For example one question was: ‘Can we produce enough H2:CO syngas from waste and biomass to drive an industrial scale biological process for the production of plastics precursors?’.
We undertook a scaling exercise to determine the needs of the target process.
We provided a summary of the main techniques available, assessed current and emergent gasification and gas processing methods (cleaning, gas water shift etc). Due to the potential scale of operation the review included coal, waste and biomass gasification. A summary was provided presenting options and constraints including technology readiness (TRL), scale, feedstock availability and logistics.
This is a common enough question which we’ve been asked more than once to answer – primarily to support a case for investment.
Novel thermal processes can be really interesting and exciting. However establishing a business case requires four fundamentally simple answers:
- Can I get the material to feed it?
- What does it produce (good and bad)?
- Can I sell or dispose of the products?
- Can it be profitable?
Curiously, answering these questions isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem. Technologies at an early stage of development face a number of issues:
- They are not optimised and typically require a lot of ‘hands-on’ operation
- Historic testing hasn’t been done in a controlled or objective way
- They may not run long enough to achieve stable operation
- Process performance is substantially affected by feedstock and operating parameters
- Scaleability is not always clear
In all case the processes we’ve seen have worked in one way or another; but not necessarily precisely as the developer thought or claimed! This is not necessarily a bad thing as once you know what the process does you can then figure out where the commercial opportunity might be.
Technologies pass through various levels of readiness for deployment – NASA’s ‘Technology Readiness Level’ or TRL. At each stage there are different ‘opportunities’ ranging from grant funding and equity investment (the lower TRLs) to market opportunity and deployment (the higher TRLs). Being clear on what TRL you are at is critical to focusing on the right opportunity.
Frequently developers believe they’re at a higher TRL than they are. Most frequently this in an attempt to avoid the ‘Valley of Death’ which passes from TRL 6 (I’ve got a pilot plant working) to TRL 8 (I’ve got a commercial plant working).
If a developer is clear on where they are then (i) they won’t mislead themselves or their investor and (ii) they will make the right decisions in investors, partners and steps.
We’ve seen both ends of the scale – technologies that are clearly still in early research and for which the ultimate opportunity can only be guessed to those that have been demonstrated in live operation and are ready for deployment.