To make the process more energy efficient, the steel shot is circulated using augers instead of more energy-intensive compressed-air blowers. The charcoal and gases produced are captured from the hot vapors and recycled as fuel for powering the system and pre-drying the slash, which can contain up to 50 percent water.
“Fransham’s company came into it quite early, and they’re one of the first to be talking about it and to actually start building this kind of machine,” says David Layzell, an expert on bioenergy and plant sciences at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Layzell, who also serves as CEO and research director for biomass think-tank BIOCAP Canada Foundation, says Fransham’s early work is beginning to inspire others in the field. “Competition between these groups all trying to make it work is exactly what we need,” he says.
The technology has also captured the interest of the Ontario government. Two years ago, the province’s Minister of Natural Resources took a routine flight over northern Ontario and was shocked to see plumes of smoke emerging from clusters of forest slash being burned by the roadside. “He thought it was a shame that it’s all going up in the air,” says Larry Skinkle, biomass coordinator for the forest section of the ministry. After investigating a number of technologies, the ministry contacted Fransham and asked him to build a prototype for the province.
Skinkle says the government, recognizing that the technology could unlock a new revenue stream for a struggling forest industry, while at the same time achieving environmental goals, hopes that a demonstration plant will spur industry-wide testing of the system.
“It’s been built,” he says. “The next step is to transport it into the bush to demonstrate the full transportability of it.”
The modular design makes it easy to transport. Maintenance and repairs are less disruptive, too. “If one of the modules is damaged because of a forklift running into it, we could take that module out, put in a replacement, and be back up and running in no time,” says Fransham, adding that upgrades can be made to individual modules without knocking the entire plant out of service.
Fransham estimates that with 2,000 of his machines installed across Ontario, enough “green” oil could be produced every day to supply electrical energy to two million homes. But the market opportunities extend across the United States and Canada, of course, as well as to forestry operations in China and India, where distributed fuel production and energy generation could be a perfect match for remote communities.
To tap the U.S. market, Advanced Biorefinery shares its intellectual property with Florence, AL-based Renewable Oil International, which is attempting to establish its own demonstration plant in Massachusetts.
“Canada’s not a big enough market for these guys to go after,” says Sustainable Development’s Whittaker. “So we encourage them, after they’ve proven it, to really expand globally.” Like the trend in distributed energy generation, Whittaker believes the concept of distributed biofuel production has similar potential. “It makes a lot of economic sense to do.”
Queen’s Layzell says the best part about converting biomass waste, whether forest slash or crop residue, into bio oil or ethanol is that you get far more energy out than you put in. If growing corn to make ethanol produces only 1.5 times the energy return, he estimates that using forest waste offers at least a fourfold return.
“As companies like Advanced Biorefinery and others start to implement these technologies, there are going to be energy-efficiency improvements and other gains,” says Layzell. “If you can get four [times the energy return] now, you might be able to get six in 15 years. There’s an opportunity to prove it, but we’re really in the early stages.”