The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Co.) radio program Quirks and Quarks recently did a segment on making fuels from biomass. They discussed the traditional ethanol from corn process, but then focused on alternatives that can use other types of biomass, like agricultural and forestry waste. As we know, the main advantage here is that using these sources doesn't displace food production. These types of bio-mass also have the potential to yield much higher quantities of fuels than traditional ethanol production. The problem is that the cellulose is much harder to break down than the sugars in corn or sugar-cane. Various processes are being developed to try and make this more practical, with a lot focus on using various enzymes. The other issue with using waste bio-mass is that it is bulky and hard to transport.
This is where Advanced BioRefinery Inc. of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada comes in. Dr. Peter Fransham, president of the company has developed a portable pyrolysis system that can be trucked to sites, like logging operations or farms. These modules process the feedstock on-site and produce something akin to crude oil, but without sulfur dioxide and half the nitrogen oxide of crude. This means that when it is burned the emissions are a lot cleaner. The oil isn't suitable as an automotive fuel, but works well in boilers for power-plants. The oil produced by these portable refineries can easily be put into tanker trucks for much more efficient transport than the original feed stock. The process also produces charcoal and gas which is captured and used to fuel the refinery. The oil also contains acetic acid, acetol, glyoxal, and formic acid which can be used as feed-stocks for plastics and fertilizers. Dr. Fransham has developed a relatively simple, flexible design that has been specifically designed to be modular, transportable and easily serviceable. MIT Technology review has a good summary of the technology in this recent article.
[Source: Canadian Broadcasting Company]