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Energy and timber set for win-win

January 24, 2016

NRRI joins consortium to brainstorm how to turn excess biomass into fuels. 

Organized in 2014, the group has already identified seven tasks to move forward. NRRI is leading two of those – a commercial-scale demonstration of the use of advanced biofuel in power plants and development of methods to densify the biomass material – as well as participating in finding ways to use low value wood.

Watch the news and you’ll understand why the U.S. Forest Service is actively seeking uses for timber. This year was record-breaking for wildfire danger and damage in the U.S. Add to that 1.5 million acres of beetle-killed lodgepole pine in Colorado and Wyoming that are a tinderbox poised for flame. Fire is a potential danger wherever standing timber and slash stand too long in dry, hot environments. But there are ways to turn that situation into a win-win-win scenario. A group of stakeholders is funding a new Consortium for Advanced Wood to Energy Solutions.

Yes, it’s CAWES with a cause – to turn under-utilized wood species and slash into biomass energy resources. Organized in 2014, the group has already identified seven tasks to move forward. NRRI is leading two of those – a commercial-scale demonstration of the use of advanced biofuel in power plants and development of methods to densify the biomass material – as well as participating in finding ways to use low value wood.

“An important driver for this effort is to use the post-harvest tops and limbs of trees and underutilized species to prevent forest fires,” explained Dick Kiesel, NRRI Coleraine Laboratory director.  “The Forest Service spends half of its annual budget, roughly two billion dollars every year, fighting forest fires.”

So, reducing fire danger is one ‘win.’ Another is the potential to provide a very low polluting, renewable partial replacement for coal in power and industrial plants.

Minnesota has set renewable electricity mandates on the state’s power providers. Xcel Energy has set the most stringent goal: to produce 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2022. All other utilities are required to achieve 25 percent by 2025. Minnesota Power has already passed that goal.

The third ‘win’ is for Minnesota’s timber industry. With a slowdown in the forest products industry (reduced demand at paper mills and loss of oriented strand board plants), timberland owners, loggers and truckers also feel the pinch. Using Minnesota’s sustainably available resources for alternative energy keeps the money local.

“Minnesota currently spends around $18 billion each year on energy,” said NRRI Director Rolf Weberg. “That’s money that’s going out of the state. We can do more to diversify the local economy, make better use of our resources and reduce polluting emissions.”

NRRI’s laboratory on the Iron Range is now equipped to produce 12 tons of solid biofuel a day – an output that can be used for full-scale trials at local power plants. It’s one of four facilities in the U.S. capable of making this renewable fuel at this scale.

“And we have flexibility that some others don’t to customize the biofuel in a variety of shapes, depending on what the energy plant needs for their equipment,” Kiesel explained. “We can make torrefied pellets or briquettes, custom shaped fuels.”

NRRI is also working to develop a process to make the biofuel water resistant, even more coal-like, to improve handling and outdoor storage capabilities. A fuel cost analysis is also being planned. This fulli-instrumented pilot facility will also allow NRRI to make critical measurements needed to determine energy balance and economic feasibility.

To better understand the needs of potential customers, NRRI is developing a questionnaire that will be sent to targeted utilities. Variables like storage facilities, bin and conveyor sizes, feed mechanisms, fuel requirements, and boiler systems will determine their differing fuel needs. 

“Our ability to supply trial lots of advanced biofuel to our state-owned utilities and to others in the region, will help facilitate the potential use of our forest resources as a direct coal substitute and help us better manage our forests,” said NRRI Associate Director Don Fosnacht, who is the project’s principal investigator. “We also have some complementary technologies that can be used with torrefaction to produce energy products that will help reduce the state’s need for coal at existing coal-fired power plants.”

The Consortium is an open-platform collaborative of public and private sector institutions with a variety of interests in bio-based fuels.

Consortium Partners

Herty Advanced Materials Development Center at Georgia Southern University, Savannah, GA

USDA Forest Service, Forest products Laboratory, Madison, WI

U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, Greenville, SC

UMD Natural Resources Research Institute, Duluth, MN

Integro Earth Fuels, South Carolina

University of Louisville, Conn Center, Louisville, KY

Global Bioresources, Inc., Destin, FL

Terra Green Resources. Greenwood Village, CO

Airex Energy, Laval, QC, Canada

HM3 Energy, Gresham, OR

Michigan Technical University, Houghton, MI

University of Georgia, Athens, GA

What is Torrefaction?

Torrefaction is a process that converts biomass into a high-grade, solid biofuel. The process involves thermally treating the biomass between 260-320oC (500 – 608oF) in an oxygen-poor environment. Moisture and volatile organics are roasted out of the material and much of the hemi-cellulose is decomposed. In a solid form, this fuel has significant advantages over common biomass fuels, such as standard wood pellets or chips, containing 95 percent of the BTU energy content of hard coal. Once torrefied, the biomass is easily ground and shaped as needed. It has a higher energy density than raw biomass and resists moisture.

Seven Tasks for Wood-to-Energy Development

Task 1: Overall Project Management. Lead: Herty

Task 2: Identify coal-fired utilities that can use biofuel, secure biomass resources and conduct commercial scale demonstration project. Assess mass and energy balance to identify best strategies to integrate biofuels into existing power plants. Lead: NRRI

Task 3: Demonstrate torrefaction at pre-commercial scale on clean wood. Lead: Integro & HM3

Task 4: A complete study of densification processes with an emphasis on natural binders to make solid fuels that maintain water resistance. Lead: NRRI

Task 5: Optimize integration of torrefier within manufacturing platform. Lead: Herty

Task 6: Parameters developed for feedstock selection and collection, ash-removal operations and possibilities for use of ash by-product. Lead: Herty

Task 7: Develop cost model for densified torrefied product production in targeted regions. Lead: Forest Products Lab

Funding Stakeholders

USDA Forest Service – Forest Products Laboratory

U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities

Herty Foundation

Advanced Material Development Center

Georgia Southern University