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VTT study concludes gasification-based pathways can deliver low-carbon fuels from biomass for about 1.90-2.65 US$/gallon

Summary of levelized production cost estimates of fuel (LCOF) for the examined plant designs. The horizontal red lines show the comparable price of gasoline (before tax, refining margin 0.3 $/gal, exchange rate: 1 € = 1.326 $) with crude oil prices 100 $/bbl and 150 $/bbl. Source: VTT.

A study by researchers at Finland’s VTT has concluded that it is possible to produce sustainable low-carbon fuels from lignocellulosic biomass for as estimated gasoline-equivalent production cost of 0.5–0.7 €/liter (app. 1.90-2.65 US$/gallon US), with first-law process efficiency in the range of 49.6–66.7%—depending on the end-product and process conditions. Should the thermal energy produced as a by-product be exploited for district heat or industrial steam, the overall efficiency from biomass to salable energy products could reach 74–80%.

In their study, Ilkka Hannula & Esa Kurkela evaluated 20 individual biomass-to-liquids BTL plant designs based on their technical and economic performance. The investigation was focused on gasification-based processes that enable the conversion of biomass to methanol, dimethyl ether, Fischer-Tropsch liquids or synthetic gasoline at a large (300 MWth of biomass) scale.

VTT’s test-rig for the Ultra-Clean Gas process. Click to enlarge.

All the evaluated BTL plants incorporated the same front-end design based on a pressurized fluidized-bed steam/O2-blown gasification of biomass, followed by hot-filtration and catalytic reforming of hydrocarbons and tars. This Ultra-Clean Gas (UCG) process has been at the focus of VTT’s biomass gasification R&D since 2006. The UCG process was developed for the production of low-cost synthesis gas from biomass.

They calculated production cost estimates assuming nth plant economics and without public investment support, CO2 credits or tax assumptions. The costs ranged from 58–65 €/MWh for methanol; 58–66 €/MWh for DME; 64–75 €/MWh for Fischer-Tropsch liquids; and 68–78 €/MWh for synthetic gasoline.

Converted into gasoline-equivalent price per liter, the estimated production cost would be 0.5–0.7 €/liter. The price of renewable solutions would thus be on a level with the current pre-tax price of fossil transportation fuels, and cheaper than existing imported biofuels.

After long-term development work, the technical functionality of the production process was verified through extensive testing at VTT test rigs as well as industrial piloting in Finland and in the US. The technology is now ready for its first commercial-scale demonstration. However, the first wave of these ground-breaking production plants requires significant public venture capital investment, for which planning has consequently been initiated at both Finnish and EU level.

According to the research results, the best efficiency and lowest production costs were achieved in the production of biomethanol. The risks related to the commercialization of the synthesis technology were also estimated to be lower with the biomethanol production plant compared to the other options.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is the largest multi-technology applied research organization in Northern Europe.




Cheaper than imported fossil fuel...could be a good solution for EU, even if some feed stocks have to be imported from Africa?


Told ya :)


biomass is too low energy dense to be transported over long distance, it has to be processed near were it is grown


Every month or two someone comes out with a study or "proof" that biomass can be made for less than petroleum based fuels.

If that is even remotely true, then shut up and do it and we'll all be happy to buy it. Until then, it's just more noise...blah blah blah, blah blah, blah blah blah.

Kit P

"transported over long distance"

Not as long as one might think. If you look at the energy it takes to move high moisture content biomass, the distance is 25 milles.

The next problem is the ash, aka toxic hazardous waste.

Then there is the O&M. Look at the cartoon and this process needs a team of techs to operate and maintain it.

So unless you have waste biomass of that you have to haul to the landfill with a high tipping fee of sufficient quantity and quality, you can not pay for it.

Every study uses clean dry biomass. It works fine for the professors at the Institute of BS.


The maximum transport distance with good economy in Northern Europe for transportation of cellulosic biomass feedstock is no longer than 50 km (Africa is definitely out of range). This has been demonstrated for pulp and paper mills as well as for heat and power plants in Northern Europe. Thus, there is a sound base for a 300 MWth plant as studied by the researchers regarding biomass transport. The limits for transportation indicate that the plant cannot be of refinery scale. Liquefaction via small-scale gasifiers to an intermediate product (“biocrude”) and transport (e.g. train, boat, pipeline) to a large-scale gasifier would be an option to solve the problem of storage and transportation but there is an accompanying loss of efficiency in the first gasifier that cannot be fully compensated for in the large-scale plant.

Biomass ash is nutrients, not toxic waste, and should be returned to the environment. This is already done on large scale, so we do not have to learn again how to do that. Of course, you cannot grow your biomass on toxic land, if you want to recirculate the nutrients.

The study does not really attempt to prove that biomass would be cheaper than petroleum-based fuels. A price level of 0.5–0.7 €/liter (app. 1.90-2.65 US$/gallon US) is not cheaper than current petroleum-based fuels, so it is all about what you expect future crude oil prices to be. This is not sufficient for venture capitalists. However, at the cost level mentioned, these second generation biofuels might be competitive with current first generation biofuels (e.g. ethanol, biodiesel and biogas) produced in Europe. Perhaps the fuels will not be competitive enough compared with sugarcane ethanol from Brazil and heavily-subsidized corn ethanol in the USA but this could be handled via duty on biofuels imported to the EU.

The main problem in exploiting the results from the study is that the most economical options, methanol and DME are not preferred by either the oil or the automotive industries. You need not only one but both of these stakeholders to support the idea. On top of that, venture capitalists would prefer to have the blessing from both the mentioned stakeholders before even considering investments.


Small modular BTL units could be placed close to the source of biomass. Venture capital may not be the only source, look at the Low Carbon Fuel Standard in California and other states. Credits from refineries can help pay for the new bio plants.


300 MW(th) of biomass @ 17 GJ/tonne is 58 tons per hour, about 1400 tons per day, half a million tons per year.  If the plant operates all year, it would require 250,000 acres of cornfields producing 2 tons excess stover per acre per year to produce its feedstock.  This is about 800 square miles, a square roughly 28 miles on a side.  This is manageable.

To operate year-round, the feedstock must also be harvested, dried and stored under cover.  This will be costly.  At some point it makes more sense to process to pyrolysis oil at harvest time and store that in tanks or bladders.

This does not sound competitive to me.


It becomes more competitive when OPEC decides not to sell any more oil to the U.S.

Roger Pham

I believe that gasification and subsequent FC is more expensive and less efficient than pyrolysis and hydrogenation all in one step to produce refinable liquid hydrocarbon. The liquid hydrocarbon can then be transported economically to a refinery, because it will have many folds energy density c/w raw biomass.

The scheme that I have in mind is to set up the pyrolysis plants 30 miles apart in agricultural areas, or one every 900-1000 square miles.

The Hydrogen can be produced by solar PV set up in the field for the sole purpose of producing H2 via electrolysis. As such, no need for inverter nor rectifier nor long-distance power lines needed, hence much lower cost for the solar PV electricity. No need for large H2 storage container, either, because the H2 will be consumed as it is produced in the pyrolysis and hydrogenation process. Raw biomass will be gathered and stored until seasons that solar energy is plentiful, then processed and turned into refinable liquid hydrocarbon.

The above process will double or triple the yield of hydrocarbon fuel per unit of biomass used, as compared to the gasification and FC of biomass, while being much cheaper and less energy heat loss due to lower temperature and a single step process. Small BTL FC plant is not efficient due to the high temp and complexity involved, while single step pyrolysis and hydrogenation can scale down much better that still retain high efficiency.

Roger Pham

Thus, the pyrolysis with hydrogenation above can utilize solar or wind energy very efficiently into hydrocarbon fuel that can be used without change in vehicle nor infrastructure, nor issues with H2 storage, compression, dispension infrastructure, nor transportation of H2. When wind electricity is used in combination with solar PV electricity, the hydrogenation process can be done year round, thus reduce the investment cost of plants (due to high duty cycle) and reduction in cost of storage of waste biomass. Bi-annual crops can be grown, corn for summer and wheat for winter, thus allowing higher yield.

The MidWest USA is a region of very high solar and wind resource as well as agriculture, thus, in combination with waste biomass available locally, can turn into a modern Saudi Arabia (SAudi America?) of CO2-neutral hydrocarbon exportation.

Roger Pham

I must hasten to add to above that MidWest wind electricity is cheap and plentiful, but power lines are expensive. This scheme above will eliminate the need for powerlines for remote wind turbines, thus will significantly decrease the cost of wind energy. No more stranded wind resource, nor surplus wind electricity when supply outpace demand.


Temperature is not a problem with small modular BTL units, much of the waste heat is used in other parts of the process.

Much of the cost of converting pyrolysis oil
to fuels is in the stabilization process. Those costs would have to be reduced first.

Roger Pham

Pyrolysis oil will be stabilized during the concurrent hydrogenation process and turned into hydrocarbons. All the corrosive acids and aldehydes are reduced into hydrocarbons (alkanes and alkenes).


The costs of this are not quantified. The costs ARE quantified in this article and paper. Numbers DO make a difference.


Breakthrough in hydrogen fuel production could revolutionize alternative energy market

April 4, 2013 – A team of Virginia Tech researchers has discovered a way to extract large quantities of hydrogen from any plant, a breakthrough that has the potential to bring a low cost, environmentally friendly fuel source to the world.

Kit P


Did you pay to read the research paper and learn the rate of producing H2?

It is not mentioned in the abstract or the press release. If it was a real break through it would be mentioned.

Getting H2 from sugar in the lab is not a break through and energy value is likely maximized by just oxidizing it a chemical reaction.


As I already stated before, collecting biomass for a plant size of 300 MWth has already been demonstrated. Alholmens Kraft in Finland is the biggest biomass-powered plant in the world. Its boiler has a capacity of 550 MWth. It is located at the sea, so the uptake area is “only” a half circle. Within this area, there is also competition for biomass for pulp and paper and other use. Under ideal conditions, we could perhaps envision up to 1000 MWth based on this example but I would presume that the practical limit in the Nordic countries is lower. In tropical areas, where biomass production per area is much higher, the plant could, of course, be much bigger. For sure, a plant size of 300 MWth should be both manageable and competitive in the Nordic countries and this condition should apply also to northern USA and Canada, at least regarding collection of biomass.

Kit P

“biggest biomass-powered plant in the world ”

Maybe you missed the coal pile in the picture of your biomass plant. Fluidized bed boilers using coal and biomass are very common. Near where I live:
My favorite is Kettle Falls.
“It is located at the sea, so the uptake area is “only” a half circle. ”

Ever hear of a log boom? Places with water often float the logs to the mill.

“competitive ”

Until the US elected Obama. Proposed new regulations killed biomass plants in the US for the time being. The irony is that using the energy waste biomass is the most beneficial source of renewable energy. In the US we have a history of killing jobs with over regulations while watching that production go to places with no regard for the environment.


Yes Kit,

I read the paper, I posted it as general information, I make no conclusions based on it, but apparently you did. Perhaps you should stop jumping to conclusions and being so critical of others.

Kit P

"I read the paper.."

The journal article or BS press release?

Yes, I drew an informed conclusion that it was BS.

SJC please grow up and grow a thicker skin. Your shallow comments grow tedious. Why would you post something that you can not offer a conclusion?


Coal is used as back-up in this case if there would be interruptions in biomass supply, like many plants, as you would have found out if you had looked deeper into it. I have been at the plant.

Floating logs on a rough sea is not a good idea. It is very seldom (=never) done at the Baltic Sea. There are no big rivers nearby. Transporting biomass via ships would be possible. It is done at several pulp and paper mills. I was just referring to what is done in this plant, i.e. basically road transport. You never seem to recognize the message that 300 MWth is feasible! For sure, no more proof is needed here!

You seem to be referring to this study as BS all the time; strange, when most of the BS comes from you. What have you published in this field?

Kit P

"if you had looked deeper into it."

Just for the record, 20% is way past a backup. Nothing remarkable about the plant you linked.

As I said in my first post, 25 miles is about the limit for trucking wood just for the purpose of energy.

"What have you published in this field? "

I am not in the business of writing BS papers. I was able to convince a local PUC to consider using gasifier technology in several applications. The lead feasibility study found the cost to be right on my back of the envelop, 30 minute calculation.

One the problems was a reliable supply of biomass since Kettle Falls was now buying wood chips to supply the that existing plant. A second issue is toxic ash because dioxin and arsenic had been local issues. It does make a difference in the business plan if you are paying to send waste to a hazard waste treatment facility or selling fertilizer.

People who write BS papers do not have to deal with OSHA, EPA, FERC, oR utility commissioners.


Oxford Catalysts can produce a barrel of premium diesel for $66, or $1.57 a gallon, using gas at $4 per thousand standard cubic feet ($3.89 per mmBtu) at plants with a capacity of just 1,500 barrels a day.


Oxford Catalysts can produce a barrel of premium diesel for $66, or $1.57 a gallon, using gas at $4 per thousand standard cubic feet ($3.89 per mmBtu) at plants with a capacity of just 1,500 barrels a day.

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