[Gasification] The Enigma of Gasification

Tom Miles tmiles at trmiles.com
Sun Jan 2 11:53:38 CST 2011



Your point that successful gasification projects encourage investor confidence is well stated. There are many gasifiers that are doing useful work. Most are in direct heat applications. Many were built several years ago but some have been built just within the last six years. The confidence that they can work reliably pushes us on to find ways to improve them. 


Failures in large scale refuse gasifiers in the US during the 1970s killed any confidence in gasification for many years. Few projects could not be financed. Nonetheless several subsidized plants were built starting in about 1985. A few remain in operation today. Not much was achieved as far as businesses created and equipment sold. The subsidies of the 1980s did improve small boiler sales when boiler suppliers found they could sell “staged combustion” in a boiler as “gasification” and get a tax credit. Subsidies did get some systems in operation that provided experience with gasification. They do not appear to have substantially improved gasifier sales over the long term.  


There are fewer examples of gasifiers commercially operating in small scale power generation or CHP. As you suggest,  no one seems to have tested operating systems against their proforma performance targets in their business plans to see if they measure up to their own expectations. Gasifier suppliers studiously avoid questions about operating hours and capacity factor. (For years I have said that we can amortize them only on their entertainment value.) Hopefully that is beginning to change.  We wish Biosynergi success. As far as I can tell they have built on the efforts of many others and have taken five years to get this far. 


We need to recognize that many bioenergy projects, not just gasification, involve starting a new business or starting a new business activity, like generating heat and power, that is different from a company’s normal business activity. The gasifier “business” involves successfully managing the fuels, the gasifier and the operation and application of the gasifier. You have to get all three right for the business to succeed. Technology developers have to learn how to successfully start and run manufacturing businesses. Operating companies have to develop, learn, and dominate a new technology before it can be accepted as another process in their overall business. Management is as important an ingredient as the technology. Many companies are not successful at the business part of bioenergy projects but nobody will admit it. One gasifier company took six years and $20 million to stabilize. Another has taken 20 years and $100 million. 


Does gasification work? There are commercial direct heat applications. Gasification has improved direct combustion. There are subsidized CHP applications. I know of only a couple of pilot gasifier systems making syngas for liquid fuels that have met their proforma performance targets measured in liquid fuel produced per unit of biomass input. No commercial plants have been built yet.  


We still have many challenges. 


Tom Miles   

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