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Integrating sustainable biofuels and bioproducts into forest industry supply chains

Status: 
Complete
Dates: 
April, 2011 to April, 2016

This five-year, $5.3 million USDA-NIFA Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) project has spurred advances in a wide array of biomass and bioenergy related fields, producing products and outcomes that benefit a broad range of stakeholders.

Biomass left behind after a timber harvest in Colorado.
Biomass left behind after a timber harvest in Colorado.

 

Project Overview
Forest biomass is a promising feedstock (raw material to supply or fuel a machine or industrial process)for the production of bioenergy, biofuels, and bioproducts because it is renewable and widely available as a byproduct of forest management. Its harvest and use also has the potential to positively impact rural communities, especially those negatively impacted by upheaval in the forest sector.

However, many obstacles have prevented more widespread use of forest biomass. These include uncertainties related to feedstock (woody material) cost, the performance of new technologies, competitiveness with fossil fuels and existing products, and the environmental, social, and economic impacts of biomass use on forest ecosystems and local communities. The purpose of this project was to quantify, evaluate, and overcome many of these obstacles.

The funding of this project involved two major sources: the federal grant (Biomass Research and DevelopmentInitiative, Competitive Grant no. 2010-05325) which totalled $5.3 million, and contributions from external steakholders, roughly $1.6 million, reaching a grand total of $6.9 million invested into this reserach.

 

This project brought together an unprecedented team representing five universities, three USDA Forest Service Research Stations, a USDA Forest Service Technology and Development Center, and six industry partners. Research, development, and outreach activities were conducted in eleven states, and resulted in critical advances in biomass feedstock logistics, conversion technology, bioproduct development, and our understanding of the social, environmental and economic impacts of using forest biomass for bioenergy and bioproducts.

 

Approach

The research, development, and outreach of the project was organized into three categories.

FEEDSTOCK DEVELOPMENT focused on improving systems of harvesting, processing, and transporting woody biomass feedstock from the forest to biomass conversion facilities, emphasizing the development of new systems and new equipment to minimize costs and improve productivity. They also worked to improve ways land managers and private companies evaluate biomass supply on the landscape. Specifically, they developed tools that help these stakeholders quantify and map biomass across complex landscapes and predict the sustainable biomass quantities that might be delivered to specific facilities under different logistics, management, and market conditions.
CONVERSION TECHNOLOGY  focused on developing new technologies to convert biomass into valuable products. A major goal was to improve the performance of the modular Tucker Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) thermal conversion system (the “Tucker RNG system”), with an emphasis on bringing the system closer to widespread commercial use. Scientists and engineers also worked closely with Tucker RNG to improve product value, including developing new catalysts to convert gas to liquid fuels and chemicals, using char co-products as a raw material for producing soil amendments and activated carbon, and pelletizing the char to facilitate handling and use. Another important advance in this area was the design, fabrication, and use of a pellet spreader that can efficiently and reliably distribute biochar pellets with minimal site impacts in difficult logging environments.
SUSTAINABILITY focused on sustainability research, ensure that the products and technologies that are developed in the project are sustainable and offer significant improvements over fossil fuels and petrochemicals. This team worked to evaluate the social, environmental, and economic impacts and potential costs and benefits of biomass systems. With regards to the environment, researchers quantified the net greenhouse gas emissions of biomass products compared to alternatives, quantified soil and watershed impacts of biomass harvest with a focus on soil disturbance, site productivity, and erosion, and quantified long-term impacts on forest growth. Economists and social scientists on the team developed models for system financial performance, evaluated potential rural economic development impacts, characterized social preferences for biomass energy, and conducted research to examine the attitudes and perceptions of various stakeholder groups, including National Forest managers.

 

 

Key Findings

  • New logistics and equipment technologies are being developed to improve woody biomass supply chains by reducing costs and increasing productivity.
  • Removal of woody biomass after a single treatment is not likely to negatively impact forest productivity.
  • Novel techniques for biomass assessment and planning have been developed to accurately estimate forest characteristics such as species basal area, trees per acre, and aboveground biomass per acre at fine spatial resolutions and across large landscapes. 
  • Opportunities to use woody biomass from treatments include combustion for heat and power, and are evolving to include biofuels and bioproducts applications.
  • Biochar can be used to facilitate forest soil restoration by improving soil properties and minimizing further compaction. New equipment is available to make this possible over large areas.
  • Using biomass for energy is most economically feasible when treatment sites are close to markets, in areas where current energy costs are high, and when the public supports renewable energy.
  • Small-scale woody biomass conversion systems can produce heat and power, as well as other products, at a wide range of facilities and are becoming more commercially viable as technologies improve. 

 

Other

Project Accomplishment and Outcomes

  • "Improved equipment for biomass harvest & processing 
  • Optimized biomass supply chains
  • New small-scale energy technology (Tucker RNG system)
  • Biochar pelletization process
  • Biochar activation for industrial uses 
  • Liquid fuel production
  • Newly engineered equipment for large-scale biochar 
  • Financial and economic modelsto inform future forest biomass energy use & production
  • Erosion prediction software
  • Life cycle assessment of biomass supply chains and technology
  • Ecological and soil impacts of biomass harvest
     

For a more detailed description of project accomplishments and outcomes, check out the Project Accomplishments and Outcomes book!

This project was supported by the Biomass Research and Development
Initiative, Competitive Grant no. 2010-05325, from
the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food
and Agriculture. We would also like to thank our many stakeholders
and partners for their contributions to the project.



Project Contact: 


Research Staff:
James Spivey - Louisiana State University
Tyron Venn - University of the Sunshine Coast
Keith Windell - USFS Missoula Technology & Development Center
Richard Tucker - Tucker Engineering Associates Inc.
Rick Bergman - USFS Forest Products Lab
Woodam Chung - Oregon State University
Tom Elder - USFS Southern Research Station
Karl Englund - Washington State University
Hongmei Gu - USFS Forest Products Lab
Han-Sup Han - Humboldt State University
Kevin Jump - Jump Trucking