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Magnets, metal and motion – electricity generation simplified

Generating electricity in a power station is a huge, complex operation. Thousands of tonnes of fuel, millions of gallons of water, intense temperatures and incredibly high pressures all go into spinning turbines and turning generators, which in turn creates electricity.

But strip it back to its basics and making electricity is relatively simple. All it takes is a magnet, metal and motion.

Turning motion into electricity

British scientist Michael Faraday first realised the relationship between magnetic fields and electricity in 1831. He noticed when a magnet moved through a coil of copper, a current flows through the wires. The same thing happens if the wires are moved and the magnetic is static. All that matters is that there is motion in a magnetic field, allowing the kinetic energy to be converted into electrical energy. This simple observation is still the basis of how electricity is generated around the world today.

To replicate this process in miniature, we can use spinning copper wires and an everyday magnet. At this scale the electric current induced is very small – not even enough to power an LED light. However, an ammeter shows the tiny voltage passing along the wires. This is possible because of the relationship between magnetic fields and electric currents.

How electrons create electricity

The key to how magnetic fields convert motion into electric currents is found in atoms. Every neutral atom’s core is made up of static neutrons and protons, with electrons zooming around them. However, with the right outside force introduced, electrons can be stimulated, which causes them to break away from an atom and set off a chain reaction that knocks other electrons free, in turn creating an electric current.

A magnet can provide this outside force. Passing the magnetic field through copper wires, for example, breaks electrons from their copper atoms and sends them flowing in one direction.

Metals are good at conducting electricity because their atoms have a looser hold on their electrons than materials like wood or glass, making it easier for a magnetic field to free them.

The speed at which the magnetic field passes through the atoms affects how many electrons are broken off from them. If more kinetic energy is put into the magnet and it passes through faster, more electrons are set free and more current flows.

Scaling generation up

It’s this simple principal of magnets, metal and motion that powers most of world, but in power stations it is scaled up and optimised to supply huge amounts of electrical power.

Each of Drax’s 600-plus megawatt generators contains a 120 tonne rotor, which acts as a very strong electromagnet. This sits inside the stator which weighs 300 tonnes, and contains 84, 11-metre long copper bars.

High pressure steam is used to spin a series of turbines, which in turn spin the rotor and its magnetic field at 3,000 rpm. As it spins a voltage is induced in its stator at a frequency of 50 cycles per second (which sets the frequency for the entire grid – 50 Hz), sending electrons zooming through the stator bars which carry a huge electric current.

This is the same in almost every form of electricity generation that uses a rotating generator, from wind to hydro to nuclear to biomass. Solar generation is the exception, but it uses the same principle of knocking around electrons.

Instead of using a magnetic field to break electrons from metal atoms, solar panels use photons from sunlight to free electrons from a negatively charged layer of silicon film. These are then attracted to a layer of positive film which creates an electrical current that is collected and channelled from each solar panel.

At its most-basic, electricity generation is simple and even as the world switches to less carbon-intense means of production, the straightforward concept of using a magnetic, metal and motion will remain at its heart

The everyday and future ways you use forest products

Think of the products that come from forests and you might think of the centuries of shipbuilding, construction and cooking made possible by civilisations utilising this plentiful natural resource.

What you might not think of is the complex construction of chemicals and matter that make up the trees of a forest – nor of the countless ways these can be broken down and used. Yet this is the reality of forests. From essential oils to sturdy packaging to powerful adhesives, trees are used to create a range of products that make daily life possible.

And as awareness of the need to reduce plastic consumption grows, research into forest products and how they can replace the less-environmentally friendly objects is growing.

Here we look at five of the most common products used today, and maybe in the future, that owe something to forests.

Adhesives from tall oil

Anyone who has encountered tree sap can attest: trees are made up of some pretty sticky stuff. And it’s because of this that they have long been a source for adhesives production – from glue to cement.

The substance that makes this possible is known as tall oil. Named after the Swedish word Tallolja, meaning pine oil, it is a by-product of pulping coniferous trees.

Tall oil has been produced commercially since the 1930s when the invention of the recovery boiler made it possible to extract it from the Kraft pulping process. However, the resins and waxes tall oil is made up of have a longer history. These are also known as ‘Naval Products’ due to their historic use in ship building and can be tapped directly from living trees.

Today, tall oil is also used in asphalt roofing, as well as medical and cosmetic applications. One of tall oil’s most exciting uses is as BioVerno – a renewable alternative to diesel made in the world’s first commercial-scale biorefinery in Finland.

Disinfectants and detergents from turpentine

Tapping trees has historically been a means of extracting multiple useful substances and one of the most versatile of these is turpentine. This yellowish liquid is produced from distilled tree resin and has a long history of uses.

Turpentine has been used since Roman times as torch or lamp fuel, but its antiseptic properties also means it was often used as medicine. While doctors today would advise against drinking turpentine (as was prescribed in the past), it is still used today in disinfectants, detergents and cleaning products, giving off a fresh, pine-like odour.

Fuels to replace fossils

Biomass pellets from working forests are just one of the ways trees are providing renewable energy. One other form is cellulosic ethanol, a new, second generation of liquid biofuel. Rather than competing with food supply (often a concern in the creation of biodiesels), cellulosic ethanol is made from non-food based materials such as forest and agricultural residues left behind after harvest – wheat straw, – and timber processing wastes including sawdust. It is now being produced at a commercial scale in Europe, the US and Brazil.

Woody biomass can also be converted into a petroleum substitute known as pyrolysis oil or bio-oil. Biomass is transformed into this dark brown liquid by heating it to 500oC in an oxygen-deprived environment and then allowing it to cool. Bio-oil has a much higher energy density than biomass in chip or pellet form and after upgrading can be used as jet fuel or as a petroleum alternative in chemical manufacturing.

Vanilla ice cream and carbon fibre from lignin

Lignin is what gives trees their tough, woody quality, and after cellulose is the world’s second most abundant natural polymer. Polymers are very long molecules made up of many smaller molecules joined end-to-end most often associated with plastic, (which is a synthetic polymer).

Lignin is generally a waste product from the paper pulping process and is often burnt as fuel. However, it can also serve as a vanilla flavouring – a property that may make lignin an important resource in the face of an impending vanilla pod shortage.

Future-looking research, however, aims to unlock much more from the 50 million tonnes of lignin produced every year globally. One of the most promising of these is as an alternative source of a family of organic compound known as phenylpropanoids. These are normally extracted from petroleum and are hugely useful in producing plastics and carbon fibre, as well as drugs and paint. 

Nanocellulose and the future of forest products

Cellulose is already one of the most important products to come from forests thanks to its role in paper production. However, this abundant substance – which is also the primary material in the cell walls of all green plants – holds even more potential.

By shrinking cellulose down to a nano level it can be configured to be very strong while remaining very light. This opens it up as a product with many possibilities, including using it as a source of bioplastics. Some bioplastics – polylactic acid, PHA, PBS and starch blends – are biodegradable alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics and could potentially help solve some of the world’s most-pressing waste issues.

Not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable, however. The property of biodegradation doesn’t depend on the resource basis of a material – it is linked to its chemical structure. In other words, 100% bio-based plastics may be non-biodegradable, and 100% fossil-based plastics can biodegrade.

Bio-based plastics that are not biodegradable include polyethylene terephthalate, polyurethanes, polyamide, polyethylene. Polyethylenefuranoate or PEF is recyclable, can be manufactured without fossil fuels and while not biodegradable, has the potential to become a more sustainable alternative to the oil-based plastic used to make water bottles.

Cellulose’s combination of strength and light weight has also attracted interest from the auto industry in the ability to help cars become much lighter and therefore more fuel efficient. Its flexible, strong, transparent nature can also make Nanocellulose – an important material in helping bring bendable screens, batteries, cosmetics, paper, pharmaceuticals, optical sensors and devices to market.

The idea of using trees as a source of goods and products in everyday life might sound archaic, but, in reality, we’ve only just tapped the surface of what the chemicals and materials they’re made of can do. Markus Mannström from Finnish renewables company Stora Enso said recently that: “We believe that everything made from fossil-based materials today, can be made from a tree tomorrow.” As research advances, trees and forests will only play a bigger role in a more sustainable future.

Forestry 4.0

Around the world industries are undergoing profound change. The phrase ‘Industry 4.0’ describes this emerging era when the combination of data and automation is transforming long-established practices and business models.

Autonomous cars are perhaps one of most widely-known examples of ‘smart’ technology slowly inching towards daily life, but they are far from the only example. There is almost no sector untouched by this oncoming digital disruption – even industries as old as forestry are being transformed.

From smart and self-driving vehicles to data-crunching drones, Forestry 4.0 is ushering in a new era for efficient and sustainable forest management.

Drones and data

If the first industrial revolution was powered by steam, the fourth is being powered by data. Collecting information on every aspect of a process allows smart devices and machines to cut out inefficiencies and optimise a task.

In forestry, capturing and utilising huge amounts of data can build a better understanding of the land and trees that make up forests. One of the best ways to gather this data from wide, complex landscapes is through aerial imaging.

Satellites have long been used to monitor the changing nature of the world’s terrain and in 2021, the European Space Agency plans to use radar in orbit to weigh and monitor the weight of earth’s forests. But with the rise of drones, aerial imagining technology is becoming more widely accessible. Now even small-scale farmers and foresters can take a birds-eye view of their land.

Oxford-based company BioCarbon Engineering focuses on replanting areas of forests. It utilises drone technology to scan environments and identify features such as obstacles and terrain types which it uses to design and optimise planting patterns.

A drone then follows this path roughly three to six feet off the ground, shooting biodegradable seed pods into the ground every six seconds along the way. BioCarbon claims this approach can allow it to plant as many as 100,000 trees in a single day.

Gathering data on the health of working forests doesn’t necessarily require cutting-edge equipment either. In the smartphone era, any forestry professional now has the computing power in their pocket to capture detailed information about a forest’s condition.

Mobile app MOTI was designed by researchers at the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences at the Bern University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. It allows users to scan an area of forest with a phone’s camera and receive calculated-estimates on variables such as trees per hectare, tree heights and the basal area (land occupied by tree trunks).

Automating the harvest

Capturing data from forests can play a huge part in developing a better understanding of the land, terrain and trees of working forests, which leads to better decision making for healthier forests, including how and when to harvest and thin. But the equipment and technology carrying out these tasks on the ground are also undergoing smart-tech transformations.

Self-driving and electric vehicles are expected to disrupt multiple industries, including forestry. Swedish startup Einride, recently unveiled a driverless, fully electric truck that can haul as much as 16-tonnes of lumber and is specially designed for off-road, often unmapped, terrain.

There are some pieces of equipment, however, that will be harder to fully automate – for example, harvesters, which are used to fell and remove trees. Their long, digger-like arm normally features a head consisting of a chainsaw, claw-grips and rollers all in one, which are controlled from the vehicle’s cab.

Even as image recognition and sensors improve, automating these types of machines entirely is hugely challenging. An ideal use of artificial intelligence (AI) would be enabling a harvester to identify trees of a particular age or species to remove as part of thinning, for example, without disturbing the rest of the forest. However, trees of the same species and age can differ from each other depending on factors such as regional climates, soil and even lighting at the time of analysis.

This makes programming a machine to harvest a specific species and age of tree is very difficult. Nevertheless, innovation such as intelligent boom control – as John Deere is exploring – can help human operators automate movements and make harvesting safer and more efficient.

Forestry has always changed as technology has advanced – from the invention of the axe to the incorporation of ecology – and the digital revolution is no different. Smart sensors and deeper data will, ultimately, help optimise the lifecycle, biodiversity and health of managed forests.

With thanks to the Institute of Chartered Foresters for inviting us to attend its 2018 National Conference in May – Innovation for Change: New drivers for tomorrow’s forestry.

Does electricity have a smell?

Freshly baked bread, newly cut grass, sizzling bacon. Many of the world’s most evocative smells often need electricity to make them, but does electricity itself have a smell?

The short answer is no. An electric current itself doesn’t have an odour. But in instances when electricity becomes visible or audible it also creates a distinctive smell.

“The smell electricity emits is the contents of the gasses created when electricity conducts through air,” says Drax Lead Engineer Gary Preece. “In an instance of a failure on a switch board, for example, and there’s a flash of electricity, gasses are created from the charged air including ozone.”

It’s the same ozone gas that makes up the lower layer of the earth’s atmosphere and is often described as having a clean, chlorine-like, but burnt, smell. While it can sometimes be dangerous, ozone is also a very useful gas.

What is ozone?

Ozone’s scientific name is trioxide as it is made up of three oxygen molecules. While the normal oxygen we breathe is O2, ozone is O3 and is created by electricity in a similar way to how it forms naturally in the atmosphere.

There are large amounts of oxygen and nitrogen floating around in the atmosphere protecting life on earth from the sun’s intense UV radiation. These rays are so powerful they can ionise the oxygen, ripping it apart into two individual molecules. However, these lonely molecules are highly reactive and will sometimes collide and bond with nearby O2 to create ozone.

An electric current at a high voltage – given the right conditions – will conduct through the air, ionising oxygen in its wake and creating ozone, just as the sun’s UV rays do. When electricity behaves like this it’s known as a corona discharge, which makes a crackling sound and creates a visible plasma.

The most common time people may come into contact with a whiff of ozone is when a storm is approaching. Lighting is essentially a massive plasma that creates ozone as it conducts through the air, with the smell often arriving before the storm hits. It highlights quite how pungent ozone is considering humans can smell it in concentrations as low as 10 parts per billion in ordinary air. 

The concerns and capabilities of ozone

While ozone protects the planet when it’s in the atmosphere, it can be dangerous at ground level where it can also form through naturally occurring gases reacting with air pollution sources. High exposure to ozone at ground level can lead to lung, throat and breathing problems. However, because it also has a damaging effect on bacteria, ozone can be very useful in the medical field, and electricity is being used to deliberately create it.

In fact, ozone has been experimented with in medicine for more than a century, with its ability to attack and kill bacteria making it useful as a disinfectant. During the First World War it was used to treat wounds and prevent them becoming inflamed and was also found to aid blood flow.

Electricity plays an important role in almost everything we interact with on a daily basis, affecting all our senses, even smell.

The 8 biggest things in renewable energy

Powering a whole country is a big task. The equipment that make up power stations and electricity systems are measured in tonnes and miles, and pump gigawatts (GW) of electricity around the country. With the world’s electricity increasingly coming from renewables, this big thinking is key to powering long-term change.

From taller wind turbines to bigger batteries, these are the massive structures breaking energy records.

Germany’s giant wind turbine and the plan to beat it

As wind power becomes ever more prevalent, one of the key questions that needs answering is how to get more out of it. One way is to build taller turbines and longer blades. Putting turbines higher into the air sets them into stronger wind flows, while longer blades increase their generating capacity.

The world’s tallest wind turbines are currently in Gaildorf, Germany and stand at 178 metres with the blades tips reaching 246.5 metres. Built by Max Bögl Wind AG, the onshore turbines house a 3.4 megawatt (MW) generator that can produce around 10.5 gigawatt hours (GWh) per year.

However, turbines continue to grow and GE has announced plans for the Haliade-X turbine, which will ship in 2021. At 259 metres in total the offshore turbine is almost double the height of the London Eye and will spin 106 metre blades, generating 67 GWh per year.

China’s ‘Great Wall of Solar’

China has pumped substantial investment into solar power, including the world’s biggest solar plant in electricity generation and sheer size. Dubbed the ‘Great Wall of Solar’, the Tengger Desert Solar Park has a capacity of more than 1.5 GW and covers 43 km2 of desert.

The next largest, by comparison, is India’s Kurnool Ultra Mega Solar Park, which covers just 24 km2 and generates 1 GW. However, rampant investment by the country means there are several projects in the pipeline that will break the 2 GW mark and will set new records for solar power plants.

Morocco takes solar to new heights

Concentrated solar power (CSP) takes the technology skywards by using thousands of mirrors, known as heliostats, and focusing the sun’s rays towards a central tower. This heats up molten salt within the tower, which is then combined with water to create steam and power a turbine – like in a thermal power plant.

Morocco’s Noor Ouarzazate facility (pictured in the main photo of this article) is home to the world’s tallest CSP towers. At 250 metres tall, 7,400 heliostats beam the sunlight at each tower, which have a capacity of 150 MW and can store molten salt for 7.5 hours. Its record will soon be matched by Israel’s 121 MW Ashalim Solar Thermal Power Station when it begins operating this year.

However, never one to be outdone when it comes to tall structures, Dubai plans to build a 260 metre CSP tower in 2020 as part of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, which at 700 MW will be the world’s largest single-site CSP facility.

Three Gorges Dam

China’s monster mountain dam

The Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtza river might be the world’s most powerful hydropower dam with its massive 22.5 GW capacity, but a different Chinese dam holds the title of the world’s tallest.

Jinping-I Hydropower Station is a 305-metre-tall arch dam on the Yalong River. It sits on the Jinping Bend where the river wraps around the entire Jinping mountain range. The project began in 2005 and was completed with the commissioning of a sixth and final generator in 2014, which brought its total capacity to 3.6 GW.

Itaipu Dam and hydropower station

Brazil and Paraguay’s river arrangement

While it may be tall, at 568 metres-long, Jinping-I is far from the longest. That mantle belongs to the 7,919 metre-long Itaipu Dam and hydropower station that straddles Brazil and Paraguay and has an installed capacity of 14 GW.

The power station is home to 20, 700 MW generators, however, as Brazil’s electricity system runs at 60Hz and Paraguay’s at 50Hz, 10 of the generators run at each frequency.

Biomass domes that could hide the Albert Hall

Using a relatively new material, such as compressed wood pellets as a renewable alternative to coal in large thermal power stations creates new challenges. Biomass ‘ecostore’ domes help tackle storage problems by keeping the materials dry and maintaining the right temperatures and conditions.

Unlike cylindrical, concrete silos, domes also offer greater resistance to hurricanes and extreme weather. This is important in areas such as Louisiana where this low carbon fuel  is stored at the Drax Biomass port facility in 35.7 metre high, 61.6 metre diameter domes before it is shipped to Drax Power Station.

The power station itself is home to four of the world’s largest biomass domes. Each is 50.3 metres high and 63 metres in diameter – enough to hold the Albert Hall, or in Drax’s case 71,000 tonnes of biomass.

South Korean coastline takes the most from the tides

Beginning operation 1966, the Rance Tidal Power Station, in France was the first and largest facility of its kind for 45 years. The power station made use of the 750 metre-long Rance Barrage on France’s northern coast with a 330-metre-long section of it generating electricity through 24, 10 MW turbines.

It was overtaken, however, in 2011 with the opening of the Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station in South Korea. The facility generates power along a 400-metre section of the 12.7 km Sihwa Lake tidal barrage and generates a maximum of 254 MW through ten 25.4 MW submerged turbines.

The battle to beat Tesla’s giant battery

South Australia has become a battlefield in the race to build the world’s biggest grid scale storage solution. Tesla constructed a 10,000 m2, football pitch-sized 100 MW lithium-ion battery outside of Adelaide at the end of 2017 which is connected to a wind power plant and can independently supply electricity to 30,000 homes for an hour.

However, rival billionaire to Tesla’s Elon Musk, Sanjeev Gupta plans to take on the storage facility with a 140 MW battery to support a new solar-powered steelworks, also in South Australia.

The excitement around battery technology’s potential means the title of world’s biggest will likely swap hands plenty more times over the next decade. This contest won’t just be confined to batteries. As countries increasingly move away from fossil fuels, bigger, wider and taller renewable structures will be needed to power the world. These are the world’s largest renewable structures today, but they probably won’t stay in those positions for long.

Appointment of new non-executive director

RNS Number : 9248R
Drax Group PLC
(Symbol: DRX)

The Board of Drax Group plc (“Drax”) is pleased to announce that Vanessa Simms is to be appointed as a Non-Executive Director, with effect from 19 June 2018.

Vanessa is Chief Financial Officer at Grainger plc (1) and has a strong background in listed businesses, with more than 20 years experience working in senior leadership roles at Unite Group plc, SEGRO plc, Stryker Corp and Vodafone Group plc.  She has particular expertise in leading and implementing strategic change.

Philip Cox, Chairman of Drax, said: “The directors are delighted to welcome Vanessa to the Board. Her financial and commercial experience from a broad range of companies and industries will provide real value as Drax delivers on its purpose to help change the way energy is generated, supplied and used for a better future.”

Vanessa added: “I’m looking forward to joining the Board of Drax at this key time for sustainable energy in the UK.”

Vanessa has been appointed as a member of the Company’s Audit Committee.  She will work closely with the current Audit Chair, David Lindsell, in anticipation of her succeeding David when he steps down in 2019.

She has also been appointed as a member of the Company’s Nomination and Remuneration committees.

Enquiries:

Drax Investor Relations: Mark Strafford

+44 (0) 1757 612 491

Media:

Drax Media Relations: Ali Lewis

+44 (0) 1757 612 165

Website: www.drax.com/northamerica

Notes

  1. Grainger plc is the UK’s largest listed residential landlord.

 

END

Better forest management 

One of the most interesting outcomes of the recent analysis from the UK’s Forest Research (FR) agency on the Carbon Impact of Biomass (CIB) is the call for regulation to ensure better forest management and appropriate utilisation of materials.

The research was commissioned by the European Climate Foundation (ECF) to follow up FR’s mighty tome from 2015 of the same name.

This new piece of work essentially aims to clarify the findings of the initial research with supplementary analysis to address 3 key areas:

  1. A comparison of scenarios that may give relatively higher or lower GHG reductions — in simple terms, providing examples of both good and bad biomass.
  2. Based on the above, the report “provides a statement of the risks associated with EU bioenergy policy, both with and without specific measures to ensure sustainable supply.”
  3. It then goes on to “provide a practical set of sustainability criteria to ensure that those bio feedstocks used to meet EU bioenergy goals deliver GHG reductions”.

Not surprisingly, the report finds that unconstrained and unregulated use of biomass could lead to poor GHG emission results, even net emissions rather than removals. This, again, is a no-brainer. No reasonably minded person, even the most ardent bio-energy advocate, would suggest that biomass use should be unconstrained and unregulated.

There are plenty of obvious scenarios where biomass use would be bad, but that doesn’t mean that ANY use of biomass is bad. Thankfully this analysis takes a balanced view and identifies a number of scenarios where the use of biomass delivers substantial GHG emission reductions.

The report identifies the use of forest and industrial residues and small/early thinnings as delivering a significant decrease in GHG emissions, this is characterised as “good biomass” — around 75% of Drax’s 2017 feedstock falls into these feedstock categories (including some waste materials).

The remainder of Drax’s 2017 feedstock was made up of low grade roundwood produced as a bi-product of harvesting for saw-timber production. This feedstock was not specifically modelled in the analysis, but the report concludes that biomass users should: Strongly favour the supply of forest bioenergy as a by-product of wood harvesting for the supply of long-lived material wood products. The low grade roundwood used by Drax falls into this category.

Among the more obvious suggested requirements are that biomass should not cause deforestation and that biomass associated with ‘appropriate’ afforestation should be favoured. Agreed.

Another interesting recommendation is that biomass should be associated with supply regions where the forest growing stock is being preserved or increased, improving growth rates and productivity. Drax absolutely supports this view and we have talked for some time about the importance of healthy market demand to generate investment in forest management, encourage thinning and tree improvement.

Timber markets in the US South have lead to a doubling of the forest inventory over the last 70 years. These markets also provide jobs and help communities and ensure that forests stay as forest rather than being converted to other land uses.

The importance of thinning, as a silvicultural tool to improve the quality of the final crop and increase saw-timber production, is recognised by Forest Research. This is an import step in accepting that some biomass in the form of small whole trees can be very beneficial for the forest and carbon stock but also in displacing fossil fuel emissions.

The forest resource of the US South is massive, it stretches for more than a thousand miles from the coast of the Carolinas to the edge of West Texas, a forest area of 83 million ha (that’s more than 3 times the size of the UK). Given that a wood processing mill typically has a catchment area of around a 40–50-mile radius, imagine the number of markets required for low grade material to service that entire forest resource!

So, what happens when there isn’t a market near your forest, or the markets close? Over the last 20 years more than 30 million tonnes of annual demand for low grade timber — thinnings and pulpwood — has been lost from the market in the US South as the paper and board mills struggled after the recession. What happens to the forest owner? They stop harvesting, stop thinning, stop managing their forest. And that reduces the rate of growth, reduces carbon sequestration and reduces the quantity of saw-timber that can be produced in the future. Recognising that biomass has provided essential markets for forest owners of the US South, and directly contributed to better forest management is a really important step.

The CIB report talks about different types of biomass feedstock like stumps, which Drax does not use. Conversely the report also identifies good sources of biomass which should be used such as post-consumer waste, which Drax agrees would be better utilised for energy where possible, rather than land fill. It also shows that industrial processing residues that would otherwise be wasted and forest residues that would be burnt on site or left to rot would deliver carbon savings when used by facilities like Drax.

All of these criteria are similar to those outlined in the 7 principles of sustainable biomass that Drax has suggested should be followed.

Among the other recommendations which echo Drax’s thinking are that biomass should not use saw-timber or displace material wood markets, the scale should be appropriate to the long term sustainable yield potential of the forest — it should be noted that harvesting levels in the US South are currently only at around 57% of the total annual growth.

Counterfactual modelling, like that used in this report, cannot take account of all real-world variables and must be based on generic assumptions so should not be used in isolation, but this report makes a very useful contribution to a complex debate.

It is possible to broadly define good and bad biomass and to look at fibre baskets like the US south and see a substantial surplus of sustainable wood fibre being harvested a rate far below the sustainable yield potential.

Drax is currently working with the authors of this report, and others in the academic world, to develop the thinking on forest carbon issues and to ensure that all biomass use is sustainable and achieves genuine GHG emission reductions.

Discover the steps we take to ensure our wood pellet supply chain is better for our forests, our planet and our future — visit ForestScope

6 start-ups, ideas and power plants shaping biomass

Humans have used wood as a source of fuel for over a million years. Modern biomass power, however, is a far cry from human’s early taming of fire and this is down to constant research and innovation. In fact, today it’s one of the most extensively researched areas in energy and environmental studies.

With biomass accounting for 64% of total renewable energy production in the EU in 2015, the development isn’t likely to stop. Ongoing advancements in the field are helping the technology become more sustainable and efficient in reducing emissions.

Here are seven of the projects, businesses, ideas and technologies pushing biomass further into the future:

Torrefaction – supercharging biomass pellets

When it comes to making biomass as efficient as possible it’s all down to each individual pellet. Improving what’s known as the ‘calorific value’ of each pellet increases the overall amount of energy released when they are used in a power station.

One emerging process aiming to improve this is torrefaction, which involves heating biomass to between 250 and 300 degrees Celsius in a low-oxygen environment. This drives out moisture and volatiles from woody feedstocks, straw and other biomass sources before it is turned into a black ‘biocoal’ pellet which has a very high calorific value.

This year, Estonian company Baltania is constructing the first industrial-scale torrefaction plant in the country with the target output of 160,000 tonnes of biocoal pellets per year. If it’s successful, power stations worldwide may be able to get more power from each little pellet.

bio-bean – powered by caffeine

Biofuels don’t just come from forest residues. Every day more than two billion cups of coffee are consumed globally as people get themselves caffeinated for the day ahead. In London alone, this need for daily stimulation results in more than 200,000 tonnes of coffee waste produced every year. More often than not this ends up in landfills.

bio-bean aims to change this by collecting used coffee grounds from cafes, offices and factories and recycling them into biofuels and biochemicals. The company now recycles as much as 50,000 tonnes of coffee grounds annually while one of its products, B20 biodiesel, has been used to power London buses. bio-bean also produces briquettes and pellets, which, like woody biomass, can serve as an alternative to coal.

Biomass gasification – increasing the value of biomass waste

Biogas is often seen as a promising biofuel with fewer emissions than burning fossil fuels or biomass pellets. It’s an area undergoing significant research as it points to another means of creating higher-value products from biomass matter.

The Finnish town of Vaasa is home to the world’s largest gasification plant. The facility is part of a coal plant where co-firing biogas with coal has allowed it to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by as much as 230,000 tonnes per year.

As well as reducing emissions, co-firing allows the power plant to use 25% to 40% less coal and when demand is low in the autumn and spring months, the plant runs entirely on biogas. More than that, the forestry residues which are used to produce the biogas are sourced locally from within 100 km of site.

(As part of our transition away from coal, co-firing biomass with that fossil fuel took place at Drax Power Station from 2003 until full unit conversions became a reality in 2013.)

Lynemouth Power Station – powering the move away from coal

After 44-years, the coal-fired Lynemouth Power Station in Northumberland is the latest UK power producer converting to biomass-fuel. Set for completion this year, the plant will supply 390 MW of low-carbon electricity to the National Grid, enough to power 700,000 homes.

Every new power station conversion poses different challenges as well as the opportunity to develop new solutions, but none are as crucial as the conversion of the materials handling equipment from coal to biomass pellets. While coal can sit in the rain for long periods of time and still be used, biomass must be kept dry with storage conditions constantly monitored and adjusted to prevent sudden combustion.

At Lynemouth the handling of 1.4 million tonnes of biomass annually has required the construction of three, 40-metre high concrete storage silos, as well as extensive conveyor systems to unload and transport biomass around the plant. 

BioTrans – two birds with one stone

Energy and food are both undergoing serious changes to make them more sustainable. Danish startup BioTrans is tackling both challenges by using one of the food industry’s key pain points – wastage – to create energy with its biogas systems.

The company installs systems that collect leftover food from restaurants and canteens and stores it in odour-proof tanks before collecting and turning it into biogas for heating and electricity production. More than just utilising this waste stream, the by-product of the gasification process can also be sold as a fertiliser.

Drax and C-Capture – cutting emissions from the source

Carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) is one of the most important fields in the energy sector today. The technology’s ability to capture CO2 from the electricity generation process and turn it into a revenue source before it can enter the atmosphere means it’s attracting significant investment and research.

Drax is partnering with C-Capture, a company spun out of the University of Leeds’ chemistry department, to trial a new form of CCUS. The pilot scheme will launch in November and aims to capture a tonne of CO2 per day from one of Drax’s biomass units.

C-Capture’s technology could make the process of capturing and storing CO2 less costly and energy intensive. It does this using a specially developed solvent capable of isolating CO2 before being recycled through the system and capturing more.

If the pilot proves successful, the technology could be implemented at an industrial scale, seeing up to 40% of the CO2 in the flue gases from Drax’s biomass units captured and stored. If the technology tested at Drax leads to the construction of a purpose-built carbon capture unit elsewhere, scientists and engineers at C-Capture believe the CO2 captured could exceed 90%.

Back in North Yorkshire, the eventual goal is negative carbon emissions from Drax Power Station – its biomass units already deliver carbon savings of more than 80% compared to when they used coal. And if a new revenue stream can be developed from the sale of the carbon captured then the power produced from biomass at the power station could become even more cost effective.

With thanks to Biomass UK and The European Biomass Association (AEBIOM).

Can we see electricity?

A 14th century carrack quietly sails through the currents of the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night. Its navigation relies on the stars shining above, its power on the wind blowing behind. It’s a far cry from the technologically advanced vessels sailing today’s seas.

It was here, long before civilisation began using and generating electricity, that the ghostly, blue-white glow of electricity acting upon air molecules was often seen as it hovered around ships’ masts.

This phenomenon is known as St. Elmo’s Fire, after Saint Erasmus of Formia – the patron saint of sailors – and occurs following thunderstorms when the electric field still present around an object (such as a lightning rod or a ship’s mast) causes air molecules to break up and become charged, creating what’s known as a plasma.

St. Elmo’s fire on a cockpit window

For sailors in an era long before satellite guidance it was a good omen. What they didn’t realise, however, was it was one of the rare instances when electricity acts in a way that changes it from an unseen force to something we can see, hear and even smell.

The science behind seeing electricity

Normally, we can’t see electricity. It’s like gravity – an invisible force we only recognise when it acts upon other objects. In the instance of electricity, the most common way it affects objects is by charging electrons, and because these are so small, so plentiful and move so quickly once charged, they are all but invisible to the naked human eye.

However, there are instances when conditions enable an electric current to conduct through the air, which can create sound and generate a visible plasma.

“You can see electricity in certain instances because it’s ionising the air,” says Drax Lead Engineer Gary Preece. In the process of ionising, the molecules that make up air become electrically charged, which can create a plasma.

“The electric current is able to bridge the air gap through the ionised air and to earth,” explains Preece. “You need to have that path to earth for it to create a spark.”

It’s a similar process to how a spark plug works or how lightning becomes visible. While there is still scientific debate around how clouds become electrically charged, the flashes seen on the ground are caused by discharges between clouds, or from clouds to the earth, creating a very hot and bright plasma.

The atmospheric conditions of our earth being largely oxygen and nitrogen give lightning a whitish-blue colour, like St. Elmo’s Fire. Altering these conditions so electricity passes through a gas such as neon changes the colour to a red-orangey shade, which is the principle on which neon lights and signs are built. To achieve different colours, different gases such as mercury and helium are used to fill the tube.

Long before we learned how to manipulate electricity to create different coloured signs we were battling with how to create visible, useful electricity. And it began with the use of arcs.

The architecture of electric arcs

Electric arcs occur when an electric current bridges an air gap. While air is an insulator, electricity’s constant attempts to conduct to earth sometimes enable it to find paths through it, ionising the air molecules and creating a visible plasma bridge along the way. The higher the voltage, the greater the distance it can arc between electrodes.

This property of electricity presents dangers such as arc ‘flashes’, which can occur during electrical faults or short circuit conditions and expel huge amounts of energy, sometimes creating temperatures as high as 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit – hotter than the sun’s surface.

When controlled, electrical arcs can be very useful. These bright glowing bridges were used in the first practical electric lights after Humphry Davy began showcasing the technology in the early 19th century.

But the need to replace carbon electrodes frequently, their buzzing sound and the resultant carbon monoxide emissions meant the technology was soon replaced with the incandescent bulb.

Today arcing is used in welding and in more sophisticated plasma cutting, which focuses a concentrated jet of hot plasma and can make highly precise cuts, while arc furnaces are used in industrial conditions such as steel making.

In fact, some thought has even gone into how we could use an incredibly powerful beam of plasma to create a working lightsabre. And although compelling, the theory of creating this super advanced Star Wars technology is far from being a practical possibility.

In the 14th century seeing electricity was a rare and positive omen. Today, seeing electricity has become far more common, yet when it does happen – through plasma spheres, neon lighting or naturally occurring lightning – the effect is the same: human wonder at seeing an awe-inspiring and seldom-seen force.