The state of pyrolysis in Canada

Gerald Kutney, 6esm
May 16, 2014
Written by Gerald Kutney, 6esm
May 16, 2014 - Pyrolysis is a generic term that includes any process where biomass (in the context of this report) is heated in a low-oxygen atmosphere, and includes the following processes:

  • Torrefaction (product = torrefied biomass or bio-coal)

  • Pyrolysis (also known as carbonization):
  • Slow Pyrolysis (product = biocarbon, charcoal or biochar)
  • Fast Pyrolysis (product = bio-oil or pyrolysis oil, plus some biochar)
  • Gasification (product = producer gas or syngas, plus some biochar).

 

A study was undertaken by Sixth Element Sustainable Management on the commercial status of the global pyrolysis sector. Almost five hundred companies were identified (Table 1). A surprising outcome was the disproportionate contribution of Canada to pyrolysis. Of the firms in this sector, 16% had their offices in Canada. While the EU (38%) and US (32%) were larger, Canada far outpaced these, and other regions, on a per capita basis. BC, especially the greater Vancouver region, followed by Ontario were where most of the head offices of these ventures were located (Table 2).

 

 

Table 1.  Number of Pyrolysis Ventures by Technology and Region:  Global

 

European

Union

United

States

Canada

Rest of

World

Total

Torrefaction

48

45

18

8

119

Pyrolysis-slow

30

28

15

28

101

Pyrolysis-fast

33

15

14

7

69

Biomass Gasification

68

59

26

24

177

Total

179

147

73

67

466

 

38%

32%

16%

14%

 

 

Table 2.  Number of Pyrolysis Ventures by Technology and Region:  Canada

 

BC

Prairies

ON

QC

Maritimes

Total

Torrefaction

7

2

3

2

5

19

Pyrolysis-slow

8

4

1

2

0

15

Pyrolysis-fast

3

2

5

2

1

13

Biomass Gasification

5

4

10

7

0

26

Total

23

12

19

13

6

73

 

32%

16%

26%

18%

8%

 

 

The numbers are misleading for among the “googol” of press releases, most are from “virtual” wannabe companies and dreamy promoters. These “zombie” ventures become the walking dead companies that persist only through a website. The vast number of empty announcements makes it difficult to separate “torrefact” from “torrefiction” (to use popular jargon from the bio-coal sector). This menagerie of biofuel wizardry is filled with creative technical marvels, but the developers are afflicted with “technical blindness” (from the euphoria of their invention), and they refuse to see the economic reality. The graveyard of biofuel technologies is littered with good intentions and even great technologies; the monument to their passing is only a dead website. Why do so many new technology companies become zombie ventures? More projects fail because of management than the technology itself. The two biggest mistakes are a lack of focus by management and an ill-defined market for the product and/or technology.

 

Torrefaction: most of the Canadian ventures were only grandiose project announcements that never came to be.  Two of the serious entries in torrefaction are Diacarbon of Burnaby, BC, and Airex or Laval, QC. Both companies have recently received support from Sustainable Development and Technology Canada (SDTC)[1] to construct demonstration facilities. Of interest, Torbed Energy Systems, which is the torrefaction technology supplier to the high-profile Topell Energy project in The Netherlands, has their largest pilot facility in Mississauga, ON. On a global basis, the Dutch have led the development of torrefaction.

 

Slow Pyrolysis:  is the traditional and largest solid biofuel market, which produces charcoal; global demand is over fifty million tonnes. A new generation of technologies has been under development, which produce biocarbon as a substitute for coal in coal-fired utilities, but interest has shifted to biochar, where the product is added to soils to promote plant growth. The biochar market has been slow to develop, so some developers have adapted their technology to torrefaction. SDTC supported the project of Alterna Biocarbon of Prince George, BC. On a global basis, Australia is leading this sector.

 

Fast Pyrolysis: temperatures of carbonization are used but the material is heated very quickly and then quenched to protect the primary thermal decomposition products; this restricts the formation of biochar which is a by-product of the process; the desired product is bio-oil (also known as pyrolysis oil). Canada has been the global leader in fast pyrolysis technology and commercialization. Innovation in this country was, especially, led by two Ontario universities in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s - the University of Western Ontario and the University of Waterloo. This research led to the formation of two pioneering firms, Dynamotive (had been supported by SDTC; now defunct) and Ensyn. Ensyn is the global leader in fast pyrolysis.

 

Gasification: although there are hundreds of biomass gasification units in place, they are relatively small, and biomass gasification is only a trivial part of the overall gasification industry, which is dominated by coal. Reliability has plagued most units, and it is difficult to identify industrial leaders in this sector. A number of biomass gasification firms have been supported by SDTC: Aboriginal Cogeneration Corp of Winnipeg, MB, Biothermica Technologies of Montreal, QC, Elementa of Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON, Enerkem of Montreal, QC, Nexterra of Vancouver, BC, Plasco Energy Group of Ottawa, ON, Terragon Environmental Technologies of Montreal, QC. In terms of commercial operations, the most developed are Enerkem, Nexterra and Plasco, and Alter NRG of Calgary, AB, needs to be added to the list.

 

The State of Pyrolysis in Canada: Canada is among the leading countries in the development of pyrolysis technologies, overall. Canada has a just claim to be among the best of gasification, and in fast pyrolysis, there is no argument that Canada has no equal. A major factor to the success of Canada in this regard has been the support of Sustainable Development and Technology Canada. The position of BC as being the most popular location of these ventures can be partially attributed to the reinforcement of funding from SDTC by grants from the Innovative Clean Energy (ICE) Fund in the past, and the BC Bioenergy Network.


[1] The rigorous approval process of SDTC is used as an independent guide to the commercial preparedness of a developer.

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