It cannot be stressed enough: bioenergy is a field of continuous innovation, always seeking to innovate. Want a concrete and recent example? FireCube, an innovative project developed by Ecosoftec, a company run by Jean-Pierre Ravix and its partners in the Alpine region of the South of France. FireCube is not only an innovative solution, but a unique catalytic process to improve boiler combustion. It is also a story of committed entrepreneurs and their company, which was developed as a startup in a rural region, finding initial market opportunities in the bioenergy sector.
Everything starts in 2010 for, with an aim: incorporation of a catalytic process in installations using combustion technologies to facilitate, accelerate and complete the chemical reaction of thermal oxidation, solving many of the daily concerns faced by plant operators. Initially Jean-Pierre Ravix, along with his partners, considered heavy fuel and hard process residues to be the right niche markets for their newborn technology. However, unexpected outcomes and partners sprung up. This was the case for Ecosoftec, which found in bioenergy operators the greater willingness to test their solutions. FireCube can provide great advantages for the biomass industry as well as the environment.
In brief, FireCube® technology consists of the transformation of a precursor, which contains manganese oxide-based compounds (the catalysts), into quantified vapours at a nano-scale. The action of the catalyst allows the lowering of the combustion temperature, which reduces ash vitrification phenomenon and nitrogen oxidation. It also reduces and affords reduction of excess air, since the combustion process is improved and the boiler’s fouling limited, preventing long and costly maintenance operations. These issues are fundamental concerns for plant owners as it has a direct impact on plant efficiency in the range of 3% to 15% according to the first companies testing FireCube.
Back in 2010, developing such a project was not such a walk in the park for M. Ravix and its partners. Banks had (and still have) a limited understanding about such technology and more broadly about potential partners from the bioenergy sector. This hurdle did not stop Mr. Ravix, as he managed to fund its company in a start-up fashion, finding business angels and public funds from national and regional bodies. After this first stage, convincing initial partners was not an easy task either: FireCube technology can’t be fully simulated in laboratories and touches at the crux of installations – the combustion chamber itself and by extension, the heart of many industrial processes. This is where trust and appetite for innovation come into play. This is where local bioenergy operators provide a big push in the right direction for Ecosoftec.
In 2013, Laurent Fustinoni, one of the manager of AEB (Alpes Energie Bois), a cogeneration plant from the region, was among the first to adopt the technology. After two years of using FireCube, AEB’s manager is positive about his experience “The use of FireCube has generated improved combustion with a visible reduction in fouling. This decline has reduced steam soot sequences that have a direct impact on the electricity production. This allowed us to produce 1 MWh more of electricity production per day.” During the last annual maintenance lead by the boiler’s manufacturer, Weiss Kessel Gmbh, the installation required such limited cleaning that the entrepreneur is since pushing some of its clients on the other side of the Alps to adopt FireCube. Based on similar positive outcomes, the French start up is now setting its sights further and operating across Europe.
One could hope that Ecosoftec will continue to steam ahead in the bioenergy field. Bioenergy is an innovative sector: This should be made known so that we see more start-ups and projects springing up, more stakeholders supporting the financial development of projects, and communicated to a general audience, as bioenergy offers innovative, efficient and affordable energy for all.
Interview conducted by Jean-Baptiste Boucher
 Interview by Frédéric Drouard for Bioénergie International magazine n°42 – March April 2016