The Power of Technology and Timing
With its latest funding infusion of $38 million, Airex Energy is ready to expand.For the better part of the past decade, Airex Energy has been quietly achieving success in the southern Quebec town of Bécancour, roughly 120 miles north of the Vermont border. There, the company has been operating an industrial-scale biocoal plant on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, deploying its proprietary CarbonFX technology. Fast-forward from the plant’s initial pilot-scale plant debut in Laval, Quebec, in 2011, to its demonstration-turned-commercial-scale plant startup in 2015 to today, and the company has exported its biochar, biocoal and biocarbon to customers around the world, recently raising $38 million in Series B funding that will be used to expand. When asked what’s led AirEx Energy to success in torrefaction technology—an industry in which many have struggled—Michel Gagnon, CEO, says it has been a combination a technology and timing. And, perhaps, a whole lot of tenacity.
The TechnologyAs for the inception of Airex Energy, the company is a spinoff company from parent company Airex Industries, which was founded in 1975 and specializes in dust collection and air filtration systems—a fitting origin. The company began research and development activities focused on torrefaction in 2010. “What’s interesting with our technology is that the inventor had been working in dust collection systems and air filtration, and he developed our process and technology, which captures nearly 100% of the dust,” he says. “As you can imagine, there is a lot of dust in the carbon environment—messy is normal—but if you visit our plant, you’ll see that it’s very clean.”
For Gagnon, that aspect of the technology was impactful enough to become a believer in Airex. He joined as CEO in May 2022. “For me, it was convincing enough to join the company,” he says. “The process is impressive. And when we get visitors interested in technology or the company, it’s always the same thing—how clean the technology is, and the quality of product.”Gagnon says that besides cleanliness, a main strength of the technology is its simplicity. As for how the process works, it consists of four main components—the predrying system, conditioning chamber, combustion chamber and cyclonic bed reactors. It begins with ground biomass—sawdust, in the case of the Bécancour plant—which is pneumatically conveyed into a silo with heat recovered from the torrefaction process. Moisture is reduced by roughly half, from 50% to 25%. From the silo, material goes into the double-wall conditioning chamber, where combustion gases circulate and heat the biomass, and moisture is further reduced to less than 5%. Material is then conveyed into the cyclonic bed reactors, the final stage. Here, biomass is fed into the top of the reactors, spiraling downward to land at the base, or sustentation ring. The sustentation ring allows the material to remain suspended through creation of a balance between the centrifugal force of the cyclonic effect, the gravitational force of the bulk material, and the pushing effect induced by the sustentation ring. Total residence time in the reactor is only a few seconds. At this point, biocoal exits through the bottom of the system via a screw conveyor and is cooled. Torrefaction gas is recovered and injected back into the combustion chamber. The process startup utilizes natural gas or propane and takes about an hour, but once the right temperature is achieved and the system is ready for biomass, no external fuel is needed, as torrefaction gas is used.
From Demo to CommercialWhen the plant began operations in 2015, the intentions were to have it serve as a demonstration plant. “That was the original plan, but it has turned out to be a commercial plant,” Gagnon explains. “It reached capacity in 2016, and then some adjustments were made, of course, as it was a demo plant. Today, we’re able to produce on a continuous basis with very good results. The product has no dust, and the [biocoal] pellets themselves are quite durable—they don’t break easily. Now, now we’re shipping everywhere in the world, mainly to Asia and Europe.”
The Bécancour plant capacity was designed at two tons per hour, according to Gagnon. “So, we’re producing about 15,000 tons per year. That’s fairly small size, so the objective is to scale up. We have completed the engineering to do that and are finalizing a site to build a new capacity line, which will be five tons per hour with potential to increase to six or seven tons per hour; we think between 30,000 and 40,000 tons per year. We will build additional production lines and could easily ramp up a plant size close to 100,000 tons per year.”The new funding round, led by Cycle Capital, will be used toward that initiative, Gagnon confirms, adding that the company is working on additional funding. Airex’s buildout will consist of a combination of constructing and operating plants as well as licensing its technology to large-capacity operations to produce biocoal, biocarbon and biochar. Notably, the company has a partnership with SUEZ Group to ramp up biochar capacity in Europe and North America over the next decade-plus. “[Under the partnership] We will aim build 350,000 [metric] tons of biochar capacity by 2035, with first project in Quebec,” Gagnon says. “It will produce about 30,000 tons of capacity, and then we will move onto the second plant, which will most likely be in France.”
Gagnon says with a plant size of about 30,000 metric tons, it will require about one new plant every year to reach the partnership goal. “This is quite aggressive, but it’s something we want to do,” he says. “We would like to team up with local feedstock suppliers—this is very important.”Current and projected biochar demand is a key driver in Airex’s plans, Gagnon notes. “We receive requests every week, from Europe and Asia. In Europe you have the energy crisis, but also lots of regulations and ambitions to exit coal. In Asia, there is also a migration toward ending coal. If you use typical wood pellets, then you will need to do a lot of modifications to the plant and the energy content isn’t the same, so it does bring some challenges. If you use torrefied pellets, you can do cofiring or convert entirely without much modification, so that’s a big difference.” As for the U.S., Gagnon says there currently is very little demand.
Moving ForwardGagnon says Airex is still a modest size of around 30 or so employees, but is “in big expansion mode. We have a strong technical team, and very importantly, good repair and maintenance people for the plant—though it is quite amazing in terms of automation as well.” Finally, Gagnon reiterates that Airex considers itself very fortunate to have had very good timing with its buildout. “The industry itself has a lot of challenges, but there is a definitely a window [of opportunity] and we need to work hard to capture it,” he says. “With biochar, there is a movement—we’re all addressing a common goal and objective. There is strong demand; we need to collaborate and find ways together.
“Five years ago, everybody was starting to talk about decarbonization,” Gagnon adds. “Now, you need to do more than talk—you need to be active and work toward it.”SOURCE: Anna Simet, "The Power of Technology and Timing", BIOMASS MAGAZINE, Issue 2, 2023, pp. 10-13
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