A multimillion Swedish-kroner venture in which researchers
and technicians will be working to perfect methods for producing biofuels from forest-sourced materials on a commercial scale will be coordinated by a Bio4Energy scientist. Centering on development activities at a cluster of pilot facilities at Piteå, Sweden, the plans designed to test and demonstrate entrained-flow gasification of different types of biomass-based materials could be worth up to SEK300 million (€35.5 million).
Its staff had been made redundant since the owner at the time, Chemrec, decided not to invest in continued operations past 2012 citing a lack of regulatory certainty. The 19 staff members were researchers and technicians with great expertise, known to have made their employer a forerunner in "green" fuel development and notably for developing a near-zero environmentally-harmful-emission type of biodiesel, dimethyl ether (DME), from a by-product of locally sourced pulp. In 2009 Chemrec said that their bioDME has one of the highest land-use efficiencies of all second generation biofuels.
Closing down the facilities "would have set technology development back by five years", Gebart said of the perspective that the development centre be mothballed.
Same staff, old and new projects
However, thanks mainly to the LTU, it will not. At the turn of the year, the northernly technical university announced that it would take over the development centre and its staff. Funding from the Swedish Energy Agency and County Administrative Board would amount to SEK24 million (€2.8 million) for the first six month of operations, Gebart said in an e-mail, and a further chunk of SEK50 million (€5.9 million) had been reserved for "phase 2" of the project, according to a press release from the LTU. Moreover, the university planned for a continuation of activities past the first three-year operational period, with projects totalling some SEK250 million (€29.6 million), it said.
However, Gebart admitted, the sale's agreement for the centre was complex and had had stakeholders holding their breaths for it to go through—which it finally did last week, at a symbolic price.
"The sale has been concluded at 1 krona. The LTU owns the pilot facilities and has employed the entire Chemrec staff", except for two members who had already found other work, said Gebart. Apart from being a professor at the LTU, he is the coordinator of the Swedish Centre for Biomass Gasification (SFC), launched in 2011 to provide a joint platform for industry and academia working to promote different types of gasification technology.
Gebart said he expected the centre's researchers and technicians to step up demonstration trials of biofuels produced via a biomass gasification route known as "entrained-flow" gasification. End products in this case were methanol and bioDME, the latter a form of "green" diesel, he added. Work would also be done to extend the range of raw materials that might be used to produce the fuels. An alternative use for the synthetic gas produced in the first step of the conversion process could be to make electricity or bio-based chemicals. Importantly, Gebart said, the continuation and upscaling of activities at the centre would mean key production processes could be trialled on an industrial scale and over time, both of which were necessary to detect and fix problems or unintended consequences as production was ramped up to industrial volumes.
Plus, he revealed, the team would look at possible new end products, since there had been a "pretty massive" resistance in some camps to investing in the development of methanol as a fuel. As every alchohol, methanol is toxic but, according to Gebart, quick to break down if unintentionally released.
"It does not pollute when it comes out of the exhaust pipe. The emissions are carbon dioxide and water", Gebart said.
'Catalytic' gasification and production of bioDME
Two projects were already running at the new development centre, he said. One concerned the "catalytic" gasification of raw materials, which technology had only been tested in the research laboratory. The other was a continuation of an EU-backed bioDME project. In this Volvo, the Swedish car maker, is in charge of developing lorry engines adapted to run on bio-based DME, while fuel distributors are part to tackle distribution issues. This biofuel was available at four filling stations in Sweden, according to Gebart. Finally, the task of the researchers at the LTU Green Fuels cente will be to render the bioDME perfectly fit for commercial use.
Wanted: Regulatory certainty for ten years
So does this mean that industry is likely to start taking up the technology and a biofuel such as DME in the next ten years?
"Well", Gebart said, perfecting the technology is one thing, but "for commercial production to take off more is needed". Taking aim at the Swedish national energy and environmental policy context, he said industrial actors were slow to invest because there was political uncertainty and, notalby, some decisions about energy or emission taxes taken taken were taken one year at a time.
"Take the CO2 tax. Companies are being exempted from it one year at the time.
"[The Swedish biorefinery] Domsjö Fabriker had far reaching plans for starting up large-scale biofuel production. But the plans were scrapped by the new owners… There were too many question marks. And they are business men", said Gebart with reference to the Aditya Birla Group, headquartered in India, which took over the Swedish biorefinery operator at Örnsköldsvik in 2011. Shortly after, the multinational group declined to go ahead with Domsjö's plans, citing regulatory uncertainty as a chief reason for its decision.
"This is about politics. There has to be an agreement across party lines [in Swedish politics] that gives industry regulatory certainty for ten years. Then something can be done. Some form of stimulus is needed to make biofuels cost competitive with petrochemical fuels which need little refinement. The biofuels would be a few kroner more expensive, but this is something that could be corrected at the pump", Gebart said.
By this he meant the adjustment could be made at the step of adding taxation to the price of fuel, before the consumer picks it up the pump, he added. In Sweden such taxes added to the consumer price of certain fuels are a Carbon Dioxide Tax, Value-added Tax and an Energy Tax. In fact, in the past one of Chemrec's researchers had presented the goverment with a scheme for a "workable" quota system based on a guaranteed price per litre, according to Gebart, but which he had heard no more about since.
However, Gebart said, "everything depends on the oil price", referring to the influence of the price of crude oil on world markets and the relative cost of placing alternative fuels on the market.
Bio4Energy researchers involved in the funding applications designed to ensure that research and development could be continued at the development centre were:
Rikard Gebart, Magnus Marklund, Marcus Öhman, Henrik Wiinikka and Rainer Backman, all of the Bio4Enegy Thermochemical Platform;
Jonas Hedlund of the Bio4Energy Catalysis and Separation Platform and;
Joakim Lundgren, Carl-Erik Grip and Xioyan Ji of the Bio4Energy Process Integration Platform.
The Swedish Centre for Biomass Gasification (SFC), of which Bio4Gasification is an integral part, held its annual conference on 31 January with more than 100 people attending. Launched in 2011, SFC is a Swedish centre of excellence that brings together academia and industry interested in biomass gasification. The Bio4Gasification scientists carry out research and development with the aim of perfecting and transferring to industry technology for making biofuels and "green" chemicals from renewable raw materials, such as wood. The SFC is being evaluated and could win funding for another four years if the outcome is favourable. The centre is financed to equal parts by industry, academia and the Swedish Energy Agency. The outcome of the current evaluation has been announed for April.