University of Minnesota researchers’ new study examining the financial viability of solar-heated biomass gasification technologies that produce a natural gas substitute product shows how combining these renewable resources can make economic sense.

Now, even at historically low natural gas prices, bioenergy may not be out of the market mix.

The current technology situation in traditional biomass gasification has 20 to 30 percent of the biomass feedstock burned to produce heat for the process. But if the required thermal energy is supplied from a concentrated solar source, all of the biomass can be converted into useful synthesis gas.

The Minnesotan’s study, funded by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment has been published in Biomass and Bioenergy.

The study outlines a financial feasibility metric to determine the breakeven price of natural gas at which the solar syngas production could be sold at a profit. The study suggests that solar-heated biomass gasification systems could break even at natural gas prices of $4.04-$10.90 per gigajoule, depending on configuration.

That’s a pretty wide range.

Senior study author and former University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences student Tom Nickerson said, “While the cost of adding solar energy generation to a biomass gasification facility can approach one-third of a plant’s total capital costs, other equipment required in traditional plants can be avoided and the amount of syngas produced per ton of biomass – a major variable cost of production – increases significantly.”

Therein lies the problem, the heat production is going to be quite different in the possible plant configurations. The team is also not examining the other syngas potential products with much more value than a natural gas replacement.

Co-author Timothy Smith, director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, IonE resident fellow and CFANS faculty member noted, “With average U.S. natural gas prices at $4.80 per gigajoule in 2014, two of the four configurations modeled were economically competitive.”

Smith added though government incentives could significantly reduce the risks associated with volatile energy markets, demonstrating that the gap isn’t insurmountable is an important step toward environmentally preferred energy solutions. “Utilizing solar technologies to get more energy out of each acre of biomass reduces the impacts to the landscapes producing it,” he said.

Though no commercial plants currently exist, the technologies modeled in this study are being developed at the Solar Energy Laboratory at the University of Minnesota under the direction of Jane Davidson and lead research scientist Brandon Hathaway of the College of Science and Engineering.

Hathaway offers, “Our novel approach to gasification has demonstrated its benefits at the bench scale, and testing with our 3 kW prototype is ongoing in the University of Minnesota’s High Flux Solar Simulator.”

Ms Davidson said, “We hope to find industry partners to join us in the next steps as we scale up the process and move towards testing on-sun.”

This kind of solution needs our attention. The raw material most likely used is the trash, garbage and junk in the metro areas and the forestry and crop refuse out in the country that isn’t now accomplishing much. There is a huge supply of raw material. Land filling is a technology that needs a new and better solution.

The team deserves notice and encouragement. This technology has real value and the syngas can be pretty wonderful stuff.


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