Torrefied of change

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2016

A European consortium turns to superheated steam torrefaction in the search to displace traditional carbon energy. Khai Trung Le talks to Huw Parry about SteamBio’s gameplan.

Superheated steam may be the key to decarbonising energy supply, according to SteamBio, a consortium of 11 European partners in industry and academia. Using superheated steam as a method of torrefaction, SteamBio believes this can help convert current forestry and agricultural residues unsuitable as a biomas resource into a form that can be exploited throughout Europe.

Communications Manager Huw Parry said, ‘We are looking to displace traditional forms of energy, such as oil, gas and coal with biologically-sourced carbon. It needs to have an equivalence of cost and availability.’ SteamBio plans to induce torrefaction, a thermal conditioning process that makes biomass water resistant, with superheated steam. Parry describes this as ‘a very efficient, proven, and clean heat exchange medium. It is used as a drying mechanism in an airless environment. But you can also reach higher temperatures suitable for torrefaction. If we look at the carbon resources from agriculture and forestry, there is a vast repository throughout Europe. But currently in a form we cannot use.’

Focusing on commonly available residue such as wood chips, palm kernel shells and pine, the consortium hopes to demonstrate the ability for superheated steam torrefaction to convert assorted biomass material of disparate feedstocks. Parry commented, ‘We are taking temperatures up to 260˚C in an air-free environment.  There is no air ingress into the system, therefore it is truly anaerobic, and enables a better form of torrefaction. It has been taken into commercial drying operations in tonnage quantities, and we are able to connect conveying mechanisms to suit feedstock.’

SteamBio will focus on representing a viable business model and, towards the end of 2016, will look to demonstrate economic viability in different rural locations, starting with demonstration facilities in Spain over Q4 2016 and Q1 2017. Spain was chosen for the demonstration sites because of its proximity to a variety of forestry materials and ease of access. ‘A major barrier to market was logistics costs. You’re on top of the mountain – lovely view, vast forests – but the forestry material isn’t being utilised because it costs too much to get it to port. Reduce the transport and storage costs, you open it up to displacing fossil fuel sources.’

However, SteamBio has yet to release detailed information on the torrefaction process or technology involved, describing it as a ‘continuous process’. Parry commented, ‘We’re in the engineering stage and, by the end of the year, a prototype demonstrator unit will be constructed. This unit will enable progression to an industrial-scale manufacturer.’ The torrefied biocarbon is intended to be demonstrated as a coal replacement in an industrial lime kiln and, as a carbon source in pilot-scale biorefineries, with a long-term goal beyond SteamBio’s Horizon 2020-funded end in January 2018, reaching pellet-producing capability.

With many of SteamBio’s partners based across Europe, Parry stated that a Brexit would not impact SteamBio’s development, but may inhibit ‘long-term post project exploitation activities undertaken in the UK. However, we see the opportunities for SteamBio not just in Europe but worldwide. Look at North America’s forestry and agricultural industry, and China’s hunger for energy and chemicals.’

Beyond SteamBio, Parry was unabashed with his opinion on the forthcoming EU referendum. ‘I’m very much of the persuasion that if the UK decides to commit economic suicide, that would make things difficult. I can’t hide the fact that I think it’s ideologically driven and economically stupid to try and leave. I don’t think Brexit is something I need to be ambivalent about.’