Interview: Feedstock and its Availability

Interview: Feedstock and its Availability

The price and quality of biochar products is directly dependent on the biomass used. Learn about the availability of biomass and the latest trends in an interview with biomass expert Torben Halfer.

Anne: Hello Torben, would you like to briefly introduce yourself and the company you work for?

Torben: I work at the Brüning Group in a support department that supports the operational business. The Brüning Group views itself as a provider of problem-solving solutions in the business field of supplying and disposing of high-energy bulk materials.

We have various products in our portfolio. We supply sawmills with logs and remove sawmill by-products such as wood chips or bark on the way back. We trade these biomass products. Brüning Group offers the complete package, including logistics: we have our own fleet of 40 lorries. Certifications are very important in this business and for every project we provide support in terms of the regulations and requirements that need to be observed in order to establish a successful material flow.

Anne: What fascinates you about your work?

Torben: On the one hand, I am fascinated by the different requirements in this field of work. On the other hand I find the open and flexible working, e.g. in the home office, very pleasant. The field of work is driven by retail and therefore has a certain drive. There are various opportunities to get directly involved and optimise processes: For example, I am currently working on integrating digital shipping documents into the order fulfilment process.

Biomass trading is a seasonal business.

Anne: How does the supply of biomass for biochar producers in Europe work?

Torben: Biomass trading is a seasonal business. In consultation with our customers, we try to organise the best possible supply chains regionally where feasible. We have to take into account the biomass requirements of other market participants and future projects. We therefore ensure that there is always enough biomass available for our customers. For us as the Brüning Group, a lorry is the smallest unit of measure. The transport of the biomass must be coordinated with the design of the site and the plants, depending on the means of transport, so that there is sufficient space for manoeuvring, loading and unloading or even storage. There are questions to ask, like: Are there driving bans for lorries? Limited access routes? Is there a lorry weighbridge on site or nearby? 

Pyrolysis plants currently still have to be operated with very homogeneous feedstock in order to enable stable process control.

Anne: Is there a difference in terms of supplying the pyrolysis plants compared to other biomass-utilising power plants? 

Torben: The feedstock requirements for pyrolysis plants are higher than for comparable combustion plants. Pyrolysis plants currently still have to be operated with very homogeneous feedstock in order to enable stable process control. The current trend is towards favouring premium wood chips. In order to be able to meet the future needs of the plants, it would make sense to find a solution that allows pyrolysis plants to process different sizes and qualities of wood chips. 

A great deal of effort is also required to process the biomass before it reaches the pyrolysis plant. It is sieved, re-shredded, etc. These processes ultimately increase the cost of the feedstock and therefore the final product. It is only a matter of time before a good solution is found.

Risk of price fluctuations cannot be carried by one party in the supply chain only.

Anne: How can biomass security be established? 

Torben: We encourage our business partners to consider a larger radius ( collection area) of biomass depending on the size of the plant. This radius can include everything from local quantities to international material flows. The aim is always to fully supply a plant, but the last few years have shown that this is not getting any easier. 

We have made it clear that we will ensure the availability of biomass. However, this presupposes that the risk of price fluctuations cannot be carried by one party in the supply chain only. We are endeavouring to cover this risk together with our business partners in our projects by means of various contractual options across the entire supply chain. 

If we can no longer purchase at price X, we must also have the option of adjusting the price on the sales side. But also the other way round: if suddenly more affordable quantities are available, we also lower the price on the sales side. This is called “open book”.  As a trader, we receive a handling fee in between. In order to be able to generate security of supply, we have to give ourselves the freedom to adjust the price.

Anne: In turn, this means that your customers will probably communicate a more variable price to their customers. This is because the biomass price is an influential factor for the target price.

It’s important for the biochar market to look at how the price variation of biomass is buffered.

Torben: Yes, the biocarbon/biochar price is very much linked to the biomass price. I think it’s important for the biochar market to look at how the price variation of biomass is buffered. Is this only done via electricity or is it perhaps done via biochar in some areas? 

Anne: Perhaps we can learn from other sectors that are also tied to very flexible exchange prices or market prices; for example, products such as those from the food industry, where the price of wheat goes up and down and is subject to speculation. 

Torben: Speculation is the right keyword. The material flow and production of biochar always involves energy.  This speculation is part of the biocarbon business and also plays a role in carbon credits.

We’ll probably see more different feedstocks in two to five years’ time.

Anne: At biochar zero, our Producer Finder analyses that most producers of biochar today use wood chips made from waste wood from European forests.

Torben: Yes, wood is currently still the number 1 raw material for biochar. On the one hand, this is because the required parameters, such as for the C-fix content, are achieved with wood. Secondly, wood is currently more readily available than other residual materials. 

So far, there have only been few cases in which companies have had good experiences with waste materials from the food industry, for example. One reason for this is the hurdles involved in complying with the parameters for registration as a fertiliser. A second reason is that a production plant has to be designed differently if grain husks or nutshells are used, for example. There can be a higher dust load, you don’t have the same energy yield, carbon content, etc. I think this will change in the future. We’ll probably see more different feedstocks in two to five years’ time. Above all, many more different feedstocks will be used, as the parameters of the biochar can be varied with the feedstock. As a producer, you have a direct influence on the properties of the biochar, such as the specific surface area and carbon content.

Sewage sludge is another feedstock that is on the rise. However, this also requires special pyrolysis techniques.

My guess is that there will probably be plants of a certain size that can use rice husks, others specialise in wood, others in grain and maize residues and certain plants only take sewage sludge or food waste.

Anne: Is there nevertheless a material that is on the same level as woodchippings and can keep up with the criteria of price-performance, carbon content and deliverability?

Torben: In fact, the interesting, homogeneous residual material streams are already being utilised. For example, shells, which are continuously produced in the food industry, would be ideal. However, their recycling chains are already established. As soon as the material flow is diverted to pyrolysis plants, I take the feedstock elsewhere.

At the same time, the leverage of the different input materials is great for varying the properties of the biochar. It would be ideal if it were possible to switch between biomasses. However, I see it as quite difficult to switch back and forth between the different feedstocks in a plant at short notice without any problems. 

The wide range of industrial applications requires the use of different biomasses so that the biocarbon product can be specifically tailored to the various areas of application. Examples include additives for concrete and asphalt, paints, varnishes, additives, plastics or filling material for flooring. The applications are so diverse in their material requirements that they also require the use of different biomass.

My guess is that there will probably be plants of a certain size that can use rice husks, others specialise in wood, others in grain and maize residues and certain plants only take sewage sludge or food waste.

I believe that in the long term, it will become common for a producer to operate different technologies or plants.

Anne: Let me summarise: a biomass produces a special biochar. And a plant cannot usually switch flexibly between biomasses. As a result, producers specialise in one feedstock. Or the other case is that they set up several plants in order to be able to work with several material flows. 

Torben: Exactly. At the moment, most plants have to cope with one feedstock. There are, of course, some more flexible technologies. But I believe that in the long term, it will become common for a producer to operate different technologies or plants. The reason is that you don’t end up with just one product. 

Anne: What other materials are becoming more popular?

Torben: That varies greatly from region to region. Here in Europe, it can only be food waste that is already produced in industry. In the tropical regions, other biomass is produced: Rice husks, palm leaves, palm kernel shells. There are palm plantations where residues are currently not utilised at all. If you want to utilise this biomass in Europe, you have to sort out the logistics or have the plants on site. It is becoming apparent that plants will have to be built closer to the biomass.

Due to the low density of the material or higher water content due to residual moisture of untreated biomass, you can’t get enough mass/energy on the boat to make it worthwhile.

Anne: Cashew and coconut shells are also interesting. Biomass is available all year round near the equator due to a much longer growing season. What criteria need to be met so that importing the biomass to Europe is still justifiable in terms of good Life Cycle Assessment?

Torben: Transport by large ships is the best option for these routes in terms of benefits, price and Life Cycle Assessment. We should pay attention to the technical development of the actors in the supply chain, i.e. who uses alternative fuels and has different ship concepts. It is not yet clear which concepts will prevail. Ship transport providers with a lower carbon footprint are currently still difficult to find. 

Building up material flows over such distances is a major challenge. Due to the low density of the material or the higher water content due to the residual moisture of untreated biomass, you can’t get enough mass/energy on the boat to make it worthwhile. Pre-treatment of the biomass, such as drying, pelletising or compacting, would be required for such biomass to be transported in a meaningful way. For these reasons, I believe that biochar is produced on site, close to the biomass source, and only then goes on its long journey.

Our team is monitoring this and weighing up whether and when it makes sense. It’s not interesting right now, except for individual cases, such as test runs of plants.

Torben: There will always be wood available somewhere, from forestry, landscape management, waste from the sawmill industry and waste wood. The cascade utilisation of the product or biomass will probably tend to become longer. But at some point, the end-of-life status of a material is reached. The wood can then still be used for carbonisation. In future, pure incineration will probably take up a smaller share. 

Anne: Thank you very much for the interview!

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