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Aston University develops bio-oil technology

Drivers in the UK may be filling their tanks with biofuel derived from the spruce and pine trees of Norway by 2020 following the development of new bio-oil refining technologies. 

This will be the focus of Aston University’s Bioenergy Research Group (BERG), which is involved in a £1.4m project funded in part by the Research Council of Norway.

The researchers will develop new, integrated bio-oil technology to transform biomass more efficiently into biofuels through fast pyrolysis – the process of heating materials in the absence of oxygen. This will include turning biomass material such as tree bark and waste wood into usable oil for heating and transportation needs.

Prof Tony Bridgwater, the head of BERG at Aston University, said their biomass project is unique because it is looking at the possibility of processing the whole components of a tree – everything from wood, residues, needles, twigs and bark.

He explained that other fast pyrolysis research programmes have looked at using hardwood trees, as opposed to the softwood trees of Norway, and only select components.

Bridgwater estimated that if the process is successful, a 1,000kg dry tree would give about 700kg of bio-oil.

One of the advantages of pyrolysis oil is it is more suitable for long-distance transportation than other renewable fuel sources including raw biomass or wood pellets.

Bridgwater said the fast pyrolysis process could produce bio-oil in small plants near the forest. The liquid would then be transported in a tanker with up to 10 times the energy density compared with transporting raw biomass via a lorry for processing.

Bridgwater insists it is an environmentally friendly solution to the world’s dwindling fossil-fuel sources, despite pyrolysis oil requiring the felling of trees.

‘There is an enormous infrastructure of forests in Norway,’ he said. ‘I imagine if the pyrolysis bio-oil technology were to be developed they would chop down some forests but also replant them. At the moment there is a net positive increment in biomass in Norway. It’s growing faster than it’s being consumed.’

Aston University’s work with the Research Council of Norway is on the back of its involvement in the €3.73m (£2.34m) DIBANET (Development of Integrated Biomass Approaches Network) research project, funded by the European Commission, to develop a renewable biofuel that can reduce reliance on fossil diesel imports in Europe and South America. 

Readers' comments (4)

  • BERG at Aston University seems to be hitting the nail on the head. This is an excellent collaboration with RCN, lets hope they also focus on conservation of forests by replanting felled tress

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  • So how does this process differ from the old wood tar distilleries used since the middle ages?

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  • Years ago, when creosote was a legal to buy product, was this not made be a similar process. Heating wood in the absence of air, ie distilling, to produce creosote. Also in wood burning stoves creosote is also well known to produce creosote. The creosote then attacks the mortat in the chimney if it is not fitted with the correct type of liner.

    The heating of wood in the absence of air is similar to the old gas works, but in this case coal was used. A very valuable product was produce as a by-product, namely coal tar. Hence the wide range of coal tar dystuffs and chemicals developed by our Victorian ancestors.

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  • If the wood is obtained from Norway then I'm quite sure it will be tree positive. Norwegians take the environment and their country very seriously. While 700kg of oil from 1000kg of tree sounds great I wonder how much of that oil would be used in the process or if renewable electricity would be viable. Hydropower in Norway of course.
    I'm reminded also that we can only produce a small percentage of the fuel that we currently burn from renewable sources so this is not an alternative to slashing consumption.

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