NREL part of biomass conference tour

By Luke Geiver | April 17, 2012

There was no mistaking the aroma in the air at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a tour stop during the 2012 International Biomass Conference & Expo, held April 16-19 in Denver, Colo.

The smell was coming from rows of large blue bags of Iowa cornstover, feedstock for NREL’s pilot biorefinery in Golden, Colo.

NREL was the highlight for many tour attendees, as it offered a chance to see the latest breakthroughs in bioenergy. One of the lab’s lead researchers in biomass gasification explained NREL’s latest efforts with a fluidized bed gasification process that can be effective and economical on a commercial scale. The two-step process features a fluidized bed reaction with a specially designed catalyst, followed by thermal cracking.

Although the catalyst isn’t the most efficient, it is cheap and great at cracking tars, according to the researchers. The catalyst will lose less than five percent of its surface area after roughly 100 hours of operation, making it a key cog in the development of NREL’s biopower gasification process. The catalyst was dust brushed with nickel, and cost $100 per kilo, as opposed to the standard $1,000 per kilo.

Along with the tour of the gasification work being done at the lab, guests saw the Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility. The building is specifically designed for solar energy usage, greater energy efficiency, and the demonstration of an enzymatic catalysis process used to make liquid biofuels.

The tour also stopped at Community Power Corp.’s modular biomass system in Littleton, Colo. Attendees held woody biomass in their hands before watching it disappear up a conveyor belt and into the BioMax system, as CPC calls it. The process is fully automated and can produce 25 to 100 kilowatts of power. The system includes a feeding conveyor belt, a gasifier, a heat exchanger, filter, and a V8 Chevrolet engine used as part of the genset. “People wanted power to make things, to do things with,” said Robb Walt, president of CPC. “We need to make small big enough to count,” he said.

One modular unit is being used in Fort Carson, Colo., and six more have been ordered. The system is designed in a series of containers, one of which houses an automated control and monitoring system that provides progress reports in real time. The system is made with special wiring plugs designed specifically for relocation.

The stop at emissions monitoring systems developer Cisco, Englewood, Colo., highlighted the importance of a user friendly data and emissions monitoring system. The tour guests witnessed the manufacturing and design process for Cisco’s fully enclosed, temperature controlled emissions monitoring systems. At the time of the tour, the company was working on a unit for Peru, along with others in North America.

Cisco not only develops enclosed emissions monitoring analyzers, but also a software package that Melissa Cooper, senior software specialist, said was developed by and for its clients. “A lot of features (of the software used to monitor emissions) are based on plant personnel feedback,” she said. “That makes the software highly customizable.” In one instance, plant operators viewing the current emissions data had to shout numbers to each other in order to record the data. Cisco was able to fix the problem and simplify the process by designing a software user face system featuring large numbers and color-coded alarms.

Tour attendees were curious about Cisco’s perspective on the Maximum Achievable Control Technology rules. Sarah Gray, a senior environmental scientist, summed it up. “We just don’t know,” she said.