A senior Bio4Energy scientist has been appointed to head a new Swedish centre to advance research into gasification of woody biomass for producing biofuels and to facilitate collaboration between academia, industry and research institutes in the sector.
Rikard Gebart, currently at the helm of B4E’s Thermochemical Platform, will be directing the Swedish Gasification Centre (SFC) from its central hub at Luleå University of Technology (LTU) where he holds an adjunct professorship. Gebart is also managing director at the Piteå Energy Technology Centre, a research institute in northern Sweden.
Eight universities, one research institute and 22 industrial companies have signed up to be part of the SFC which is expected to draw two thirds of its funding from the Swedish government. A draft funding decision from the Swedish Energy Agency suggests that the centre will operate on a budget of SEK59 million (€6.6 m) in the first two years.
The aim of the centre is to develop gasification technology that will turn forest-sourced biomass into energy-efficient automotive biofuels that produce no or minimal polluting emissions when combusted. Those could be dimethyl ether (DME), metanol or methane-based substitutes for natural gas.
To pass the test, the new or improved fuels would have to adhere to strict environmental criteria in a “well-to-wheel” analysis, Gebart said, all the while being sufficiently abundant and cost-efficient for industry to want to commercialise the biofuels on a large scale.
“Our focus will be on making synthesis gas in the most efficient way possible, turning it into fuels that have a very high energy content”, said B4E vice director Marcus Öhman, who is another leading figure behind the development of the SFC at Luleå.
“We could also make other products… based on hydrogen gas, such as ammoniac” for making fertilizers, LTU Professor Öhman added.
Three pilots underway
Already a small fleet of large goods vehicles are testing a new type of bioDME diesel, produced by B4E industrial partner Chemrec at a pilot plant at Piteå in northern Sweden. Aided by scientists on B4E’s Thermochemical Platform, coordinated by Gebart, the company has used gasification technology to turn black liquor, a byproduct of forestry operations, into fuel.
Production will be stepped up to a commercial scale at a another pilot plant, at Örnsköldvik, Sweden, that will churn out biomethanol and bioDME from forest residues using Chemrec technology. The industrial operator, Domsjö, is aiming gradually to increase production to hit 200,000 tonnes of biofuel (biomethanol and bioDME) in three to four years time, Gebart said.
A third demonstration project, the Gothenburg Biomass Gasification Project, GoBiGas, run by public utility Gothenburg Energy, will be further developed under the SFC umbrella by Chalmers University of Technology.
Breaking the dependence on fossil fuels
The work of the SFC should contribute to Sweden’s meeting its goal to phase out fossil fuels in automotive transport by 2030, and the EU’s quest for achieving a ten per cent share of biofuels in overall EU transport petrol and diesel consumption by 2020.
“This is really important”, said Gebart, with reference to the technological impetus that the new centre should produce.
While Sweden had a competitive forestry industry and there was technology to turn synthesis gas into fuel, he explained, “none has been yet been commercially demonstrated that will turn biomass into high-quality gas [for fuels]. We also need to develop a theoretical understanding of the technological processes involved”.
If the relevant universities, industrial operators and the Swedish government agreed to extend their funding over a ten-year period, at its end great inroads would have been made, Gebart said;
“We will have come a long way. There will be a great number of companies… that develop commercial facilities. A knowledge base on the technology will have been put in place”.
A uniting force
From the Swedish Energy Agency, Jonas Lindmark took a similar view on the need for a body to focus Sweden’s efforts in research and development of technology in gasification of forest-sourced biomass.
“For some time, people have been calling for a large-scale, organised, investment in gasification (R&D)… to make sure there is qualified personnel to man the large demonstration projects”, according to Lindmark.
If the Swedish government and stakeholders in gasification could put several hundred million kronor into such projects, it would seem reasonable to put a good half a million kronor into developing the science behind them, he said.
Next steps: In the next couple of weeks the Swedish Energy Agency should be posting an announcement of its funding decision on its website, and SCF researchers will meet 16 June at Piteå.