The MASH thermochemical lab – connecting the dots for a sustainable future

Water hyacinth - an invasive plant species.

In the current public (Danish) narrative, the term “biomass” has been simplified to entail wood chips and pellets sourced under unsustainable conditions in Africa and elsewhere. As a company dedicated to the global implementation of groundbreaking, sustainable energy solutions in the maritime sector and elsewhere, MASH Energy is pushing for a nuanced picture of biomass in all its forms and to show how various sources of biomass can be put to sustainable use for the benefit of the global population and ecosystem. At the core of this endeavour lies our thermochemical lab, which has been developed with support from the Danish Maritime Fund.

When following news outlets in Denmark, it seems like the use of biomass to address climate change and challenges to biodiversity is – at best – a temporary solution. This conclusion is based on the fact that the chopping of trees in Africa for use in European power plants in return for carbon credit payments or simply on commercial terms has revealed a wealth of adverse effects to local populations, ecosystems and climate. One could reasonably proceed to a discussion on whether the negative examples are representative of the overall viability of the model, but in this context, I would like to put the focus elsewhere – or rather on everywhere else. As alluded to above, the unsustainable wood chips are not the sole component of the term “biomass”.

As a quick recap, MASH Energy is a spin-out from the Technical University of Denmark whose main activities have been in India and in various parts of Africa. We specialise in commercialising so-called thermochemical processes, which include pyrolysis and gasification. As anyone familiar with the thermochemical technology space will confirm, there is a wealth of different technological solutions with each their own advantages and disadvantages. A common denominator is that many of the technologies can deal with a wide range of hydrocarbons – be it from fossil or biological sources. In other words, you have a large variety of potential inputs and a wide variety of process options. In MASH, we are continuously trying to develop processes with ever larger input flexibility (more about this in a later post).

To complicate things even further, the outputs of the thermochemical processes can be of a wide variety, from electricity, liquid and gaseous fuel to chemicals, thermal energy, activated carbon and soil amendment compounds. In other words, combustion of unsustainable wood pellets / chips in a European power plant with the purpose of producing electricity and heat (and some ash) is hardly the full picture.

Decades of academic research has yielded a treasure trove of studies of various combinations of inputs, processes and outputs. I encourage the reader to search Google for an arbitrary combination of Input (e.g. a biomass) + Thermochemical process (e.g. pyrolysis) + Output (e.g. liquid fuel) and see what comes up. Although many interesting references will emerge using this methodology, they will rarely be useful in a practical commercial context because of (a) the tendency for research groups to have their own flavour of the process, (b) the differences in the properties of the biomass and (c) a tendency to focus on outputs that are of limited commercial interest.

Looking at the history of e.g. pyrolysis and gasification technology and the somewhat limited success and impact of these, this lack of results is in our opinion less due to the lack of funding and capable technology partners (although this factor is not to be discounted). Rather, we would say that the main barrier to the success of these technologies lies in the lack of flexible and scalable tools and platforms for evaluating whether the thermochemical route (in its many forms) is the right one for taking a creating a viable business for a given biomass resource.

This is the reason why MASH has developed its thermochemical test lab in collaboration with the Danish Maritime Fund. It seeks to create a basis for quickly and precisely evaluate the possible thermochemical routes that can be taken to sustainably and profitably utilise a given biomass resource. Note that by “sustainable” we mean green house gas reduction potential, but also positive effects on biodiversity. The outputs of these processes are furthermore closely evaluated in dialogue with commercial partners – to begin with in the maritime sector. This could be shipowners needing ISO8217 compliant bio-fuel, or freight terminals needing green transport fuels, ballast water treatment systems providers in need of bio-based activated carbon etc.

In the coming months, MASH will be concluding its implementation of the thermochemical test lab. In its first version, it will be able to test any biomass (or other hydrocarbon) in a lab-, model- and full scale thermochemical setups of different kinds (various pyrolysis setups and gasification) and arrive at outputs which can be evaluated in terms of commercial viability and sustainability.

On the the ever growing list of feedstocks tested, you will find:

  • Water hyacinth (invasive plant species – se picture above)
  • Prosopis juliflora (invasive plant species)
  • Sargasso seaweed (invasive plant species)
  • Prickly pear (energy crop)
  • Nut shells (agricultural residue)
  • … and many, many more.

Note the complete absence of unsustainable harvested wood from Africa.

For each of these, we will have a good idea of the compatibility with various thermochemical processes, the possible outputs, the commercial value of- and interest in these and the sustainability of the setup.

Once a given feedstock has been shown to work for a process, MASH will then be able to deliver the necessary process platforms for realizing the business case (read more about this on our website).

And what is the potential then? In short: “Big”. For a slightly longer version, the report from the 2011 report from the UK Energy Research Center gives a nice idea based on a meta-study of state of the art knowledge (link below). The picture below shows the basic assumptions for various levels of biomass contribution to the global, primary energy demand. In the graphic, even pessimistic estimates puts the biomass potential at 20% of the global primary energy demand (at 100EJ).

Source: UKERC report on global biomass potential