November 22, 2021

Gradual Increase of Bio-oil Production Expected as Commercialization of Fast Pyrolysis Gains Momentum

With the ever-growing amount of waste produced each year and rising landfill issues, pyrolysis has emerged as a solution for recycling and reducing waste destined for landfills. It is one of the few solutions that deals with contaminated and mixed plastic waste, which are unable to be mechanically recycled at common recycling plants. As the technology matured over the past decades, pyrolysis is also emerging as one of the alternatives for producing sustainable renewable fuels to decarbonize transport.


In short, the pyrolysis process is the thermochemical decomposition of biomass to a combination of reusable end products comprising non-condensable gases (typically syngas), heavy bio-oil (or bio-crude) and biochar (or carbon black). The main types of pyrolysis include slow, intermediate, fast and flash, which occur under different heating environments and yield different compositions of end products. Notably, the current pyrolysis technology provides high flexibility in feedstocks it accepts in comparison to gasification and combustion. Feedstocks such as mixed plastic waste and tires are increasingly used in addition to forestry and woody biomass, due to their high abundance and accessibility.


Traditionally, most facilities perform slow pyrolysis to produce biochar from biomass for household heating and the industrial market as heating material in industrial boilers, activated carbon, or construction material in substitution of coal. More recently, fast pyrolysis yielding more pyrolysis oil, has been catching up. Bio-oil is currently most often used for household heating, followed by manufacturing cement, bricks, glass, ceramic, plastics and transportation fuel. This year, Preem’s Lysekil refinery in Sweden has started to transform 25 thousand tonnes of pyrolysis oil for road transport, produced using BTG bioliquids' fast pyrolysis technology. The remaining gas is utilized as heating material for powering the pyrolysis plant itself and is occasionally sold to regional power facilities when produced in excess. Carbon black residues produced during tire pyrolysis is also increasingly recycled for manufacturing new tires.


A large portion of current pyrolysis capacity is dedicated to woody, forestry, and plastic waste recycling. Hundreds of plastic pyrolysis projects (including those at pilot scale) are estimated ongoing worldwide, mainly in the US and Europe (namely Spain, Netherlands, the UK, and Germany). Pyrolysis technology to process plastic, woody and forestry waste is gaining momentum in South Korea and Japan. The main pyrolysis oil end-users reaching out to technology providers to collaborate on pilot and/or commercial-scale pyrolysis projects include oil giants such as Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron Philips, advanced biofuel players such as Neste and Honeywell UOP, as well as chemical and plastic manufacturers such as INEOS, BASF, SABIC and Toyo Styrene. The key technology providers in this field are Ensyn, BTG Bioliquids (BTG-BTL), Plastic Energy, Agilyx, Quantafuel and Klean Industries.


Most of the global tire pyrolysis processing capacity is located in Asia, with numerous small backyard operations in India, Malaysia, and China. The major tire pyrolysis equipment producers are situated in China, including Henan Doing, Beston Machinery, and Shanghai Kingtiger Group. These online retailers export numerous small scale pyrolysis plants (typically having capacities of 10 to 15 tonnes per day) to developing countries in Asia and Africa each year. The plants could be offered at rates as little as USD 30,000 as compared to plastic pyrolysis plants in Europe and North America which cost more than tens of millions of US dollars.


The commercialization of fast pyrolysis is faced with various technological, economic, and environmental barriers. On the demand side, the limited commercial applications of pyrolysis oil and the overall lack of standards for pyrolysis products potentially discouraged new investments in pyrolysis plants, which are generally capital intensive and heavy in operational costs. With only a few small-scale commercial plants (especially for plastics) on the market, the price of pyrolysis oil has been uncertain and highly dependent on feedstock availability, transport costs, taxes, and production parameters. Besides, additional cost and infrastructure are required for hydrotreating highly corrosive and chemically unstable bio-oil into a suitable drop-in fuel. Furthermore, bio-oil is only half as energy-intensive (18-20 GJ/ton) as fuel oil (40-46 GJ/ton), leading to additional transportation and storage costs. As a result, the price of drop-in fuels produced from bio-oil is expected to remain a premium over fuel oil. Nevertheless, legislative incentives in support of low carbon fuels may start to bridge the cost-gap in the transport sectors of some European countries.

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