Aston University develops bio-oil technology

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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.