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Quality determination of solid biofuels in real time

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X-ray vision finds value in biomass

Biomass burning plays an important part in generating green energy, but ensuring its quality can be difficult. Researchers have developed a smart X-ray system that detects impurities in biomass, to help determine quality for pricing and safety.

Energy

Biomass derived from forest residues, wood pallets, bark and rice straw can be burned to generate electricity and heat. Biomass therefore contributes to sustainable energy, since burning biomass is essentially CO2 neutral, compared to fossil fuels. Companies trading biomass need to price it correctly and ensure its quality by making certain it contains as few contaminants as possible. Contaminants can include stones and metal, as well as hazardous materials such as chlorine and sulfur. The EU-funded BioValue project set out to develop a digital laboratory system based on patented X-ray technology that can measure the key parameters of biomass. The project aimed to simplify the biomass trading process by creating a system that would be able to measure the amounts of moisture, ash and other impurities against the ratio of energy, in just a few minutes.

The problem with biomass

“When a delivery of biomass arrives at a bioenergy plant, it needs to be analysed to measure moisture content and ash content, to set a correct price and to ensure contamination levels are low enough,” says project coordinator, Max Gerger. “Bioenergy plants need to have a lab to perform such analysis; the procedure normally takes one to several days, and bioenergy plants must wait for analysis results.” This results in a backlog of biomass that cannot be analysed and processed quickly enough, and some biomass is burned despite containing very high levels of impurity. An additional market-related consequence that it is difficult to agree on a price for a truckload of biomass if the quality cannot be determined easily.

The Biofuel Analyzer

The BioValue team developed the Biofuel Analyzer to gauge the quality of the biomass. The analyser can be used by anyone, as operating it does not call for laboratory experience. With the Biofuel Analyzer system, bioenergy processing plants and suppliers can confidently agree on the price based on the quality of the biomass, and they can safely ensure that it is free of contaminants. The team started off by conducting a market study, visiting bioenergy plants around the world and meeting biomass suppliers. “Both parties told us that they had been looking for such measurement technology for decades, since it would improve the environment as well as make financial savings,” emphasises Gerger. The researchers developed prototypes of their Biofuel Analyzer system, which they placed in several bioenergy plants in Sweden for a year. This gave the team considerable valuable information regarding the nature of the biomass their system would typically have to analyse. The BioValue team had to solve the problem of analysing biomass mixtures that had contaminants such as metal and dangerous chemicals: they upgraded the system sensors to enhance detections.

The future

“Currently, we are continuing to improve the measurement accuracy with some technical improvements, and these need to be finalised and tested in the field before we can launch the Biofuel Analyzer on the global market,” concludes Gerger, speaking of the project's plans for the near future.

Keywords

BioValue, biomass, biofuel analyzer, renewable energy, X-ray, quality, contaminants, moisture, ash, sustainable energy

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