R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

These Engineers Still Need Jobs

Once again, I am asking for help in placing some of my former engineers who lost jobs in July. As you know, this is a difficult job market across most sectors. Unemployment numbers were released today, and the unemployment rate went over 10% for the first time since 1983.

A number of stories have noted the grim statistics:

College Graduates Face Toughest Job Market in Years

According to a survey from National Association of Colleges and Employers, the class of 2009 is leaving campus with fewer jobs in hand than their 2008 counterparts. The group’s 2009 Student Survey found that just 19.7 percent of 2009 graduates who applied for a job actually have one.

In comparison, 51 percent of those graduating in 2007 and 26 percent of those graduating in 2008 who had applied for a job had one in hand by the time of graduation.

College graduates face a tough road ahead

The unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds has topped 14 percent for the first time in more than 25 years. With the notable engineering exceptions, starting salary offers have fallen by 3.1 percent compared with last year, according to CollegeJobBank.com.

Small wonder about 1 in 4 of this year’s grads plans on graduate school instead of getting a job.

During my career, engineers have always had an easy time finding jobs. And that last story implies that the job market is still OK for engineers. That has not been my observation. As I reported back in July, my previous company had to let go of a number of engineers. In fact, one of my last tasks was to sit down with most of these engineers and tell them that they no longer had jobs. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my career. The fact that all of these engineers were doing a great job for us made it much more difficult. Here it is over 3 months later, and these engineers are still looking for jobs. While a couple of them have significant experience, the problem for the others is that they have less than 3 years of experience. It seems that everyone looking for engineers is looking for more than 5 years of experience.

So in the hopes that someone out there needs some good engineers, I want to highlight them once again and link to their resumes. The last time I did this I asked people to e-mail me for their information, and that caused an unnecessary bottleneck. This time you can click on their resumes and contact them directly. As always, I am happy to get on the phone and talk to you about any of these engineers. They are all top-notch, and someone should be utilizing their skills.

Here is a brief description of each, followed by a link to their resume. (Please be forgiving on any small formatting issues, as there are some formatting changes when these get converted from Word into Google Documents).

1. First year chemical engineer out of Arizona State with a 3.6 GPA. Spent 8 years in the U.S. Army. Gets along very well with everyone, and established himself very quickly as a promising engineer in our Arnhem (Netherlands) plant. Ideally would like to work in chemicals/petrochemical or energy. Resume link.

2. MS in Chemical Engineering from Princeton, with a BChE Summa cum Laude from the University of Delaware. Was excellent in an R&D role for us. Interests are process design and improvement in the chemical, biochemical, pharmaceutical, or energy industries. Willing to relocate within US and Canada. Preferences within the following areas: Mid-Atlantic, New England, Pacific Northwest. Resume link.

3. Chemical engineering graduate from Villanova. Enormous potential, but had barely started with us when the reorganization was announced. The all around best of a very good group of candidates I interviewed from the recent graduating Class of 2009. Some experience in pharmaceutical quality control, product development, process optimization, and coal gasification. Would prefer to stay in the PA, NJ, NY, DC, MD, or VA area, but open to other areas for the right career development opportunities. Resume link.

4. Mechanical engineer by training with a substantial blend of operations management and process improvement experience. Has been successful in roles such as Six Sigma Black Belt, Manufacturing Manager, Plant Manager, and Global Process Improvement Manager. Ideal role would be as Operations Director or Director of Process Improvement. Resume link.

5. Ph.D. chemical engineer with more than 20 years of experience, 32 granted patents, and numerous publications. Former professor at a major U.S. university. Has a combination of industry and academic experience. Resume link.

November 7, 2009 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, employment, Titan Wood | 13 Comments

Looking for Help After a Difficult Week

I am coming to the end of the most difficult week of my career, which is why I haven’t written much for the past few days. I had to sit across the table from some very good people and tell them they no longer had jobs. It wasn’t the first time I had to terminate people, but it was the first time I had to terminate people of this caliber, and for purely economic reasons. It was an experience I hope to never repeat, and I am determined to intervene in order to mitigate the impact on these individuals and their families.

The history here is that the company I have worked for over the past 1.5 years had built up an office in Dallas of about 30 people. The CEO of the company (Accsys PLC) had been based in Dallas, but stepped down at the beginning of this week. The new CEO will be based in London. In the aftermath of the change, a decision was made to restructure and shift certain functions back to Europe, which is where our first commercial plant is located. We lost a number of people, including several engineers who reported to me. These were people that I recruited and hired, and I feel personally responsible for them. As I indicated previously, I am relocating very soon to Hawaii, but before I go I want to help place those who lost jobs.

Given that we are in the midst of the most difficult economic conditions in decades, I thought I would do something unconventional here. I want to reach out to readers in the off chance that you currently know of an organization looking to employ someone with the skills of some of the people we lost this week. Of the following six, I personally interviewed four of them, and I can promise you my interviews are generally brutal. As a result, few of the people that I interview are offered a job. But because my screening process is so tough, I rarely make a hiring decision that I later regret. (Of course overly-restrictive standards also result in missing out on lots of good candidates). So all of the candidates below have my unqualified recommendation.

The following group includes 3 chemical engineers (representing Arizona State, Princeton, and Villanova), a mechanical engineer (Virginia Tech) who is a Six Sigma/lean manufacturing expert, a logistics expert with over 20 years of experience, and a business manager who excels at building and managing teams. All have international experience.

Here is a slightly more detailed synopsis, in no particular order:

1. First year chemical engineer out of Arizona State with a 3.6 GPA. Spent 8 years in the U.S. Army. Gets along very well with everyone, and established himself very quickly as a promising engineer in our Arnhem (Netherlands) plant. Ideally would like to work in process design or process engineering.

2. MS in Chemical Engineering from Princeton, with a BChE Summa cum Laude from the University of Delaware. Has been excellent in an R&D role for us. Interests are process design and improvement in the chemical, biochemical, pharmaceutical, or energy industries. Willing to relocate within US and Canada. Preferences within the following areas: Mid-Atlantic, New England, Pacific Northwest.

3. Chemical engineering graduate from Villanova. Enormous potential, but had barely started with us when the reorganization was announced. The all around best of a very good group of candidates I interviewed from the recent graduating Class of 2009.

4. Mechanical engineer by training; almost 20 years of experience with lots of management experience. Six Sigma/LEAN manufacturing specialist. Very good at building consensus, and superb at setting up and executing projects. Served as my stand-in when I was out of the office.

5. A natural salesman with an extremely smooth demeanor. BBA with almost 20 years of experience. Was responsible for commercialization efforts of one of our new product lines. Skilled at building, developing, and managing teams. Prefers to remain in the Dallas metroplex, but open to other opportunities.

6. Logistics expert with more than 20 years of experience. Experience in China, South Africa, and the Netherlands. American citizen but speaks some Dutch and German.

If you are interested in talking to any of these people, send me an email (my address) and let me know. I can send you any or all of their resumes. Just say “Send me #4 and #6”, for instance. If you want to speak with me personally about any of them, let me know and I will call you. I will update this as needed, and perhaps bump it back up in the future.

Thank you.

July 24, 2009 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, employment, Titan Wood | 7 Comments

“Your Passion is Energy”

Saying Goodbye Again

Today is Independence Day in the U.S., but I am spending it in the Netherlands without my family. This has become an all-too-familiar situation for me. I have spent far too many birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays in remote locations away from my family. The time has come to rectify that situation.

Most of my career has revolved around energy. But about a year and a half ago, I decided to try something slightly different. I left my job with ConocoPhillips in Aberdeen, Scotland (and I explained the details behind the decision here), said goodbye to friends and colleagues there, and boarded a plane to the Netherlands. This is where I have spent about half my time since then.

But that chapter is coming to a close. On Monday I will leave Amsterdam for the flight back to Texas. I have made this trip around 20 times in the past 18 months, but I am making the trip for the last time in my current role as Engineering Director for Accsys Technologies. This trip was my farewell tour, and I said my goodbyes to a fine engineering team.

The past year and a half has been both interesting and challenging. We are a small company, so I found myself doing more cross-functional work than at any other time in my career (e.g., writing HR policies). We were staffing up, so I also interviewed numerous people for all sorts of positions. Because our company was the first (and still only) to commercialize our technology, we encountered some unique engineering challenges.

As I look back, I am proud of what my engineering team has accomplished. They have vastly improved our process in the past two years, and we climbed a steep learning curve. We managed to increase the throughput of our plant in Arnhem by a third, while at the same time cutting our energy inputs. With all sincerity, our successes came about because I have a clever and dedicated team of engineers.

And while I believe strongly in the product that we have developed, my job involves about 50% travel. I have engineering teams based in Dallas and in the Netherlands, and I have to try to keep a presence in both locations. I knew that I could keep that up for a while, but not forever. If I continue with this schedule, I will grow old forever haunted by the lyrics to Cat’s in the Cradle.

I have been fortunate over the years to have had a number of different job opportunities present themselves. In the past six months I began to more seriously listen to inquiries. I decided if the right one came along – and it enabled me to spend more time with my family – then I would make a change. The right opportunity has come along.

Future Plans

If I had to describe my ideal job, it would be to bring sustainable energy technologies to the world. I would do a lot of technology evaluation, visiting with universities, small companies, inventors, and entrepreneurs. The goal would be to identify the renewable technologies that I feel can compete in the long-term, and then work to facilitate that future.

One of the most brilliant engineers I have ever met (who will also be a future colleague), recently introduced me to a very successful businessman who has been in the energy business for decades. Because he greatly values his privacy, I will not divulge his name nor the companies he has been involved with. Suffice to say that his vision is long-term, he is realistic, and he has a long track record of successfully building companies. When I met with him, I discussed my current job, and then we started talking about our views on the future of energy. He made a comment that I often hear when I am discussing energy: “Your passion is energy. You should follow your passion.”

After much discussion, which included meetings in Houston, Hawaii, and Hamburg – it was clear that my goals and views were very much aligned with his. We saw a similar future, but were both quite realistic about the challenges of realizing that future. The primary objective for both of us wasn’t to create wealth, but instead to see our current unsustainable way of life nudged toward something more sustainable. We are both concerned that we are leaving a mess for our children to clean up, and we believe we can build something better for them.

I have therefore decided to join forces with him, and will leave my current job on August 1st. I will continue to assist Accsys/Titan Wood with their technology on an as-needed basis, but my primary energies will be focused around the conversion of biomass into value-added products. The specific end product will depend upon the particulars of a situation. I firmly believe that biomass can work, sustainably, in specific niches. As fossil fuel prices rise, the niches will grow as long as the biomass technologies are not heavily dependent upon fossil fuel inputs. We plan to establish ourselves in some of those niches.

I have written in this blog about some of the technologies and companies that we will be involved with. (In fact, it is a long story, but one of my articles was what led to the initial contact, which occurred almost 3 years ago). Other technologies, which I have felt had great potential, I haven’t written about. I am still not yet going to write about them, as we are busy establishing ourselves in various areas and establishing dialogue with different companies. But as one of my new colleagues likes to say “We are technology agnostic.” That simply means that we are open to different technologies and won’t base our business around a single technology.

I will relocate to Hawaii with my family. I estimate that my travel will drop from the current 50% to around 10%, meaning I will get to spend much more time with my family. Based on our plans, when I do travel, I expect my travels will take me to Germany, which is familiar territory, but also to some areas I have not seen, like Southeast Asia.

Why Hawaii? Hawaii offers a unique laboratory for renewable energy. Hawaii has very good renewable resources (sun, wind, geothermal, ocean thermal, biomass, etc.), and no fossil fuel resources. Hawaii should have a small bias toward renewable energy relative to the rest of the U.S., since all fossil fuels must be shipped in for power and transport. And because of the year-round growing season, I can do a lot more experimentation there both with gardening (which I love to do) and with energy crops.

I won’t go into specific details right now about our efforts. We aren’t ready for that yet. Some parts of the business are already far along, and others are just starting. But we won’t be messing around with pie-in-the-sky technologies. That will be one of my key roles: To make sure we are focused where we need to be focused and not wasting our time working toward dead ends.

July 4, 2009 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, biomass, Hawaii, Netherlands, Titan Wood | 54 Comments

Accoya, Ethanol, and an Anniversary

Coming up I have a book review ready to go for Green Algae Strategy: End Oil Imports And Engineer Sustainable Food And Fuel. However, I will wait another day or so to put that out there. For now, I will just share a couple of interesting links that readers sent to me. On the topic of my current job, a reader just noted that TreeHugger has an article (and pictures) on the bridge in the Netherlands that I have mentioned a couple of times:

Wood Bridge In Netherlands As Strong as Steel and a Lot Prettier

Have I mentioned that I love wood as a building material? If sustainably harvested it provides a strong, beautiful material that can last for centuries and sequester CO2 the whole time. People have built bridges from it forever, but in such exposed circumstances they don’t last forever.

But now there are better wood preservation techniques, and Kris De Decker of No Tech Magazine points us to a lovely new bridge in the Netherlands, purported to be the first wooden bridge in the world that can support the heaviest load class of 60 tons.

It is made from Accoya Wood, where source-certified sustainable species, including FSC certified wood, is treated by acetylation. The supplier, Titan Wood, writes:

Acetylation effectively changes the free hydroxyls within the wood into acetyl groups. This is done by reacting the wood with acetic anhydride, which comes from acetic acid (known as vinegar when in its dilute form). When the free hydroxyl group is transformed to an acetyl group, the ability of the wood to adsorb water is greatly reduced, rendering the wood more dimensionally stable and, because it is no longer digestible, extremely durable.

Second link, also brought to my attention from a reader, has the Wall Street Journal with their latest missive on ethanol:

Ethanol’s Grocery Bill

Both CBO and EPA find that in theory cellulosic ethanol — from wood chips, grasses and biowaste — would reduce carbon emissions. However, as CBO emphasizes, “current technologies for producing cellulosic ethanol are not commercially viable.” The ethanol lobby is attempting a giant bait-and-switch: Keep claiming that cellulosic ethanol is just around the corner, even as it knows the only current technology to meet federal mandates is corn ethanol (or sugar, if it didn’t face an import tariff).

As public policy, ethanol is like the joke about the baseball prospect who is a poor hitter but a bad fielder. It doesn’t reduce CO2 but it does cost more. Imagine how many subsidies the Beltway would throw at ethanol if the fuel actually had any benefits.

I close with a digression before returning tomorrow with regularly scheduled programming. Today, June 3rd, is my 20th wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, I am spending it in the Netherlands while my wife is in Texas. I don’t say this to generate sympathy, but rather to set the stage for some changes that I will be announcing soon. The nature of my job – having teams in both Texas and the Netherlands – means that I am away from home a lot. I knew I could do that for a while, but I have now been doing it for a year and a half. I always knew it wasn’t sustainable in the long run for me personally, and I am experiencing the limits of my sustainability. Interpret that as you will, but all will be made clear shortly.

Happy Anniversary Sandy. Wish I was home today.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, ethanol subsidies, Titan Wood | 42 Comments

Setting the Stage for 2009

I wanted to just have one housekeeping post here at the beginning of the year covering a wide range of topics: From posting etiquette to themes to my internal debate over whether to proceed with a book. So here goes.

First, some reminders about posting etiquette here. While I encourage debate and disagreement, I discourage gratuitous insults and profanity. There are elementary schools that have used some of these essays for current events classes. I don’t want them exposed to the worst of what I have seen here on occasion. So if you keep that in mind, I don’t think we will have any problems. You are free to disagree – even vehemently – and you are free to criticize to your heart’s content. But please keep it civil. Repeated or severe profanity, personal attacks, and blatant advertising are about the only things that will get a comment deleted.

Also, I have started enabling moderation on posts that are over 2 weeks old. What that means is that when you comment on an older post, it won’t show up until I release it. The reason for this is that the older posts attract a lot of spam. Legitimate posts will be released from moderation as quickly as I can get to it.

Second, some themes for the year. One thing I have a lot of trouble with is saying no. I am writing off and on for several other sites, and it spreads me pretty thin. Sometimes I throw up a post here in haste just to provide an anchor for conversation. This year I am dialing those outside writing projects back. I won’t take on any new ones. If the Wall Street Journal calls, I will keep an open mind. 🙂 But I am going to limit my outside writing this year.

Whether I will scale back my posting frequency is another story. I never set out to write 5 posts in 7 days, it just happens. Other times I may write 1 post in 10 days. It all depends on how much extra time I have at that particular moment. I like to rise early and write, which is what I am doing now. It is 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and I am the only one up. I like to write in those instances. I also like to write in the evenings when I am in Europe, and right now it looks like I will continue to make my monthly trips over. The next one is scheduled for this Monday.

I do encourage guest posts on any energy/environmental topic. Over the past couple of years, I have had some really good ones (and admittedly, a few not so good ones). But I am happy to post your viewpoint. Even if it is contrary to the views of most other posters, this blog is for debating energy issues. So I am happy to post contrary views.

Lots of people have written to ask about the status of the book I was approached about writing. I got lots of good feedback from readers on the sort of material that either hasn’t been covered, or hasn’t been covered well. I think the type of book that I would write is sort of a layman’s guide to energy. What are the pros and cons of crude oil? Ethanol? Why is energy so important? That last one seems to obvious, but I think the public is very ignorant about the topic. So I would write aimed at the general public, in as objective a fashion as I could.

BUT, I have decided not to do the project right now for a couple of reasons. First, since I was approached about the book, my organization at work has grown by an additional 20%. I now have seventeen people reporting in to the engineering group, and it takes a lot of time to properly manage that many people. If I attempted to write a book right now, either my job would suffer, my time with my family would suffer, my blog would go on hiatus – or all three would happen. So I have decided to keep the idea in the back of my mind, perhaps organizing some of my essays into chapters over time. But I am going to set this project aside for now. As my CEO recently said to me – “You can write a book when you are 50!”

The other thing is that I am already committed to write another book chapter this year. Professor Emeritus Roger Rowell from the University of Wisconsin has had a book idea accepted for publication, and he has asked me to write the chapter on biofuels and bioenergy from wood. Professor Rowell is an expert on wood chemistry, and has written several books previously. (See here for his book list). This is what my (very) rough draft looks like at this point. I will probably ask for reader input at some point in filling in the gaps.

CHAPTER 4 – BIOENERGY/BIOFUELS

    1. Burning Biomass for energy
      1. Biomass for steam and electricity
      2. Biomass for cooking and heating
    2. Alcohols
      1. Methanol
      2. Ethanol
      3. Higher alcohols and mixed alcohols
    3. Renewable diesel
    4. Miscellaneous
      1. Bio-oil
      2. Syngas

Finally, I want to say a heartfelt “Thank you” for those of you who comment here. Without you, I probably wouldn’t have the motivation to continue writing. People often tell me that they learn a lot here. Well, I have also learned a lot from people’s comments. This was in fact a big part of why I wanted to start the blog. I felt like I had something to offer, but also felt like this could help fill in some gaps in my energy/environmental knowledge. I have been correct on that, and thanks to various readers I know more about specific categories of energy than I did a couple of years ago.

January 11, 2009 Posted by | 2009, Accsys Technologies, posting etiquette, Titan Wood | 28 Comments

Carbon Sequestration in Practice


First of its Kind: Sequestered Carbon in Sneek, the Netherlands

Back in March, I left my job with ConocoPhillips to become the Engineering Director for London-based Accsys Technologies, PLC (but my work is focused within the wholly-owned Titan Wood subsidiaries). I explained the circumstances behind my decision to switch employers here. I stated at that time that I would continue to focus my writing on energy and the environment, and not use my platform to start promoting my new company – even though it is focused on environmental technologies. I think it’s fair to say that I have kept to my word. However, I did say that at some point I would write a more extensive article on exactly what it is that my new company is doing. This is that article, with ties into energy, the environment, sustainability, and carbon capture.

A Brief Chemical Tutorial

In a nutshell, Titan Wood chemically modifies fast growing softwood species like (but not limited to) Radiata pine in a way that results in their performance characteristics being superior to some of the best tropical hardwoods such as teak. It is important to note that the modification we make is at the molecular level; we do not impregnate the wood with chemical preservatives that can leach out into the environment. Wood treatment processes like Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) fall into this latter category. Further, disposal of treated wood can be a nightmare, as many treatment processes result in the wood being classified as hazardous waste.

Following is a brief explanation of the science behind our process, in mostly layman’s terms. Wood is a very complex material, composed of many complex organic polymers (very long-chain carbon compounds). There are also numerous hydroxyl groups (OH) within wood. Think of a hydroxyl as 2/3rds of a water molecule (HOH, or H2O). Hydroxyl groups are very prone to attracting and releasing water, which is the primary mechanism by which wood shrinks and swells (and this of course makes paint crack and peel). Wood also naturally contains acetyl groups. An acetyl group is essentially an attached acetic acid molecule. Most of you are familiar with acetic acid, because you sometimes put it on your salad in the form of vinegar.


The Chemistry behind Accoya® wood

What we do in our process is remove a large fraction of those hydroxyl groups and replace them with acetyl groups. We call this wood ‘Accoya® wood’, and the properties are remarkably different than the unmodified wood we started out with. Dimensional stability, durability, and UV light resistance are all dramatically improved. Because Accoya absorbs less moisture, thermal insulating properties are also better. Further, Accoya is resistant to attack by termites, microbes, and fungi. Accoya is virtually rot-proof, and yet non-toxic.

Consider the implications. Instead of deforesting tropical rainforests for the highest quality hardwoods, we can essentially make them from trees that grow in northern climates. Wood that is grown via sustainable forestry practices and modified with our acetylation process provides a far more sustainable model for producing high-performance lumber. If the wood is both grown and used locally, so much the better.

How Accoya Sequesters Carbon

That alone is a pretty good story, but there’s more. As we all know, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The recently released World Energy Outlook from the IEA forecast that carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion would rise from 11.7 billion metric tons in 2006 to 18.6 billion metric tons in 2030. The IEA further predicted that carbon sequestration applications will have limited potential to influence carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

If we are to slow or halt our carbon dioxide emissions, we need a combination of lower reliance on fossil fuels, coupled with commercially viable carbon sequestration, or carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. But the problem with carbon sequestration technologies is that either 1). People can’t figure out how to make money with them, so they aren’t commercialized; or 2). The carbon sequestration is fleeting.

For example, carbon dioxide can certainly be captured from the stacks of coal-fired power plants. A number of technologies will suffice, but they will all add to the cost of electricity. Estimates are that carbon capture would add 25% to the cost of producing electricity from coal. Unless large numbers of consumers are willing to pay this cost – or unless governments mandate it (and therefore mandate that consumers will pay the additional costs), adoption of these sorts of CCS technologies will face strong headwinds.

What about the use of CO2 in enhanced crude oil recovery operations? There are some applications for this, but they are limited. You must still capture and compress the CO2, and then you have to get it to the oil field. Further, that CO2 is being used to produce more oil, which will subsequently produce more CO2. A similar situation applies to the schemes for using algae to capture carbon dioxide from power plants, and then turning that algae into biodiesel. While one could certainly argue that additional energy was produced for each CO2 molecule that was emitted (presuming the energy return is >1.0), at the end of the cycle the CO2 originating from the coal still ends up in the atmosphere.

However, I believe Titan Wood has a truly commercial carbon sequestration application. To my knowledge it is the best (only?) commercial solution in existence. Here is why I believe that.

You know that when a tree grows, it extracts carbon dioxide from the air, converts it via photosynthesis into various biopolymers, and stores the carbon as wood, leaves, etc. Left alone, a tree will uptake carbon dioxide as it grows, but it will eventually die and decompose, returning the carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. If you could instead take the tree and just bury it deep within the earth, the carbon would be sequestered. This is in fact similar to how all of the carbon in oil, coal, and gas got sequestered in the first place. Ancient plants and animals died and were buried, and the heat and pressure of the earth turned them into fossil fuels.

Of course one can’t make money by growing trees and burying them. So, what else can you do? You could build with wood, and that also sequesters carbon during the lifetime of the application. Because Accoya is modified to resist rot, the carbon can be sequestered for much longer. That’s appealing, but it isn’t the most compelling argument. In fact, you could make that same argument about wood that is treated with toxic treatments – it can sequester carbon for a long period of time (with the obvious negative of the chemicals leeching into the environment).

No, the really compelling aspect about Accoya is that the improved characteristics make it a viable replacement for metals, plastics, and even concrete in certain applications. You can take a very fast growing tree like pine, and modify it so that it can not only replace tropical hardwoods, but it can in some instances replace the steel in a bridge. That’s where the carbon sequestration potential comes into play.

Imagine that instead of making window frames out of plastic (which comes from a fossil fuel) or aluminum (which requires a lot of electricity to produce), you made them out of Accoya. Not only have you avoided carbon emissions, but you have sequestered carbon in a long-lasting application.

Imagine that instead of constructing a bridge out of steel and concrete (both very fossil-fuel intensive), you made it out of Accoya. Again, you have avoided carbon emissions, and you have sequestered carbon. Note that neither of these scenarios is hypothetical. Accoya is currently being used in window frames, and a pair of heavy-traffic bridges is under construction right now in Sneek, the Netherlands. Kudos to the Dutch government for their foresight. The first bridge has been completed and is shown in the opening picture. (See this article for more information). Bear in mind that this bridge is certified to support 60 tons, making it the only wooden bridge in the world certified to support such a heavy load. That makes it the first of its kind.

(As an aside, in 1988 the U.S. Congress passed the Timber Bridge Initiative, to promote the use of timber in bridges. This initiative currently resides at the Forest Products Lab of the U.S. Forestry Service, but we have not yet been in contact with them regarding the possibility of building Accoya bridges in the U.S.)

What is the potential for carbon sequestration? I have done some calculations on that, shown below.

Carbon Sequestration Potential of Accoya

Per this reference:

According to analysis by JATO Dynamics, CO2 emissions in the top five markets dropped by 0.3 g/km in through the first seven months of 2007 compared to the same time last year. A volume-weighted average of new cars sold in the period yielded an average of 160.5 g/km for the fleet.

That means that the average European car emits (160.5/44 g CO2/mol) = 3.65 moles CO2 per km traveled.

The density of Radiata pine is roughly 500 kg/m3. According to University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus Roger Rowell (and from other sources I have checked), carbon represents about 50% of that, or 250 kg/m3. In chemistry speak, that is (250,000 g/12 g mol) = 20,833 moles of carbon per m3 of wood, which is equal to the number of moles of carbon dioxide that were removed from the atmosphere.

Our Arnhem plant has a nameplate capacity of 30,000 m3/year of finished wood (and the next plant will be much larger). Then the carbon sequestration potential from the Arnhem plant is 20,833* 30,000 = 625 million moles of carbon per year.

Put in terms of the average European car, that means that the output of our relatively small Arnhem plant could sequester the carbon emissions of 625 million moles/(3.65 moles per km) = 171 million km of driving. The average European drives around 11,000 km/yr according to this chart. This translates to sequestration of the carbon emissions of 171 million/11,000 = 15,545 cars per year.

I am not aware of any other technology that can make this claim.

Conclusion

I believe we have a good story in Accoya. I barely scratched the surface of the advantages, which extend to painted surfaces lasting much longer (more avoided emissions, and less fossil fuels for paint manufacture). Our plans at present are to continue to manufacture Accoya in the Netherlands, and to license the technology. The second Accoya plant is being built by our licensee, Diamond Wood, in China. The third plant will be built by our licensee Al Rajhi in the Middle East. Serious discussions are taking places with other prospective licensees around the world, including several in North America.

The nameplate capacity of our first plant in Arnhem, the Netherlands, is 30,000 m3 of wood/year. This output can potentially sequester the carbon emissions of over 15,000 cars per year in Europe. The total offset is equivalent to an annual distance driven of 171 million km. Note that this presumes that we have used Accoya in an application that normally uses metal/plastics/concrete, etc. It does not take into consideration the fact that our life-cycle-assessment (LCA) shows that the energy inputs into producing concrete, steel, etc. are also higher than for producing Accoya – nor that we are avoiding the harvesting of tropical hardwoods. In other words, I believe this should be a conservative estimate.

While I have given you the technical spiel, I am not the guy to answer questions about licensing, sales, etc. If you want some information along those lines, please contact Starla Middlebrooks (here’s Starla’s e-mail address) at our Dallas offices.

Questions and (My) Answers to Various Inquiries

People have asked me lots of interesting questions around the company and the product. One sort of funny story related to this is that at this year’s ASPO conference in Sacramento, I escaped the talks a bit early to have a quick bite, as I was on an evening panel session. A few minutes later, Bob Hirsch walked in and asked if he could join me. I was delighted, and thought I would get to quiz him about The Hirsch Report. Instead, he spent the next half hour asking me all sorts of questions about Accoya. We were joined by Kjell Aleklett, and he also wanted to talk about wood. After we finished talking, I reflected on how funny it was to have the three of us sitting there, all passionate about oil depletion and energy in general, and all we talked about was wood.

Anyway, here are a few of the sorts of questions that seem to come up most frequently.

Q. Doesn’t the process itself use a lot of energy? A lot more than say, planting a tree and waiting a few years.

A. No. When you grow a tree, like a fast-growing softwood, what happens? It either grows to maturity, eventually dies, and releases its carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. Or, it is cut down and used in an application that results in it releasing its carbon back to the atmosphere in much less than 100 years.

What happens with Accoya is that you can make a harvest every 20 years and put it into a long-term application. When you put it into an application that is typically aluminum or steel, you have a dual-win: It takes less energy to make Accoya, and you have sequestered carbon where you would have placed steel.

Of course you also have a big benefit by using it for applications typically reserved for tropical timber in that you displace tropical timber with softwoods.

Q. Can Accoya eventually be cost-competitive with other treated woods?

A. That depends on what you mean by cost-competitive. Is it as cheap as arsenic-treated wood? No, but arsenic-treated wood is toxic and disposal is problematic. Likewise, there are similar issues with other cheap wood treatments like pentachlorophenol, creosote, borate, etc. Accoya is no more toxic than regular wood. There is no toxic residue from the treatment.

Q. Seems ironic. Other treated wood is less likely to be burned at the end of its structural life, so the toxic wood is actually more likely to sequester carbon for more than 100 years than is the Accoya, even if the toxic wood is otherwise worse for the environment.

A. No, as that misses two key points. You touched on one in your last sentence. The reason toxic wood eventually fails is because it has leached its components out into the environment. So it continues to decompose at the landfill, albeit at a slower rate than normal wood.

But the key point is this: The acetylation treatment not only makes the wood resistance to biological attack (as do toxic treatments), but it also imparts other beneficial characteristics to the wood, which is the real bonus.

Toxic treated wood doesn’t become more dimensionally stable. A toxic-treated pine is still a softwood. An acetylated pine becomes comparable to a tropical hardwood. The durability and dimensional stability of Accoya exceeds that of teak. See here and here. Now you can go build bridges out of it, something you can’t do with the toxic treated woods. Thus, the acetylation opens up new applications, so there is much greater carbon sequestration potential.

Q. OK, I give. What’s the catch?

A. The ‘catch’ is pretty straightforward. Accoya is obviously more expensive than untreated softwood. And unless customers understand the whole story, they may opt for a cheaper, but inferior option. My job as Engineering Director is to make sure we are running our process in the most efficient manner, and therefore keeping our costs at a minimum.

The other catch is that the market for building materials is presently pretty poor, as a result of the overall economic crisis. So we are swimming upstream against that current.

Q. So are you saying that this is the solution to rising carbon dioxide emissions?

A. It can be a tool in the arsenal. It may be the only tool in the arsenal at present. (If you believe there to be other practical carbon sequestration applications, please let me know and I will amend this). To make a bigger dent in carbon emissions, we would need to start replacing more metals and plastics with Accoya (wooden refrigerators, anyone?).

You can find answers to lots of other questions in our FAQ. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming (even though I think the subject matter here is topical).

Note: As always, if you spot any errors, please call them to my attention.

December 14, 2008 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, sustainability, Titan Wood | 37 Comments

Carbon Sequestration in Practice


First of its Kind: Sequestered Carbon in Sneek, the Netherlands

Back in March, I left my job with ConocoPhillips to become the Engineering Director for London-based Accsys Technologies, PLC (but my work is focused within the wholly-owned Titan Wood subsidiaries). I explained the circumstances behind my decision to switch employers here. I stated at that time that I would continue to focus my writing on energy and the environment, and not use my platform to start promoting my new company – even though it is focused on environmental technologies. I think it’s fair to say that I have kept to my word. However, I did say that at some point I would write a more extensive article on exactly what it is that my new company is doing. This is that article, with ties into energy, the environment, sustainability, and carbon capture.

A Brief Chemical Tutorial

In a nutshell, Titan Wood chemically modifies fast growing softwood species like (but not limited to) Radiata pine in a way that results in their performance characteristics being superior to some of the best tropical hardwoods such as teak. It is important to note that the modification we make is at the molecular level; we do not impregnate the wood with chemical preservatives that can leach out into the environment. Wood treatment processes like Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) fall into this latter category. Further, disposal of treated wood can be a nightmare, as many treatment processes result in the wood being classified as hazardous waste.

Following is a brief explanation of the science behind our process, in mostly layman’s terms. Wood is a very complex material, composed of many complex organic polymers (very long-chain carbon compounds). There are also numerous hydroxyl groups (OH) within wood. Think of a hydroxyl as 2/3rds of a water molecule (HOH, or H2O). Hydroxyl groups are very prone to attracting and releasing water, which is the primary mechanism by which wood shrinks and swells (and this of course makes paint crack and peel). Wood also naturally contains acetyl groups. An acetyl group is essentially an attached acetic acid molecule. Most of you are familiar with acetic acid, because you sometimes put it on your salad in the form of vinegar.


The Chemistry behind Accoya® wood

What we do in our process is remove a large fraction of those hydroxyl groups and replace them with acetyl groups. We call this wood ‘Accoya® wood’, and the properties are remarkably different than the unmodified wood we started out with. Dimensional stability, durability, and UV light resistance are all dramatically improved. Because Accoya absorbs less moisture, thermal insulating properties are also better. Further, Accoya is resistant to attack by termites, microbes, and fungi. Accoya is virtually rot-proof, and yet non-toxic.

Consider the implications. Instead of deforesting tropical rainforests for the highest quality hardwoods, we can essentially make them from trees that grow in northern climates. Wood that is grown via sustainable forestry practices and modified with our acetylation process provides a far more sustainable model for producing high-performance lumber. If the wood is both grown and used locally, so much the better.

How Accoya Sequesters Carbon

That alone is a pretty good story, but there’s more. As we all know, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The recently released World Energy Outlook from the IEA forecast that carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion would rise from 11.7 billion metric tons in 2006 to 18.6 billion metric tons in 2030. The IEA further predicted that carbon sequestration applications will have limited potential to influence carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

If we are to slow or halt our carbon dioxide emissions, we need a combination of lower reliance on fossil fuels, coupled with commercially viable carbon sequestration, or carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. But the problem with carbon sequestration technologies is that either 1). People can’t figure out how to make money with them, so they aren’t commercialized; or 2). The carbon sequestration is fleeting.

For example, carbon dioxide can certainly be captured from the stacks of coal-fired power plants. A number of technologies will suffice, but they will all add to the cost of electricity. Estimates are that carbon capture would add 25% to the cost of producing electricity from coal. Unless large numbers of consumers are willing to pay this cost – or unless governments mandate it (and therefore mandate that consumers will pay the additional costs), adoption of these sorts of CCS technologies will face strong headwinds.

What about the use of CO2 in enhanced crude oil recovery operations? There are some applications for this, but they are limited. You must still capture and compress the CO2, and then you have to get it to the oil field. Further, that CO2 is being used to produce more oil, which will subsequently produce more CO2. A similar situation applies to the schemes for using algae to capture carbon dioxide from power plants, and then turning that algae into biodiesel. While one could certainly argue that additional energy was produced for each CO2 molecule that was emitted (presuming the energy return is >1.0), at the end of the cycle the CO2 originating from the coal still ends up in the atmosphere.

However, I believe Titan Wood has a truly commercial carbon sequestration application. To my knowledge it is the best (only?) commercial solution in existence. Here is why I believe that.

You know that when a tree grows, it extracts carbon dioxide from the air, converts it via photosynthesis into various biopolymers, and stores the carbon as wood, leaves, etc. Left alone, a tree will uptake carbon dioxide as it grows, but it will eventually die and decompose, returning the carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. If you could instead take the tree and just bury it deep within the earth, the carbon would be sequestered. This is in fact similar to how all of the carbon in oil, coal, and gas got sequestered in the first place. Ancient plants and animals died and were buried, and the heat and pressure of the earth turned them into fossil fuels.

Of course one can’t make money by growing trees and burying them. So, what else can you do? You could build with wood, and that also sequesters carbon during the lifetime of the application. Because Accoya is modified to resist rot, the carbon can be sequestered for much longer. That’s appealing, but it isn’t the most compelling argument. In fact, you could make that same argument about wood that is treated with toxic treatments – it can sequester carbon for a long period of time (with the obvious negative of the chemicals leeching into the environment).

No, the really compelling aspect about Accoya is that the improved characteristics make it a viable replacement for metals, plastics, and even concrete in certain applications. You can take a very fast growing tree like pine, and modify it so that it can not only replace tropical hardwoods, but it can in some instances replace the steel in a bridge. That’s where the carbon sequestration potential comes into play.

Imagine that instead of making window frames out of plastic (which comes from a fossil fuel) or aluminum (which requires a lot of electricity to produce), you made them out of Accoya. Not only have you avoided carbon emissions, but you have sequestered carbon in a long-lasting application.

Imagine that instead of constructing a bridge out of steel and concrete (both very fossil-fuel intensive), you made it out of Accoya. Again, you have avoided carbon emissions, and you have sequestered carbon. Note that neither of these scenarios is hypothetical. Accoya is currently being used in window frames, and a pair of heavy-traffic bridges is under construction right now in Sneek, the Netherlands. Kudos to the Dutch government for their foresight. The first bridge has been completed and is shown in the opening picture. (See this article for more information). Bear in mind that this bridge is certified to support 60 tons, making it the only wooden bridge in the world certified to support such a heavy load. That makes it the first of its kind.

(As an aside, in 1988 the U.S. Congress passed the Timber Bridge Initiative, to promote the use of timber in bridges. This initiative currently resides at the Forest Products Lab of the U.S. Forestry Service, but we have not yet been in contact with them regarding the possibility of building Accoya bridges in the U.S.)

What is the potential for carbon sequestration? I have done some calculations on that, shown below.

Carbon Sequestration Potential of Accoya

Per this reference:

According to analysis by JATO Dynamics, CO2 emissions in the top five markets dropped by 0.3 g/km in through the first seven months of 2007 compared to the same time last year. A volume-weighted average of new cars sold in the period yielded an average of 160.5 g/km for the fleet.

That means that the average European car emits (160.5/44 g CO2/mol) = 3.65 moles CO2 per km traveled.

The density of Radiata pine is roughly 500 kg/m3. According to University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus Roger Rowell (and from other sources I have checked), carbon represents about 50% of that, or 250 kg/m3. In chemistry speak, that is (250,000 g/12 g mol) = 20,833 moles of carbon per m3 of wood, which is equal to the number of moles of carbon dioxide that were removed from the atmosphere.

Our Arnhem plant has a nameplate capacity of 30,000 m3/year of finished wood (and the next plant will be much larger). Then the carbon sequestration potential from the Arnhem plant is 20,833* 30,000 = 625 million moles of carbon per year.

Put in terms of the average European car, that means that the output of our relatively small Arnhem plant could sequester the carbon emissions of 625 million moles/(3.65 moles per km) = 171 million km of driving. The average European drives around 11,000 km/yr according to this chart. This translates to sequestration of the carbon emissions of 171 million/11,000 = 15,545 cars per year.

I am not aware of any other technology that can make this claim.

Conclusion

I believe we have a good story in Accoya. I barely scratched the surface of the advantages, which extend to painted surfaces lasting much longer (more avoided emissions, and less fossil fuels for paint manufacture). Our plans at present are to continue to manufacture Accoya in the Netherlands, and to license the technology. The second Accoya plant is being built by our licensee, Diamond Wood, in China. The third plant will be built by our licensee Al Rajhi in the Middle East. Serious discussions are taking places with other prospective licensees around the world, including several in North America.

The nameplate capacity of our first plant in Arnhem, the Netherlands, is 30,000 m3 of wood/year. This output can potentially sequester the carbon emissions of over 15,000 cars per year in Europe. The total offset is equivalent to an annual distance driven of 171 million km. Note that this presumes that we have used Accoya in an application that normally uses metal/plastics/concrete, etc. It does not take into consideration the fact that our life-cycle-assessment (LCA) shows that the energy inputs into producing concrete, steel, etc. are also higher than for producing Accoya – nor that we are avoiding the harvesting of tropical hardwoods. In other words, I believe this should be a conservative estimate.

While I have given you the technical spiel, I am not the guy to answer questions about licensing, sales, etc. If you want some information along those lines, please contact Starla Middlebrooks (Starla ‘dot’ Middlebrooks ‘at’ titanwood ‘dot’ com) at our Dallas offices.

Questions and (My) Answers to Various Inquiries

People have asked me lots of interesting questions around the company and the product. One sort of funny story related to this is that at this year’s ASPO conference in Sacramento, I escaped the talks a bit early to have a quick bite, as I was on an evening panel session. A few minutes later, Bob Hirsch walked in and asked if he could join me. I was delighted, and thought I would get to quiz him about The Hirsch Report. Instead, he spent the next half hour asking me all sorts of questions about Accoya. We were joined by Kjell Aleklett, and he also wanted to talk about wood. After we finished talking, I reflected on how funny it was to have the three of us sitting there, all passionate about oil depletion and energy in general, and all we talked about was wood.

Anyway, here are a few of the sorts of questions that seem to come up most frequently.

Q. Doesn’t the process itself use a lot of energy? A lot more than say, planting a tree and waiting a few years.

A. No. When you grow a tree, like a fast-growing softwood, what happens? It either grows to maturity, eventually dies, and releases its carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. Or, it is cut down and used in an application that results in it releasing its carbon back to the atmosphere in much less than 100 years.

What happens with Accoya is that you can make a harvest every 20 years and put it into a long-term application. When you put it into an application that is typically aluminum or steel, you have a dual-win: It takes less energy to make Accoya, and you have sequestered carbon where you would have placed steel.

Of course you also have a big benefit by using it for applications typically reserved for tropical timber in that you displace tropical timber with softwoods.

Q. Can Accoya eventually be cost-competitive with other treated woods?

A. That depends on what you mean by cost-competitive. Is it as cheap as arsenic-treated wood? No, but arsenic-treated wood is toxic and disposal is problematic. Likewise, there are similar issues with other cheap wood treatments like pentachlorophenol, creosote, borate, etc. Accoya is no more toxic than regular wood. There is no toxic residue from the treatment.

Q. Seems ironic. Other treated wood is less likely to be burned at the end of its structural life, so the toxic wood is actually more likely to sequester carbon for more than 100 years than is the Accoya, even if the toxic wood is otherwise worse for the environment.

A. No, as that misses two key points. You touched on one in your last sentence. The reason toxic wood eventually fails is because it has leached its components out into the environment. So it continues to decompose at the landfill, albeit at a slower rate than normal wood.

But the key point is this: The acetylation treatment not only makes the wood resistance to biological attack (as do toxic treatments), but it also imparts other beneficial characteristics to the wood, which is the real bonus.

Toxic treated wood doesn’t become more dimensionally stable. A toxic-treated pine is still a softwood. An acetylated pine becomes comparable to a tropical hardwood. The durability and dimensional stability of Accoya exceeds that of teak. See here and here. Now you can go build bridges out of it, something you can’t do with the toxic treated woods. Thus, the acetylation opens up new applications, so there is much greater carbon sequestration potential.

Q. OK, I give. What’s the catch?

A. The ‘catch’ is pretty straightforward. Accoya is obviously more expensive than untreated softwood. And unless customers understand the whole story, they may opt for a cheaper, but inferior option. My job as Engineering Director is to make sure we are running our process in the most efficient manner, and therefore keeping our costs at a minimum.

The other catch is that the market for building materials is presently pretty poor, as a result of the overall economic crisis. So we are swimming upstream against that current.

Q. So are you saying that this is the solution to rising carbon dioxide emissions?

A. It can be a tool in the arsenal. It may be the only tool in the arsenal at present. (If you believe there to be other practical carbon sequestration applications, please let me know and I will amend this). To make a bigger dent in carbon emissions, we would need to start replacing more metals and plastics with Accoya (wooden refrigerators, anyone?).

You can find answers to lots of other questions in our FAQ. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming (even though I think the subject matter here is topical).

Note: As always, if you spot any errors, please call them to my attention.

December 14, 2008 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, sustainability, Titan Wood | Comments Off on Carbon Sequestration in Practice

Carbon Sequestration in Practice


First of its Kind: Sequestered Carbon in Sneek, the Netherlands

Back in March, I left my job with ConocoPhillips to become the Engineering Director for London-based Accsys Technologies, PLC (but my work is focused within the wholly-owned Titan Wood subsidiaries). I explained the circumstances behind my decision to switch employers here. I stated at that time that I would continue to focus my writing on energy and the environment, and not use my platform to start promoting my new company – even though it is focused on environmental technologies. I think it’s fair to say that I have kept to my word. However, I did say that at some point I would write a more extensive article on exactly what it is that my new company is doing. This is that article, with ties into energy, the environment, sustainability, and carbon capture.

A Brief Chemical Tutorial

In a nutshell, Titan Wood chemically modifies fast growing softwood species like (but not limited to) Radiata pine in a way that results in their performance characteristics being superior to some of the best tropical hardwoods such as teak. It is important to note that the modification we make is at the molecular level; we do not impregnate the wood with chemical preservatives that can leach out into the environment. Wood treatment processes like Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) fall into this latter category. Further, disposal of treated wood can be a nightmare, as many treatment processes result in the wood being classified as hazardous waste.

Following is a brief explanation of the science behind our process, in mostly layman’s terms. Wood is a very complex material, composed of many complex organic polymers (very long-chain carbon compounds). There are also numerous hydroxyl groups (OH) within wood. Think of a hydroxyl as 2/3rds of a water molecule (HOH, or H2O). Hydroxyl groups are very prone to attracting and releasing water, which is the primary mechanism by which wood shrinks and swells (and this of course makes paint crack and peel). Wood also naturally contains acetyl groups. An acetyl group is essentially an attached acetic acid molecule. Most of you are familiar with acetic acid, because you sometimes put it on your salad in the form of vinegar.


The Chemistry behind Accoya® wood

What we do in our process is remove a large fraction of those hydroxyl groups and replace them with acetyl groups. We call this wood ‘Accoya® wood’, and the properties are remarkably different than the unmodified wood we started out with. Dimensional stability, durability, and UV light resistance are all dramatically improved. Because Accoya absorbs less moisture, thermal insulating properties are also better. Further, Accoya is resistant to attack by termites, microbes, and fungi. Accoya is virtually rot-proof, and yet non-toxic.

Consider the implications. Instead of deforesting tropical rainforests for the highest quality hardwoods, we can essentially make them from trees that grow in northern climates. Wood that is grown via sustainable forestry practices and modified with our acetylation process provides a far more sustainable model for producing high-performance lumber. If the wood is both grown and used locally, so much the better.

How Accoya Sequesters Carbon

That alone is a pretty good story, but there’s more. As we all know, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The recently released World Energy Outlook from the IEA forecast that carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion would rise from 11.7 billion metric tons in 2006 to 18.6 billion metric tons in 2030. The IEA further predicted that carbon sequestration applications will have limited potential to influence carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

If we are to slow or halt our carbon dioxide emissions, we need a combination of lower reliance on fossil fuels, coupled with commercially viable carbon sequestration, or carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. But the problem with carbon sequestration technologies is that either 1). People can’t figure out how to make money with them, so they aren’t commercialized; or 2). The carbon sequestration is fleeting.

For example, carbon dioxide can certainly be captured from the stacks of coal-fired power plants. A number of technologies will suffice, but they will all add to the cost of electricity. Estimates are that carbon capture would add 25% to the cost of producing electricity from coal. Unless large numbers of consumers are willing to pay this cost – or unless governments mandate it (and therefore mandate that consumers will pay the additional costs), adoption of these sorts of CCS technologies will face strong headwinds.

What about the use of CO2 in enhanced crude oil recovery operations? There are some applications for this, but they are limited. You must still capture and compress the CO2, and then you have to get it to the oil field. Further, that CO2 is being used to produce more oil, which will subsequently produce more CO2. A similar situation applies to the schemes for using algae to capture carbon dioxide from power plants, and then turning that algae into biodiesel. While one could certainly argue that additional energy was produced for each CO2 molecule that was emitted (presuming the energy return is >1.0), at the end of the cycle the CO2 originating from the coal still ends up in the atmosphere.

However, I believe Titan Wood has a truly commercial carbon sequestration application. To my knowledge it is the best (only?) commercial solution in existence. Here is why I believe that.

You know that when a tree grows, it extracts carbon dioxide from the air, converts it via photosynthesis into various biopolymers, and stores the carbon as wood, leaves, etc. Left alone, a tree will uptake carbon dioxide as it grows, but it will eventually die and decompose, returning the carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. If you could instead take the tree and just bury it deep within the earth, the carbon would be sequestered. This is in fact similar to how all of the carbon in oil, coal, and gas got sequestered in the first place. Ancient plants and animals died and were buried, and the heat and pressure of the earth turned them into fossil fuels.

Of course one can’t make money by growing trees and burying them. So, what else can you do? You could build with wood, and that also sequesters carbon during the lifetime of the application. Because Accoya is modified to resist rot, the carbon can be sequestered for much longer. That’s appealing, but it isn’t the most compelling argument. In fact, you could make that same argument about wood that is treated with toxic treatments – it can sequester carbon for a long period of time (with the obvious negative of the chemicals leeching into the environment).

No, the really compelling aspect about Accoya is that the improved characteristics make it a viable replacement for metals, plastics, and even concrete in certain applications. You can take a very fast growing tree like pine, and modify it so that it can not only replace tropical hardwoods, but it can in some instances replace the steel in a bridge. That’s where the carbon sequestration potential comes into play.

Imagine that instead of making window frames out of plastic (which comes from a fossil fuel) or aluminum (which requires a lot of electricity to produce), you made them out of Accoya. Not only have you avoided carbon emissions, but you have sequestered carbon in a long-lasting application.

Imagine that instead of constructing a bridge out of steel and concrete (both very fossil-fuel intensive), you made it out of Accoya. Again, you have avoided carbon emissions, and you have sequestered carbon. Note that neither of these scenarios is hypothetical. Accoya is currently being used in window frames, and a pair of heavy-traffic bridges is under construction right now in Sneek, the Netherlands. Kudos to the Dutch government for their foresight. The first bridge has been completed and is shown in the opening picture. (See this article for more information). Bear in mind that this bridge is certified to support 60 tons, making it the only wooden bridge in the world certified to support such a heavy load. That makes it the first of its kind.

(As an aside, in 1988 the U.S. Congress passed the Timber Bridge Initiative, to promote the use of timber in bridges. This initiative currently resides at the Forest Products Lab of the U.S. Forestry Service, but we have not yet been in contact with them regarding the possibility of building Accoya bridges in the U.S.)

What is the potential for carbon sequestration? I have done some calculations on that, shown below.

Carbon Sequestration Potential of Accoya

Per this reference:

According to analysis by JATO Dynamics, CO2 emissions in the top five markets dropped by 0.3 g/km in through the first seven months of 2007 compared to the same time last year. A volume-weighted average of new cars sold in the period yielded an average of 160.5 g/km for the fleet.

That means that the average European car emits (160.5/44 g CO2/mol) = 3.65 moles CO2 per km traveled.

The density of Radiata pine is roughly 500 kg/m3. According to University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus Roger Rowell (and from other sources I have checked), carbon represents about 50% of that, or 250 kg/m3. In chemistry speak, that is (250,000 g/12 g mol) = 20,833 moles of carbon per m3 of wood, which is equal to the number of moles of carbon dioxide that were removed from the atmosphere.

Our Arnhem plant has a nameplate capacity of 30,000 m3/year of finished wood (and the next plant will be much larger). Then the carbon sequestration potential from the Arnhem plant is 20,833* 30,000 = 625 million moles of carbon per year.

Put in terms of the average European car, that means that the output of our relatively small Arnhem plant could sequester the carbon emissions of 625 million moles/(3.65 moles per km) = 171 million km of driving. The average European drives around 11,000 km/yr according to this chart. This translates to sequestration of the carbon emissions of 171 million/11,000 = 15,545 cars per year.

I am not aware of any other technology that can make this claim.

Conclusion

I believe we have a good story in Accoya. I barely scratched the surface of the advantages, which extend to painted surfaces lasting much longer (more avoided emissions, and less fossil fuels for paint manufacture). Our plans at present are to continue to manufacture Accoya in the Netherlands, and to license the technology. The second Accoya plant is being built by our licensee, Diamond Wood, in China. The third plant will be built by our licensee Al Rajhi in the Middle East. Serious discussions are taking places with other prospective licensees around the world, including several in North America.

The nameplate capacity of our first plant in Arnhem, the Netherlands, is 30,000 m3 of wood/year. This output can potentially sequester the carbon emissions of over 15,000 cars per year in Europe. The total offset is equivalent to an annual distance driven of 171 million km. Note that this presumes that we have used Accoya in an application that normally uses metal/plastics/concrete, etc. It does not take into consideration the fact that our life-cycle-assessment (LCA) shows that the energy inputs into producing concrete, steel, etc. are also higher than for producing Accoya – nor that we are avoiding the harvesting of tropical hardwoods. In other words, I believe this should be a conservative estimate.

While I have given you the technical spiel, I am not the guy to answer questions about licensing, sales, etc. If you want some information along those lines, please contact Starla Middlebrooks (Starla ‘dot’ Middlebrooks ‘at’ titanwood ‘dot’ com) at our Dallas offices.

Questions and (My) Answers to Various Inquiries

People have asked me lots of interesting questions around the company and the product. One sort of funny story related to this is that at this year’s ASPO conference in Sacramento, I escaped the talks a bit early to have a quick bite, as I was on an evening panel session. A few minutes later, Bob Hirsch walked in and asked if he could join me. I was delighted, and thought I would get to quiz him about The Hirsch Report. Instead, he spent the next half hour asking me all sorts of questions about Accoya. We were joined by Kjell Aleklett, and he also wanted to talk about wood. After we finished talking, I reflected on how funny it was to have the three of us sitting there, all passionate about oil depletion and energy in general, and all we talked about was wood.

Anyway, here are a few of the sorts of questions that seem to come up most frequently.

Q. Doesn’t the process itself use a lot of energy? A lot more than say, planting a tree and waiting a few years.

A. No. When you grow a tree, like a fast-growing softwood, what happens? It either grows to maturity, eventually dies, and releases its carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. Or, it is cut down and used in an application that results in it releasing its carbon back to the atmosphere in much less than 100 years.

What happens with Accoya is that you can make a harvest every 20 years and put it into a long-term application. When you put it into an application that is typically aluminum or steel, you have a dual-win: It takes less energy to make Accoya, and you have sequestered carbon where you would have placed steel.

Of course you also have a big benefit by using it for applications typically reserved for tropical timber in that you displace tropical timber with softwoods.

Q. Can Accoya eventually be cost-competitive with other treated woods?

A. That depends on what you mean by cost-competitive. Is it as cheap as arsenic-treated wood? No, but arsenic-treated wood is toxic and disposal is problematic. Likewise, there are similar issues with other cheap wood treatments like pentachlorophenol, creosote, borate, etc. Accoya is no more toxic than regular wood. There is no toxic residue from the treatment.

Q. Seems ironic. Other treated wood is less likely to be burned at the end of its structural life, so the toxic wood is actually more likely to sequester carbon for more than 100 years than is the Accoya, even if the toxic wood is otherwise worse for the environment.

A. No, as that misses two key points. You touched on one in your last sentence. The reason toxic wood eventually fails is because it has leached its components out into the environment. So it continues to decompose at the landfill, albeit at a slower rate than normal wood.

But the key point is this: The acetylation treatment not only makes the wood resistance to biological attack (as do toxic treatments), but it also imparts other beneficial characteristics to the wood, which is the real bonus.

Toxic treated wood doesn’t become more dimensionally stable. A toxic-treated pine is still a softwood. An acetylated pine becomes comparable to a tropical hardwood. The durability and dimensional stability of Accoya exceeds that of teak. See here and here. Now you can go build bridges out of it, something you can’t do with the toxic treated woods. Thus, the acetylation opens up new applications, so there is much greater carbon sequestration potential.

Q. OK, I give. What’s the catch?

A. The ‘catch’ is pretty straightforward. Accoya is obviously more expensive than untreated softwood. And unless customers understand the whole story, they may opt for a cheaper, but inferior option. My job as Engineering Director is to make sure we are running our process in the most efficient manner, and therefore keeping our costs at a minimum.

The other catch is that the market for building materials is presently pretty poor, as a result of the overall economic crisis. So we are swimming upstream against that current.

Q. So are you saying that this is the solution to rising carbon dioxide emissions?

A. It can be a tool in the arsenal. It may be the only tool in the arsenal at present. (If you believe there to be other practical carbon sequestration applications, please let me know and I will amend this). To make a bigger dent in carbon emissions, we would need to start replacing more metals and plastics with Accoya (wooden refrigerators, anyone?).

You can find answers to lots of other questions in our FAQ. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming (even though I think the subject matter here is topical).

Note: As always, if you spot any errors, please call them to my attention.

December 14, 2008 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, sustainability, Titan Wood | 37 Comments

Winner: Sustainable Production Technology

As I have mentioned before, I am not going to use this blog to promote my new company. I have said very little about it to this point, but I intend to write one post explaining in detail what we do. I do think we have the best (the only?) commercial carbon sequestration technology, and I wanted to highlight that this week we won a national award in the Netherlands for Sustainable Production Technology:

Titan Wood Wins Prestigious National Awards for Sustainable Production Technology and Innovation

Titan Wood is the wholly owned subsidiary of Accsys Technologies that makes Accoya®. Here is the news release:

Titan Wood Limited (“Titan Wood”), has won the overall Dutch National Award for Sustainability Innovation – “The Columbus Egg” http://www.ei-van-columbus.nl/ – with its pioneering Accoya® wood product. Titan Wood also won in the category of Sustainable Production Technology. Titan Wood will now be entered into the European Business Awards for the Environment (EBAE) contest where winners will be announced during “Green Week 2008” the first week of June.

This year’s awards were opened by the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, and are granted by the Dutch Government bi-annually to reward sustainability innovation in the Netherlands.

Wim Quik, one of the judges, commented: “Titan Wood’s Accoya® wood modification process is truly innovative. Thanks to this production technology, Accoya® wood has become a real alternative to increasingly scarce tropical timber. The ability to make high performance timber from fast–growing, sustainable species will help to protect threatened species and rainforests. Further advantages are that Accoya® wood can replace less environmentally friendly materials in demanding exterior applications and that it requires less frequent maintenance due to its improved durability and dimensional stability.”

Finlay Morrison, CEO of Titan Wood, added: “These awards recognize Accoya® wood’s innovative nature and its environmental credentials. It is a solid wood product made from certified sustainable sources and has multiple long-term environmental benefits as it is non-toxic, recyclable and acts as a carbon sink. We are enormously proud of the hard work that the Titan Wood team has put into the development of Accoya® wood and appreciate the growing recognition of its benefits.

April 4, 2008 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, carbon sequestration, global warming, Titan Wood | 145 Comments