Technology & innovation | Energy, utilities

Marchmont’s focus on innovation: Helioculture and fuel wafers

29 Sep '11
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

In a bid to tap into broader alternative energy beyond solar and wind, Russia is exploring opportunities with biofuels and brown coal. Moscow-based Rusnano has just announced its $35m investment in a US-originated liquid fuel from the sun technology. In a much smaller but very promising effort 3,000 miles away in Russia’s east, Tomsk Polytechnic University is promoting its $470k multi-purpose fuel wafers. With unprecedented eco-friendliness and readily available, low-cost raw materials these very different projects are innovation showcases.

Liquid fuel from the sun

Rusnano—originally a government corporation and now a joint-stock company 100% owned by the RF with a mandate to develop Russia’s nanotechnology potential—has recently announced a $35m investment for innovative renewable fuel technology originally developed by US-based Joule Unlimited.

In addition to perfecting the technology Rusnano and the American company are reportedly expected to pool efforts in setting up Joule’s Russian-based R&D.

Set up in 2007 by Flagship VentureLabs, Cambridge, MA, Joule Unlimited is now part of Joule Global Holdings. The firm’s focus is the development of so-called ‘liquid fuel from the sun’—a technology that the firm says is “superior in scalability and cost-effectiveness to any alternative to fossil fuel known today.”

Just add land and water to sunlight

Unlike agro biofuels, which require biomass as a raw material, Joule’s proprietary technique is called Helioculture. The technology enables direct and continuous translation of sunlight and carbon dioxide emissions into diesel fuel, ethanol and other chemical compounds. All that is required, developers say, is some land and water.

Rusnano says Helioculture makes it possible to replicate and augment biofuel production without requiring vast agricultural lands and massive quantities of water. No vegetative sources are reportedly needed as there’s no biomass involved, and the approach is very low-cost, the developers claim, since the products are ready-to-use and don’t require any further processing.

The technology has zero greenhouse emissions, Rusnano and Joule claim, because it utilizes carbon dioxide (the prime contributor to global warming). An added ‘by-product’ is that Helioculture will also reduce harmful emissions from surrounding industries as well.

At a “fraction” of today’s costs

With Joule’s technology one hectare of land is expected to yield “up to 140,000 liters of diesel fuel and 230,000 liters of ethanol a year” for a “fraction” of the cost of conventional fuels.

Joule is currently in the design stage of testing its revolutionary technology in the U.S. and developing a prototype plant to be reportedly launched next year. With Rusnano’s help the developers hope to kick-start commercial production of new biofuels in 2013 to sell both to Russian and international markets.

Briquettes that out-heat coal?

In Siberia, Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU)—one of the oldest scientific, educational and R&D centers in Russia’s trans-Urals area now ranking fifth among the RF’s 164 technology-focused universities—is developing a more prosaic approach to alternative energy: multi-purpose fuel briquettes.

Its $470k project is aimed at refining technology and setting up production of multi-purpose fuel briquettes that use low-grade raw materials like peat, wood and brown coal.

The research team behind the project says their new briquettes have a heat value of 15-27MJ/kilo which is “unparalleled” to competitors like the RUF, NESTRO or Pini&Kay branded pellets or peat pellets.

The developers also claim that in certain operational conditions, their briquettes even beat the heat value of black coal.

No pressing—simple, fast, no waste

The Tomsk technology requires no energy-consuming pressing to create the briquettes. The process works by applying low-temperature pyrolysis, a thermal decomposition technique, to a low-grade fuel and forming a raw wafer that includes carbon residue, resin, pyroligenous liquor and fuel gas.

This raw briquette is then heat dried in the furnace gases that result from pyrolysis.

It is a no-waste method as all the pyrolytic products are fully used up in briquetting, TPU says. The furnace gases, a free by-product of thermal decomposition, are reportedly enough not only to dry the pellets but also heat up the production area where pellets are made.

In sharp contrast to other techniques that involve burning, the TPU technology is believed to completely exclude carbon monoxide emissions and minimizes sulfur emissions. This makes their fuel wafers environmentally safer than any other conventional solid fuel.

According to Pavel Nosov from TPU’s technology transfer center, the pellets have increased moisture resistance and durability, enabling them to be shipped and stored in rough conditions—and using the pellets is even safe for patients with asthma.

The entire manufacturing process is completely self-contained and requires no other components except low-grade raw materials.

Vast applications

The domestic market for Tomsk’s fuel pellets is vast. A primary focus is the tens of thousands of boiler houses across this country’s 83 regions. In the Tomsk region alone there are 670 solid fuel boiler houses that incinerate an estimated 144,304 tons of equivalent fuel (TEF) a year.

Other customers may include factories and administrative buildings that run their own boiler rooms, trading firms that sell fuels, and private home owners.

TPU is also eyeing fuel-hungry Northern European markets that reportedly import an estimated 30,000 tons of fuel wafers a year. As a long-term goal, the team hopes to set up distribution partnerships to also deliver products to Asia.

With RF patents and a prototype in hand, TPU expects to fully commercialize its development within a reported 1.5-2 years.
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Locations: Moscow; US; Tomsk

Tags: Tomsk Polytechnic University (68) / Rusnano (426) / Pavel Nosov (3) / Joule Unlimited (1) / renewable fuel (0) / fuel briquettes (0) /

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