Black pellets again stepping out of the shadow

This winter a number of torrefaction news has reached us. This after a time of silence following the earlier information boom when new torrefaction projects where announced almost every week. IEA reported by the end of 2012 an ongoing development of 50 torrefaction concepts and the Finnish Biosaimaa cluster did in August 2013 publish an interactive map with 66 projects.

However the actual supply of torrefied pellets to the market has been very limited. As one of the leading technology developer phrases it.

“If the utilities are not willing to pay for the fuels extra benefits, a production will not happen, because the extra production costs must be covered”, says Bertil Strömberg vp biorefinery at Andritz inc.

But, if the market conditions are fulfilled, the British consultancy firm Hawkins Wright has forecasted a global market of 70 million tons torrefied pellets, already by the end of the decade.

Torrefied or black pellets.

Torrefaction is however not a precise word, it is most often related to a thermal roasting technology, off gassing volatile products and creating a more energy rich, stable and more water resistant product than ordinary wood chips or wood pellets.  There are also other technological methods available that can produce similar products. One is the steam explosion process developed and marketed by Zilkha Biomass and another the soft thermal process developed by Thermya, now owned and marketed by French company Areva.  A totally different way is the wet hydrothermal technology developed by German Sun Coal.  For all those pellets the nickname “Black Pellets” is frequently used.

Control room at Andritz torrefaction demonstration plant in Denmakr
Control room at Andritz torrefaction demonstration plant in Denmark

Andritz first out in the summer

The latest stream of announcements started in the summer when the, Austrian headquartered company Andritz told they had two different torrefaction concepts ready for the market. The large industrial concept, an added process suitable for e.g. a pulp mill, with a vertical pressurised moving bed reactor and a design capacity of 750 000 ton in a single unit.  Andritz Feed and Fuel A/S has a demoplant located in Sdr Stenderup, Denmark.  Andritz second process, the ACB (Accelerated Carbonized Biomass), 50 to 200 000 t/y process is presented in a demoplant in Frohnleiten. Austria.  Andritz is globally active, also in China where they last year bought the Chinese pellet machine manufacturer Shanghai Shende Machinery.

Later in the winter, the Dutch based Topell with German utility RWE subsidiary Innogy as a majority owner announced proof of concept for their commercial scale plant located in Duiven in the Netherlands.

Loading of torrefied Topell pellets
Loading of torrefied Topell pellets

Dutch Topell ready for commercial scale

“Topell Energy is now able to continuously produce torrefied solid biofuel on a commercial scale of 6 tons/hour and as such leading the technology development world-wide,” said Maarten Herrebrugh, COO, Topell Energy in a statement.

According to the company, the first commercial deliveries of torreffied pellets to power utilities for co-firing with coal have started. Topell is focusing on further product optimization and ramping up both direct sales and technology licensing model to clients.

Zilkha torrefaction plant at Selma, Alabama, ready for shipping by the end of 2014
Zilkha torrefaction plant at Selma, Alabama, ready for shipping by the end of 2014

Zilkha and Valmet announces cooperation followed by licence to Thermogen

A few weeks ago Zilkha Biomass LLC announced cooperation with Finnish global industrial technology developer and supplier Valmet OY to build and market black pellet units based on Zilkha’s steam explosion technology. This was followed this week with an other announcement from Zilkha that Thermogen Inc, a subsidiary of Cate Streeet Capital has purchased a licence for Zilkhas steam explosion technology to be used in their production plant under development on an earlier paper industry site in Millinocket, Maine, USA. A production of 300 000 t/y is forecasted. With this, North Street Capital switch technology from the microwave technology developed by Scottish Rotawave. In parallel North Streeet Capital also develop another pellet production site in Eastport Maine.

“Thermogen Industries is strategically located in the northeast of the United States, and they have the infrastructure to greatly increase the supply of the Zilkha Black® Pellet,” says Jack Holmes, CEO of Zilkha Biomass Energy.

Partnering with Zilkha will allow Thermogen to begin producing more pellets more quickly, trippling annual production. Our customers are saying we must have more capacity from the start, says John Hallé president and CEO of Cate Street Capital.

Zilkha has a demoplant running in Crocket Texas and has told that their first commercial plant located in Selma Alabama will be ready for start early 2015 and be able to produce 275 000 t/y black pellets. They are at that site converting Dixie Pellets closed wood pellet plant.

Solway Biomass Energy production plant in Quitman  a Joint Venture between Solvay and New Biomass Energy
Solway Biomass Energy production plant in Quitman a Joint Venture between Solvay and New Biomass Energy

New Biomass Energy announces joint venture with global Solvay

At the same time Solvay Biomass Energy, a new joint venture between New Biomass Energy (NBE) and Belgian Solvay was announced. In Quitman Mississippi, NBE’s subsidiary BTH Quitman Hickory LLC, has built and for some years run the largest wood pellet torrefaction plant in North America. It’s capacity will now before the end of the year be expanded from 80 000 t/y to 240 000 ton.

“Our collaboration with Solvay will allow us to exponentially increase production capacity and develop new applications for the material. This new business propels the torrefaction industry forward,” said Neal Smaler, President of New Biomass Energy.

Solvay Biomass Energy, majority-owned by Solvay’s business unit Solvay Energy Services, will be in charge of the plant’s operations and maintenance, feedstock sourcing, logistics and technology as well as of the product’s marketing mainly to energy producers in Europe and Asia.

“This new business has a two-fold objective: on the one hand, to offer innovative and competitive solutions to utilities and energy companies, and in parallel to expand our access to biomass and to create new biosourced applications.” said Philippe Rosier, President of Solvay Energy Services.

Projects are ongoing all over the globe

As told there are and have been numerous projects worldwide.

In the small Dutch city of Stenwijk a commercial scale plant with the capacity of 90 000 t/y is built. The company Stramproy Green Technology was offering biocoal in the form of briquetts or pellets as well as they licensed the technology to the market, but went into bankruptcy in 2013.

Other projects are close to market introduction and expected to be announced shortly.  In Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, India, Malaysia, Russia  and other countries projects, often with state support, are under development.

Is the market ready to pay for the cost?

But in the end the final question will be raised

Will the market be interested to pay for the extra benefits provided by Black Pellets?

The market today is totally in the hands of the local political steering instrument provided. If politics push forward a rapid increase of biomass, then black pellets provide a quick solution for a large share of co-firing in coal plants.

If this will not happen or if the steering instruments rather stimulates new virgin projects, like new CHP plants, then a more low grade fuel may get advantages and if the tempo in the market build up is moderate then the market may continue to favour the same pellets they are used to.  For this we have well functioning technology and trade mechanisms helping to create a competition and a price control, buyers as well as suppliers are afraid to fall in the a hands of an oligopoly situation.

But we must not forget sudden change of realities like the effects of the tsunami and the following nuclear melt down in Japan or sudden arising political crisis.  The European Unions policy is based on three pillars, economy, environment and security and we have seen it before, changes in the security situation can very fast trigger a need for a ultra fast development and then, black pellets instantly can have it’s market.

Lennart Ljungblom

©conBio 2014-03-21