UBC technology transforms plant waste to clean fuel at an industrial scale

UBC gasifier

How do you extract value from plant waste and byproducts — the yard trimmings, wood chips, corn husks and countless other forms of plant material that homes and companies churn out every day?

One way is to heat them up. When plant biomass reaches a certain temperature range — between 600 and 1000 degrees Celsius — and there is only a limited amount of oxygen around, it partially combusts and transforms into synthesis gas (a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide) and solid carbon residues known as char. The “syngas” can be used to make electric power, liquid fuels and valuable chemicals, while the char can be combusted to generate more gas and ash.

Although this may seem relatively straightforward, the gasification process is actually quite complex — as are the machines, known as gasifiers, which are used to carry it out. From beds, coolers, cyclones and combustors to flues, filters, feeders and heaters, they contain dozens of components that are used to treat or carefully transport various materials and substances — not just biomass, water, air and steam, but also sand, char, tar and ash — through the system.

Given the economic and environmental importance of converting forest residues into biodiesel and natural gas, optimizing the efficiency, efficacy and cost-effectiveness of gasification technology has been a decades-long challenge for engineers. Now, researchers at UBC, a global leader in forest bioproducts and clean energy research, have developed a next-generation, industrial-size gasifier that may make sustainable energy far more accessible in the future. Currently operating in the Pulp and Paper Centre on campus, UBC’s dual-bed steam gasification system features a unique design that boasts a number of advantages over existing models.

“After testing many different configurations, we developed a system that can handle biomass continuously without clogging and is self-sustaining in terms of heat, but still produces high-quality, nitrogen-free syngas that is ideal for making liquid biofuels and chemicals,” says Xiaotao Bi, PEng, a UBC professor of chemical and biological engineering who is leading the NSERC- and Carbon Management Canada-funded project.

The gasification facility is also the latest success story involving the China-Canada Joint Centre for Bioenergy Research and Innovation (C-CJCBERI), a partnership between UBC and the Beijing University of Chemical Technology that is directed by Bi. Established in August 2015 to serve as “a platform to foster bioenergy technology development, maturation, demonstration and commercialization in both Canada and China through collaboration,” it currently includes nearly 70 researchers from over two dozen academic institutions, not-for-profit organizations and companies in China and Canada.

The Centre is currently assisting Highbury Energy, a spin-off company of UBC’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, in further developing, scaling up and demonstrating the unique dual-bed steam gasification technology. It is an integral part of Highbury’s efforts to create an economical and scalable commercial system that allows the production of pure, high-energy renewable liquid fuels from low-grade organic materials.

Further bolstering UBC’s leadership in this field, last October Bi and his colleagues were awarded nearly $3.6 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the BC Knowledge Development Fund to construct the Biorefining Research and Innovation Centre: a bioenergy research, development and demonstration laboratory that aims to develop cutting-edge, commercializable technologies which facilitate the conversion of biomass to biofuels.

Together with the novel gasification system, these technologies have the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in BC and assist the Canadian government in its efforts to meet its 2030 GHG emissions reduction target (30 per cent below 2005 levels). 

“The healthy future of the environment largely depends on our ability to optimize processes such as gasification,” says Bi. “If adopted widely enough, they may enable us to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels in BC.”