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The state of pyrolysis in Canada


May 16, 2014
By Gerald Kutney 6esm

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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.

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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