Finnish research points to wood as efficient source of biofuels

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Research results from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland suggest that lignocellulosic biomass can be used in the production of high-quality biofuels for less than €1 per litre.

The new technology developed in Finland is said to allow the transfer of more than half the energy of wood raw materials to the end-product. According to a statement, the technology is considered ready for the construction of a commercial-scale production plant in Europe.

VTT has assessed the techno-economics of the production of renewable liquid transportation fuels from forest residues. Case studies focused on the production of four biofuels using a method based on pressurised fluidised-bed gasification. The fuels studied were methanol, dimethyl ether (DME), Fischer-Tropsch liquids and synthetic gasoline.

The results show that the production of renewable biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass, mainly bark and forestry residues, could achieve an energy efficiency of 50 per cent, depending on the end-product and process conditions. Should the thermal energy produced as a by-product be exploited for district heat or industrial steam, for example, the overall efficiency from biomass to saleable energy products could reach 74 per cent.

Based on the case studies, the research scientists estimated that once commercialised the technology can be used to produce liquid transportation fuel at the cost of 58 €/MWh. Converted into gasoline-equivalent price per litre, the estimated production cost would be 0.5.7 €/litre. The price of renewable solutions would be on a level with the current pre-tax price of fossil transportation fuels, and cheaper than existing imported biofuels.

Each case study design was based on a biomess-to-liquid (BTL) plant with 300MW capacity, the equivalent of a large district heating power plant. A biorefinery of this size could produce liquid transportation fuel for about 150,000 cars. The EU has set a target of 10 per cent renewable energy content for the transportation sector by 2020. For Finland, the target is 20 per cent.

After long-term development work, the technical functionality of the production process was verified through testing at VTT test rigs as well as industrial piloting in Finland and in the US. The technology is now ready for its first commercial-scale demonstration. However, the first wave of these production plants requires significant public venture capital investment, for which planning has been initiated at Finnish and EU level.

According to the research results, the best efficiency and lowest production costs were achieved in the production of biomethanol. The risks related to the commercialisation of the synthesis technology were also estimated to be lower with the biomethanol production plant compared to the other options.