Researchers at the University of Minnesota have released the results of a new study exploring the financial viability of solar-heated biomass gasification technologies that produce a natural gas substitute.
Their findings revealed that combining these renewable resources can indeed make economic sense, as long as all of the required solar thermal energy comes from a concentrated source.
The process of traditional biomass gasification generally results in 20 to 30 percent of the biomass feedstock being burned to simply produce heat for the process.
By utilizing a lone solar source, all of the biomass can be converted into useful synthesis gas.
The study, funded by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and published in Biomass and Bioenergy this week, determined that solar-heated biomass gasification systems could break even at natural gas prices of $4.04-$10.90 per gigajoule, depending on configuration.
“While the cost of adding solar energy generation to a biomass gasification facility can approach one-third of a plant’s total capital costs, other equipment required in traditional plants can be avoided and the amount of syngas produced per ton of biomass—a major variable cost of production—increases significantly,” said senior author and former University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences student Tom Nickerson.
“With average U.S. natural gas prices at $4.80 per gigajoule in 2014, two of the four configurations modeled were economically competitive,” said co-author Timothy Smith, director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, IonE resident fellow and CFANS faculty member. “Utilizing solar technologies to get more energy out of each acre of biomass reduces the impacts to the landscapes producing it,” Smith added.
The technologies modeled in this study are being developed at the Solar Energy Laboratory at the University of Minnesota under the direction of Jane Davidson and lead research scientist Brandon Hathaway of the College of Science and Engineering because quite simply, no commercial plants exist at the moment to with the same approach to gasification.
“Our novel approach to gasification has demonstrated its benefits at the bench scale, and testing with our 3 kW prototype is ongoing in the University of Minnesota’s High Flux Solar Simulator,” said Hathaway. “We hope to find industry partners to join us in the next steps as we scale up the process and move towards testing on-sun,” Davidson added.