For all the bad feelings towards “Big Oil” they get some things done. One of the more effective investments they have underway and has been for years is the Gas Technology Institute near Des Plaines Illinois. With over 100 research scientists and engineers earning 13 patents in 2007 and filing for 18 more, this is a quiet, not noticed home for new developments in methane based scientific progress. The supporting members range from big oil to pipelines and local utility companies with some government agencies kicking in too.
Sixty two percent of the financing comes from industry, local distributors, i.e. local utilities put in nineteen percent, state and local government eleven percent and the Feds just eight percent. Your were thinking that government funded research was getting the answers? Eighty one percent of the money comes from business large and small.
The results are coming to the U.S. – finally. The GTI has been researching gasification for over 50 years and now has extensive experience in designing, constructing and operating gasification systems. Two systems are patented, and licensed now. One is coal gasification and the other is biomass gasification. Multifuel plants that combine the two are now commercialized and built and building in Finland and China for a world total of 4 industrial sized gasification units. These actually work with tens of millions of dollars behind the projects and serious production coming to consumer markets.
One main player is Synthesis Energy Systems Inc. who has a license of the technology from GTI for coal use and coal combined with biomass at less than 40% of total fuel supply. Carbona Corporation has a license for technology fueled by biomass using a fluidized bed. Carbona also has a joint development agreement with GTI for gasification of biomass to liquids.
SES is the company with the three projects in China. The Chinese project’s range of outputs get up to making 1 million tons of methanol or 660,000 tons of DME. SES is working with CONSOL Energy Inc., the largest producer of bituminous coal in the U.S. to investigate the development of coal-based gasification facilities to replace domestic production of various industrial chemicals that have been shut down due to the high cost of natural gas. CONSOL produces over 20 million tons per year of coal preparation plant tailings that can be used to make valuable liquid and gas products instead of landfilling the coal trapped in this material.
This spring SES and CONSOL finished feasibility and engineering studies that analyze possible projects in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which could use the GTI technology. The partners have secured land options for a site near one of Consol’s West Virginia mines while working out the front-end engineering design for the site and finalizing the terms of a joint venture agreement. The West Virginia plant will go online in the middle of 2011.
SES CEO Tim Vail said during a recent interview that SES is talks with “two other very large coal operators” in the United States and expects to announce further projects this fall.” Vail also said, “Demand for the product here in the States has exceeded our expectations many times over. By this time next year, we will probably have more things going on in the U.S. than in China.”
What has slipped out is SES is also evaluating projects with NACCO Industries Inc. a unit of The North American Coal Corp.
Plants must be located at coal mines because the low rank coal and coal wastes the company uses as feed stocks are difficult to transport. SES makes synthetic gasoline that produces about the same amount of automobile emissions as traditional gasoline.
The overall process of producing SES’ product, however, produces far fewer emissions than petroleum-based gasoline, Vail said. The process does produce carbon dioxide, which SES plans to capture and store underground at the West Virginia plant. Here’s is a bit of a surprise – Vail says, “If you compare it to the petroleum refining and transporting it over the ocean, you are going to have a much larger carbon footprint then you would with a fully sequestered coal plant.”
SES technology produces gasoline that is “very competitive” with today’s oil prices, though Vail declined to specify the cost per barrel. “At $100-a-barrel oil we have a very, very strong business.”
Carbona is a privately owned technology based company started in 1996. It’s specialized in the development and commercialization of the GTI biomass gasification process with offices in Finland and U.S. With partners UPM and Andritz, Carbona intends to cooperate on the development of the technology for biomass gasification and synthetic gas purification. Using the GTI’s pilot plant located close to Chicago, Carbona will focus on the development of the technology for biomass gasification and synthetic gas purification for the production of ‘synthetic biofuels’, also known as second-generation biodiesel, or biomass-to-liquid fuels.
The partners plan to spend between US$6.7 to 13.4 million for the pilot run. Pilot testing should be finished by the end of 2008. The cooperation also covers the design and supply of a commercial scale biomass gasification plant.
UPM (sales in 2006 of EUR 10 billion, and about 28,000 employees) one of the world’s leading forest products groups announced in October 2006 that it will strongly increase its stake in second-generation biodiesel in the next few years and prepares to become a significant producer of renewable biofuels. The main raw material used in UPM’s biodiesel production will be wood based biomass. Biodiesel production plants adjacent to existing UPM pulp or paper mills would further enhance the company’s ability to utilize the wood raw material efficiently.
The Andritz Group (approximately 10,400 employees running 35 production/service facilities in over 120 affiliates and distribution firms around the world) develops high-tech production systems and industrial process solutions for an array of standard and highly specialized products. Andritz focuses on five business areas: Pulp and Paper, Rolling Mills and Strip Processing Lines, Environment and Process, Feed and Biofuel and Hydro Power.
Meanwhile Carbona is partnered with the U.S. DOE, U.S. Forest Service, Community Power Corp., the European Commission, and the Government of Denmark in a multi-phase Small Modular Biopower (SMB) Initiative for developing efficient and clean biomass-based electricity generating systems of less than 5 megawatts.
At this writing the coal plus biomass projects are in front, as coal is a very dense input that is piled up near mines with no or very little transport to feed the plants. But the biomass research is coming along as well.
From a technical perspective the gasification process is using a little air for an oxygen input to yield syngas that is made into biocrude before refining. Pyrolysis takes place without oxygen so yields pyrolysis oil. Depending on what you plan to sell determines the choice. Gasification allows a simpler range, carbon monoxide and hydroge earlier in the process.
Those look like the leading technologies and the companies involved. With working plants running, being built and planned for and research continuing biomass to fuel is closer than many would think. Its also cleaner from an environmental perspective than one would first think. Coal gasification in the early stage will clean up tailing piles, mountains of coal and dirt that need attended to in any case.
It’s looking quite good. The larger China unit making a million tons of methanol annually would be equivalent to 333.3 million gallons, about equal to 165 million gallons of gasoline, about half a days US consumption. That is progress.