Research institute intends to master biomass gasification by 2020
October 10, 2012
By Fábio de Castro
Agência FAPESP – The Instituto de Pesquisas Tecnológicas (IPT) is about to secure financing on a pilot plant for biomass gasification expected to be built by 2016 and to be in operation the following year in Piracicaba, upstate São Paulo. IPT President Fernando Landgraf presented the project during the Biomass Gasification Symposium held at FAPESP headquarters on September 17.
The event, which was promoted by the IPT and the FAPESP Program for Research on Bioenergy (BIOEN), brought together specialists from Brazil and abroad to present their experiences with planning and operating gasification pilot plants. The IPT project is the largest of its type in Brazil.
According to Landgraf, the pilot plant will have the capacity to process one ton of sugarcane bagasse per hour. The goal is to create, in the future, an industrial plant with a 100 ton/hour capacity, or 800,000 tons per year.
Gasification is the process of converting solid fuels into gases through thermochemical reactions. In the case of sugarcane, the objective is to gasify the bagasse to later produce fuel, electric power or even biopolymers.
“The pilot plants are hard to build and even harder to operate. Failure cases abound. However, we still found the risk to be worth taking because Brazil’s potential to increase sugarcane production is so great that we need to make serious investment in many biochemical and petrochemical options,” Landgraf told Agência FAPESP.
He said the IPT is securing financing for its pilot plant that includes R$ 30 million from the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), R$ 30 million from the Brazilian Innovation Agency (Finep), R$ 10 million from industry partners and R$ 10 million from the IPT and the São Paulo State government.
“FAPESP has shown interest in financing scientific projects that support development of a pilot plant and other satellite projects connected to the BIOEN Program,” said Landgraf. According to him, the IPT is also talking with researchers from the Universidade de São Paulo’s Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq-USP) about creating a thematic project involving studies related to the gasification plant so they can be submitted to the Foundation.
“The sugarcane alcohol sector grows 5% every year in Brazil, and projections indicate that this rhythm will be maintained for at least the next 10 years. We already produce around 600 million tons per year. With the projected growth, we will have to process a huge quantity of straw and sugarcane bagasse. We need to make the best use possible of this biomass. We believe that gasification is the best alternative,” he stated.
About 25% of the chemical energy contained in bagasse can be transformed into electric power today, according to Landgraf. “If we were able to use the gasification process to increase this amount to 50%, we would be able to put a significant amount of this biomass to good use,” he explained.
According to him, the IPT decided that the process known as entrained flow would be the most appropriate gasification concept for the expected production scale line at the pilot plant. The process is currently in use for the gasification of coal in China and some European nations.
“However, we have far to go in terms of research. Biomass gasification requires a pretreatment process very different from that of coal. There are many biomass gasification initiatives underway around the globe, but most are focused on just a few stages of the process. That is why there is no complete process available commercially and why it is so important for us to have the pilot plant,” he remarked.
Landgraf said that one of the main bottlenecks in the process is the fact that sugarcane bagasse cannot be added directly to the entrained flow. First, it must be transformed into a roasted powder or pyrolytic oil. Then, this biomass is processed at high pressures and temperatures and converted into gas.
“The subsequent process, which consists of submitting this gas to a chemical reaction to create liquid biofuel, requires high pressure, but pressurizing gas is very expensive. That’s why it’s important that the gas be pressurized in the first part of the process, when it’s burned, economizing the resources we would use to compress it later,” he explained.
The gas resulting from the process may be used to produce electric power in a gas turbine, says Landgraf. “Gas turbines are more efficient than boilers and other types of electric power generation,” he said.
The gas doesn’t need to be cleaned for the electric power production process, said Landgraf. However, when the goal is to use the carbon monoxide and hydrogen in the gas to provoke a chemical reaction and produce fuel, a cleaning process is necessary.
“We can’t have carbon dioxide mixed with the gas for fuel production—it must be cleaned to remove the compound, maintaining only the carbon monoxide and the H2. A third option is to produce polymers and other chemical substances such as methanol,” he explained.
The IPT’s projection is that the technology will be fully developed by 2020. “Our dream is that the pilot plant will have fulfilled its purpose by 2020 and that we will be able to implement the first commercial biomass gasification plant,” he declared.
Landgraf says that there are no commercial biomass gasification plants in the world today. “There are pilot plants addressing various stages of the technological challenge. The largest investments have been made in Germany, Sweden and the United States,” he stated.
Landgraf affirmed that the symposium helped clarify the challenges in the field of biomass gasification.
“One of the event’s objectives was to illustrate the size of the problem and the large number of challenges we have ahead of us. I’m certain that when this happens, scientists are excited by the opportunities that appear. The demand for projects in the field of thermochemistry has been small, and FAPESP wants to support them. It’s a significant window of opportunity,” he affirmed.
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