Fuel of the Future?
October 15, 2010
By Heather Hager
The cover story on page 10 in this issue of Canadian Biomass is all about biomass briquettes.
The cover story on page 10 in this issue of Canadian Biomass is all about biomass briquettes. In it, writer Treena Hein provides compelling arguments that wood briquette production is more energy efficient and less hazardous for fire risk than wood pellet production, and that briquettes are at least as versatile as pellets. So, briquettes should be set to surpass pellets in the densified biofuels market. Despite their perceived advantages and long history of production, briquettes have not caught on with industries and consumers in the same way pellets have.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to briquettes is simply that they are less familiar than pellets. The average fireplace owner has likely heard of firelogs but would consider them to be a specialty item, not something bought in bulk to heat a home. Even larger users like greenhouses, schools, and hospitals tend to think of pellet heating if they’re not thinking of chips or hog fuel.
Then there’s the convenience factor. For homeowners who don’t want to feed a wood stove, automated pellet furnaces are a great solution. Until automated residential briquette furnaces are widely available, pellets will continue to predominate. An Austrian company has offered a residential boiler automated for both firewood and pellets since 2004. This is a better solution, although the wood still needs to be loaded daily, whereas the pellet hopper requires infrequent loading. Adapting automation technology to briquette furnaces would open a market segment currently dominated by pellets.
But what is in a briquette? A densified biofuel’s final properties depend on the manufacturing process and feedstock, but pellet buyers know exactly what they’re getting when they purchase bulk or bagged pellets because of widespread adoption of European standards. That’s not necessarily so with briquettes. Even in Sweden, a country at the forefront of biomass, Swedish briquette standards were in limited use and, in fact, were not well known by briquette manufacturers in a 2008 survey. Aligning a North American briquette product with a specific set of standards would allow quality assurance and product differentiation in the marketplace.
For industrial use, the lack of experience with using briquettes is hindering their general uptake, particularly for what is the largest densified fuel market today – co-firing with coal. Theoretically, pellets and briquettes require the same processing via hammermill before the wood and coal powders are blended and burned. But because pellets are proven and abundant, there’s no need for large power producers to begin experimenting with a new unknown. Some briquette makers are working with power producers to test their product, and that information needs to be shared as tests are completed.
Pellets and briquettes each have pros and cons. If manufacturers work together to promote densified biofuels, market opportunities will increase for everyone. A densified biofuel trade association could bring pellets, briquettes, and torrefied forms (which are, after all, different versions of the same product) onto equal footing without a lot of wasted, overlapping effort.
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