. As a result of the small-scale method, the heat produced by the process can be used during the course of the year, and the process can be powered with local waste. Finland’s prior plans have involved significantly larger gasification-based diesel plants, the raw material demands of which could not have been fulfilled with locally sourced waste. Furthermore, it would have been impossible to make complete use of the by-product heat of the large plants, and their energy efficiency would have thus been easily less than 60%.

Considerable improvements expected in the competitiveness of plants

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.

Esa Kurkela, Senior Principal Scientist, VTT.

The BTL2030 project team estimates that the production costs of transport fuels made from domestic waste would amount to EUR 0.8–1 per liter of petrol or diesel. The new technology is set to become significantly more competitive as the costs of the raw materials of competing technologies go up, and the process is anticipated to be extremely competitive at least from the year 2030 onwards. The project involved chart out the path from pilot-scale development to demonstrations and commercializing the technology with participating businesses. Even in the short term, the ultimate competitiveness of the new method centers on the prices of crude oil and CO2 quotas as well as the taxation of renewable transport fuels.

Gasification technology projected to have huge export potential

Experts estimate that, along with other measures, Finland will need sustainable biofuels to make up for 30% of the energy consumption of the transport sector by 2030. Supplying half of this demand with domestic waste would necessitate 5–10 locally integrated energy production plants. The 3.6% target fixed for advanced biofuels in the European Commission’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED2) equates to 11 million tons of oil, which would mean approximately 200 gasification plants in just Europe.

Besides transport fuels, the biomass gasification method can be used to create renewable raw materials to substitute oil and natural gas in different chemical industry processes. Synthesis gas applications, on the other hand, could help in the realization of numerous circular economy goals, such as closed-loop recycling of plastics and other packaging materials.

Research and development work to continue through EU projects

The progress of gasification technology is set to carry on through two EU Horizon 2020 projects coordinated by VTT. The projects concentrate on gas purification and boosting the efficiency of synthesis technology, and aim to show the performance of the whole biofuel chain at VTT's Bioruukki piloting center in Espoo, Finland. Another solution under development is a versatile hybrid process based on biomass and wind and solar energy, which can either be run on only biomass or be increased with electrolysis. This offers an efficient method to store wind or solar energy as a renewable fuel and could as much as double the renewable fuel output of the biomass sources available.

BTL2030 project partners: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, Fortum Corporation, Gasum Ltd, Helen Ltd, 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.

Main sponsor: Business Finland

The project is part of the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment’s transport biofuels development program.

Comments

  1. Simon Moatshe Simon Moatshe United Kingdom says:

    Use of natural resources should actually be the way to go in pursuing sustainable objectives in order to broadly satisfy the interests of humanity . This breakthrough technology is long overdue.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of AZoCleantech.com.

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