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Dutch Researchers Conclude Large-Scale Biomass-to-Liquids Processing Can be Economically Feasible Even with Imported Feedstock

General schematic lineup of the complete integrated system for FT crude production from pretreated biomass. Click to enlarge.

Europe is working with a long-term vision of having 30% or more of the total transportation fuels consumption of the EU-25 come from biofuels by 2040.

Asserting that one of the most promising options for producing the requisite fuel is the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis of biomass feedstocks (Biomass-to-Liquids, BTL), and noting that much of that feedstock would need to be imported to Europe, three Dutch researchers evaluated the impact of pretreatment of biomass on the feasibility of overseas biomass conversion to FT products.

Syngas can be produced from biomass by either noncatalytic high-temperature entrained-flow (EF) or catalytic low-temperature gasification technologies. Unlike the already widely demonstrated high-temperature EF gasification technology, the catalytic technologies do not yet exist commercially. Furthermore, they include two conversion steps, making them more expensive. However, most importantly, they are not fuel-flexible, which is considered to be of vital importance in the case of large-scale production facilities.

The EF gasification technology is therefore identified as the optimum process for the production of syngas from a variety of solid biomass streams, for example, woody biomass, and straw and grassy material.

Pre-treatment of biomass allows the efficient feeding of the feedstock into an entrained flow gasifier, and thus is an important part of such a BTL process. In an import scenario, however, it offers the additional important benefit of reducing transport costs by densification.

The team assessed 10 different BTL production routes from overseas biomass to the FT product in Rotterdam on the basis of different pretreatment options: chipping, pelletization, torrefaction, and pyrolysis.

They concluded that pretreatment of the biomass at the front end of the BTL route significantly increases the economic feasibility and that overseas torrefaction is the most attractive pretreatment option.

Torrefaction is a process that slowly heats biomass in an inert atmosphere to a maximum temperature of 300° C. The treatment yields a solid uniform product with a lower moisture content and a higher energy content compared to those in the initial biomass.

They also found that dedicated overseas pretreatment (i.e., torrefaction and pyrolysis) is more attractive than conventional pelletization. A large-scale, central, overseas BTL synthesis plant would be the most attractive route for BTL production—only the finished product would be shipped.

However, local logistic aspects require the construction of several small-scale synthesis plants, causing significant economical disadvantages due to economy of scale, according to the researchers.

They calculated that the final FT product can be produced from overseas biomass for €15/GJ (US$19/GJ) (or €0.55/liter (US$2.65/gallon) of diesel equivalent). They conclude that at crude oil prices of around $60/bbl, large-scale BTL is economically feasible.



Rafael Seidl

The problem with any technolgy that is economically viable only if the price of oil is high is that no-one knows if it will stay high throughout the long amortization period of the associated petrochemical installations plus supply chain infrastructure.

Therefore, if politicians want to encourage substantial investment in BTL anytime soon, they may need to offer an insurance contract of sorts: for the first e.g. 20 years of operation, whenever the price of a barrel of crude oil drops below a certain negotiated threshold (e.g. $40), profits from BTL would be taxed more lightly than those from from crude oil operations.

It may seem absurd, even obsecne, to consider such a policy at a time when the oil industry is generating huge profits. However, it is generating those largely off crude oil operations. It is far from certain they could achieve similar commercial success with renewables, so there is little incentive to invest aggressively.

Politicians could justify the proposed insurance policy with the following arguments (in no particular order):

(a) BTL, like other renewables, reduces anthorpogenic GHG emissions. Based on the best available evidence, scientific community is warning that these could trigger non-linear climate change and hence, wrenching economic changes. Historically, such upheavals have often been marred by armed conflict. The West must show leadership in this context, otherwise emerging economies cannot be coaxed/shamed into following suit.

(b) BTL would generate demand for biomass harvesting, logisitics and pre-processing in some of the poorest countries of the world (e.g. in Africa and Central America). The associated jobs would reduce the attraction of illegal immigration into Europe and the US.

(c) The feedstock for BTL would come from countries with which the West is or could be on much friendlier terms than it is with the Arab world, Iran and Venezuela. This would reduce the West's supply risk and hence, the premium currently charged on energy. Applied on a sufficiently large scale, BTL could therefore increase economic growth in both developed and emerging economies - with the ironic side effect of undermining the business case for BTL operations. Hence the need for the proposed hedge.

(d) Lower prices for crude oil would force pugnacious governments to moderate their foreign policy rhetoric and stance. They would need to broaden their economic base beyond the exploitation of oil & gas resources if they are to maintain public services and political stability.

(e) By widening the gamut of energy suppliers, the West could also afford to adopt more aggressive policies demanding serious, civilized discussion among muslims living in the West and, between their representatives and Western governments. This includes the sensitive topic of cultural values, such as religious education and womens' rights, held by the people living in what are effectively voluntary ghettos in our midst (especially in Europe). Germany has just kicked off such a process, hoping to offer impressionable young muslim men and women an attractive alternative to fundamentalism.

Consider that until the reconquista in the Spain and Mongol conquests of the fertile crescent, scholarly discussion, science and technology were all features of Islam. It is in the West's enlightened self-interest, as well as that of the muslim world, to foster a renaissance of these ideas, even at the risk of provoking a traditionalist backlash. The important thing is to stress the Islamic roots of tolerance rather than "bringing democracy" to the muslim world.

Roger Pham

It is very encouraging to learn that BTL products can be competitive with diesel fuel at 2.60USD/gallon. Given the fact that it will cost more and more to extract oil out of the ground, forward-thinking oil executives should be investing more and more into BTL, or even better, BTG (Biomass To Gases such as H2 or methane) as the low-cost oil wells run dry.

I wonder what it would cost per GJ of energy if one just stops short of the F-T process and just use directly the H2 in the syngas for mass consumption? Just how low can it go? Equivalent to the ratio of price of natural gas vs. gasoline? which normally natural gas costs about 1/2 of gasoline per GJ of high heat value.

Rafael's socio-politico proposal is a profound reflection of history, yet can be a very pragmatic alternative approach to what now seems to be a Bush policy deep in a quagmire. Just add the term BTG to every BTL's and everything will be perfect!

Rafael Seidl

Roger -

I was actually thinking more of what Europe and Japan could do, if only because I have zero faith in the Bush administration wrt global warming. The EU's aggregate GDP is larger than that of the US and we're reluctant/ill-equipped to engage militarily. So, we need to pursue economic and political avenues to shoulder our share of the burden of leadership.

What is BTG short for? Biomass-to-gas?


The assumption seems to be that capital-rich countries appropriate bioresources from lo-tech countries that either have a surplus or are desperate to sell something. I think a better idea is that global population redistributes itself so that BTL is an element of local self suffiency. The problem then becomes one of finding the capital and know-how in each area.

Tom Catino

Places with limited space should consider growing Algae in Photobioreactors as a feedstock. Yields have been quoted as high as 200,000 gallons/acre.Algae is the BEST biofuel feedstock...

Roger Pham

I certainly do share your disappointment with the Bush Adm, Rafael. Yes, EU and Japan should take and continue to maintain the leadership position wrt GW.
However, the USA, as the largest contributor of GHG and GW, cannot be left out of the global effort of GHG reduction, either by agreements, treaties, threats, trade sanctions, or otherwise.

BTG, of course, is Biomass to Gases. A simpler way to harness cleaner fuels from all sorts of waste biomass. May require more efforts at storage and distribution, but less effort at post-combustion emission treatment. In fact, the lower volumetric energy density of gaseous fuels will encourage the drive toward even much higher energy efficiency to enable sufficient range, and that is a good motive also for a cleaner and greener earth! Since biomass can only support a fraction of current energy consumption, a drive toward much higher energy efficiency is vital for survival of humanity in the post-fossil-fuel era.

This article mentions an important point in stating the feasibility of transporting pre-treated biomass to a site for local gasification. This would be great for distribution of gaseous fuels which is harder to store and to transport.


You want to locate the gasifiers close to the biosmass source. It does not pay to transport biomass. The extra CO2 you generate after making SNG, methanol, ethanol or F/T liquids could be used to grow algae for biodiesel.

An Engineer

There is a reason why this is about BTL not BTG. Why do you think gasses get flared at remote oil fields? Unlike liquids, the gasses cannot be brought to market economically. That is the thermodynamic reality of transporting and storing gasses.

There really is no benefit in producing hydrogen from biomass. All that it means is that the associated CO2 will be produced at the refinery and not the tailpipe. Considering that this is renewable fuel, i.e. it started the cycle as CO2, there is no need to capture CO2.

I think it is very significant that this process is competitive at $60/bbl. I suspect that soon we will be looking at the days of oil at $60/bbl as the "good old days".

I would further suggest that if you start by doing BTL on waste products (40% of US landfill feed is paper) you could get paid to take the feedstock off people's hands. In other words, you could reduce production costs below $60/bbl.

This is the most promising technology as far as I am concerned. And yes Rafael, once the west gets it act together, several other benefits will follow.

Rafael Seidl


by that logic, we ought to be buying not crude oil but refined gasoline, diesel and chemical feedstocks from OPEC. So why aren't we?

(a) Western oil & gas corporations have been burnt by the nationalization/arbitrary taxation of many of their exploration & production operations, e.g. in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Russia and Bolivia. Elsewhere (e.g. Sudan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia) civil wars over how the spoils are be divided among the locals has made such operations very difficult or impossible.

The industry is therefore understandably loath to build refineries in such countries or, to provide local partners with the engineering advice on how to do it. After all, oil refining adds value and the industry wants to profit from its investments. They are not running charities.

(b) Western governments also want refineries on their turf, since they provides both jobs and tax revenue. However, NIMBYs have successfully prevented the construction of new refineries in the US for 30 years, which is why that country has to import some finished gasolien from Europe and elsewhere after all.

The same considerations would apply to any other source of raw energy, including biomass. The relatively northerly latitude of Europe, combined with its high population density, mean it cannot hope to cover more than perhaps 15% of its automotive fuels demand using locally grown biomass (this figure already assumes that a lot of agricultural waste cellulose will be leveraged).

Hence the focus on torrefaction to make ocean transport of foreign biomass an economically feasible prospect. In selected cases, the waste heat and/or exhaust gases could indeed be used for secondary feedstock production and/or to support the local economy. The much-maligned Kyoto treaty even sweetens the pot by allowing the Western investors to account for this in their CO2 balance.

It should be pointed out, though, that ferrying around large amounts of biomass inevitably deprives the soils it is grown on of essential nutrients. These would need to be replaced using artificial fertilizer produced in the West, much as the specially bred and/or genetically manipulated seeds would be. Unless Western governments act responsibly, this could open the door to a new round of dependency and exploitation, including the inadvertent introduction of invasive species and/or genes.

An Engineer

It should be pointed out, though, that ferrying around large amounts of biomass inevitably deprives the soils it is grown on of essential nutrients. These would need to be replaced using artificial fertilizer produced in the West, much as the specially bred and/or genetically manipulated seeds would be.
Processing biomass typically yields a solid byproduct (ash) which would contain the bulk of the inorganic nutrients. This can be returned to the land (renewable fertilizer) leaving only a nitrogen deficit. To address that you may need to use some of your BTL fuel.

Unless Western governments act responsibly, this could open the door to a new round of dependency and exploitation, including the inadvertent introduction of invasive species and/or genes.
The main exploters of Africans are ... African leaders - the same people who get bailed out by forein aid. Much as the west would like to address this, this is for Africans to confront.


You outsmart even yourself in your post. Refineries are positioned near consumers for one simple reason: it is way more economical to haul one relatively safe feedstock then dozen of different refined products, including 70% of highly flammable and explosion-prone gasoline. Period.
As of biomass, you are grossly misinformed of available for conversion bulk of biomass. Relatively tiny Scandinavia not only supplies most of paper/fiber/lumber needs for half billion Europe, but up of today competed with their paper products on US market over Canada. With economical conversion of biomass to fuel conversion developed, it will be Europe who will supply biofuels to Africa, based exclusively on waste biomass feedstock, not energy crops.

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