Energy | March 06, 2008 |
Solena's Plasma Powered Biomass Blaster
Plasma. It's not just for HDTV's anymore. As I wandered the show floor at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference (WIREC) shoring up my supply of corporate promotional pens, I found the display of Solena Group. They are a Washington DC-based company has engineered a multi-tasking, zero emission, jet fuel-producing biomass beast, using plasma gasification, that could revolutionize the industry. These types of plants have been tried in the past, most notably in Japan, but the technology has yet to take off.
Plasma gasification works by super-heating biomass with plasma torches (aka, death rays), rapidly breaking down the material into their component compounds, resulting in synthetic gas, or syngas. One of Solena's co-founders, Dr. S.L. Camacho, worked with plasma technology as the lead scientist at NASA, when it was used to simulate the heat stresses of atmospheric re-entry. He joined the company in 1995.
Solena's process uses 6-8 plasma torches at 5000 degrees C in a large reactor that they call the "gasification island" and I call the title of Fox's worst reality show ever. The company also says it can then use the syngas to power a combined-cycle gas turbine to produce electricity or feed it into a Fischer Tropsch reactor to produce aviation-grade liquid diesel fuel. Solena claims that this process converts biomass to gas at up to 90% efficiency.
So what about that zero emission business? Solena's Bio-Fuel System (BFS) sequesters all the resulting carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from turbine combustion. Then, rather than try to find a place to stuff it in the ground, the unwanted pollutants are used to feed phyto-plankton, which grows up and later gets zapped as biomass. This, in essence, creates a closed system.
Rocio Velez, Solena's Corporate Counsel, was kind enough to help me wrap my head around these concepts while CEO, and the other co-founder, Dr. Robert Do was away from the booth.
Because plasma gasifiers simply blast things to smithereens, they have a unique advantage over other biomass facilities. They can take just about any biomass fuel you can throw at it including municipal solid waste (MSW), agricultural leftovers, and more. Velez says, "We can take 3 or 4 feedstocks at the same time and put them into our gasifier."
She says that this diversity is a strength for Solena because the plant can adjust to the available biomass in a given location rather than compete for or with existing food crops.
Velez says that the company will likely sell electricity to the grid at 8 to 12 cents per kilowatt, possibly competitive with the 2006 U.S. average of 8.9 cents per kWh. This is especially true as states ratchet up commitments to cleaner energy. She says, "The market is driven for that. Consumers will be demanding it as well."
The company currently has four projects in the permitting stage, including a 20-28 MW plant in the Czech Republic and a 15 MW plant in Spain. Among Solena's other initiatives are to build five 40 megawatt plants in California and a partnership - announced on March 5th - with a coal-to-liquids company to build a facility that will produce 17 million gallons of bio-jet fuel per year, also in CA. Richard Branson will be thrilled.
Velez thinks her company is well positioned for the low carbon push. "We want to grow in the sector of carbon sequestration and net zero emissions because we can do that now. The market is going to go towards that. And we're going to go with it," she says.
Velez believes that during the next 2-3 years, Solena will be focusing more on biofuels, aviation fuels, and the carbon sequestration via algae mentioned above.
With the possible applications of these plants ranging from methane and steam production to jet fuel and hydrogen for fuel cells, the Solena technology looks like the Swiss Army Knife of biomass. Death ray included, of course.