A techno-economic comparison of power production by biomass fast pyrolysis with gasification and combustion

A.V. Bridgwater, A.J. Toft, J.G. Brammer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper presents an assessment of the technical and economic performance of thermal processes to generate electricity from a wood chip feedstock by combustion, gasification and fast pyrolysis. The scope of the work begins with the delivery of a wood chip feedstock at a conversion plant and ends with the supply of electricity to the grid, incorporating wood chip preparation, thermal conversion, and electricity generation in dual fuel diesel engines. Net generating capacities of 1–20 MWe are evaluated.
The techno-economic assessment is achieved through the development of a suite of models that are combined to give cost and performance data for the integrated system. The models include feed pretreatment, combustion, atmospheric and pressure gasification, fast pyrolysis with pyrolysis liquid storage and transport (an optional step in de-coupled systems) and diesel engine or turbine power generation. The models calculate system efficiencies, capital costs and production costs. An identical methodology is applied in the development of all the models so that all of the results are directly comparable.
The electricity production costs have been calculated for 10th plant systems, indicating the costs that are achievable in the medium term after the high initial costs associated with novel technologies have reduced. The costs converge at the larger scale with the mean electricity price paid in the EU by a large consumer, and there is therefore potential for fast pyrolysis and diesel engine systems to sell electricity directly to large consumers or for on-site generation. However, competition will be fierce at all capacities since electricity production costs vary only slightly between the four biomass to electricity systems that are evaluated.
Systems de-coupling is one way that the fast pyrolysis and diesel engine system can distinguish itself from the other conversion technologies. Evaluations in this work show that situations requiring several remote generators are much better served by a large fast pyrolysis plant that supplies fuel to de-coupled diesel engines than by constructing an entire close-coupled system at each generating site. Another advantage of de-coupling is that the fast pyrolysis conversion step and the diesel engine generation step can operate independently, with intermediate storage of the fast pyrolysis liquid fuel, increasing overall reliability. Peak load or seasonal power requirements would also benefit from de-coupling since a small fast pyrolysis plant could operate continuously to produce fuel that is stored for use in the engine on demand.
Current electricity production costs for a fast pyrolysis and diesel engine system are 0.091/kWh at 1 MWe when learning effects are included. These systems are handicapped by the typical characteristics of a novel technology: high capital cost, high labour, and low reliability. As such the more established combustion and steam cycle produces lower cost electricity under current conditions.
The fast pyrolysis and diesel engine system is a low capital cost option but it also suffers from relatively low system efficiency particularly at high capacities. This low efficiency is the result of a low conversion efficiency of feed energy into the pyrolysis liquid, because of the energy in the char by-product. A sensitivity analysis has highlighted the high impact on electricity production costs of the fast pyrolysis liquids yield. The liquids yield should be set realistically during design, and it should be maintained in practice by careful attention to plant operation and feed quality. Another problem is the high power consumption during feedstock grinding. Efficiencies may be enhanced in ablative fast pyrolysis which can tolerate a chipped feedstock. This has yet to be demonstrated at commercial scale.
In summary, the fast pyrolysis and diesel engine system has great potential to generate electricity at a profit in the long term, and at a lower cost than any other biomass to electricity system at small scale. This future viability can only be achieved through the construction of early plant that could, in the short term, be more expensive than the combustion alternative. Profitability in the short term can best be achieved by exploiting niches in the market place and specific features of fast pyrolysis. These include:
•countries or regions with fiscal incentives for renewable energy such as premium electricity prices or capital grants;
•locations with high electricity prices so that electricity can be sold direct to large consumers or generated on-site by companies who wish to reduce their consumption from the grid;
•waste disposal opportunities where feedstocks can attract a gate fee rather than incur a cost;
•the ability to store fast pyrolysis liquids as a buffer against shutdowns or as a fuel for peak-load generating plant;
•de-coupling opportunities where a large, single pyrolysis plant supplies fuel to several small and remote generators;
•small-scale combined heat and power opportunities;
•sales of the excess char, although a market has yet to be established for this by-product; and
•potential co-production of speciality chemicals and fuel for power generation in fast pyrolysis systems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)181-246
Number of pages66
JournalRenewable and sustainable energy reviews
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2002


  • techno-economic
  • comparison
  • power
  • production
  • biomass
  • pyrolysis
  • gasification
  • combustion


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