The biomass industry produces a highly diverse range of energy products and chemicals from an array of biogenic feedstocks. Despite the diversity across feedstocks and products, bioenergy producers share the inherent challenges of aggregating and storing biomass. Regardless of type or origin––whether a chemical is being produced from switchgrass, or heat or electricity is being coaxed from forest residue––biomass feedstocks have less density and a shorter shelf life than their fossil fuel counterparts. Throughout the aggregation and storage phases, biomass projects are burdened with the necessity of keeping biomass dry and efficiently stored more so than projects that utilize fossil fuels. Biomass must be harvested, often from across a landscape, transported to an energy installation, and stored where it is susceptible to spoilage. Acknowledging these difficulties and seeking solutions are what brought numerous industry stakeholders together at an event sponsored by the Washington Department of Natural Resources, at the SDS Lumber Company campus in Bingen, Wash., in early May.
At the event, demonstrations were run of two commercially available mobile pyrolysis units, provided by Western Renewable Technologies and Amaron Energy. Attendees could view the units in full operation and speak with company representatives about the possibilities of overcoming district barriers that hinder the advancement of biomass projects. Given the regional setting, most of the attendees were interested in greater utilization of forest residue, but the demonstration of mobile pyrolysis technology has implications across the broader biomass industry.
Pyrolysis offers a potential solution to transportation and storage issues by transforming biomass into a denser product that is less susceptible to spoilage. By heating biomass in an oxygen-deprived environment, the pyrolysis process creates syngas, bio-oil, and biochar from any type of biomass, regardless of moisture content. The generated syngas is often used to power the pyrolysis unit, thus reducing the need for an outside fuel to power the process, other than at startup. By altering the temperature and residence time of biomass in a pyrolysis reaction chamber, operators are able to generate varying ratios of syngas, bio-oil, and biochar from biomass. The specifics and nuances of the pyrolysis process technology are highly guarded trade secrets, but the WRT and Amaron units were accessible to attendees, offering solutions to some of the industry’s most pressing issues.
The cost of transporting biomass feedstocks to bioenergy installations is often the culprit that tips the balance sheets of biomass projects into the red. By adding mobility to the pyrolysis process, the WRT and Amaron Energy units will enable producers to preprocess biomass into syngas, bio-oil, and biochar at a landing site near the harvest site of the biomass, as opposed to transporting it to a centralized location far from the harvest site. An operation that converts forest residue into heating oil, for example, could partially render the bio-oil in the forest and transport it to a refiner for further processing, while utilizing the syngas to power the pyrolysis process, and spreading the biochar back into the forest to improve forest soil quality.
There is a considerable amount of research on the beneficial use of bio-char in soil health, as well as carbon sequestration and remediation. While bio-oil and syngas also have distinct opportunities of their own, market penetration of pyrolysis technology in the biomass industry is in its infancy. The demonstration of WRT and Amaron Energy's mobile pyrolysis technologies confirms the arrival of commercial mobile pyrolysis options, offering the industry an opportunity to perform a portion of the biomass-to-energy conversion process near the harvest location, and alleviate adversities that hinder the advancement of the biomass industry.
Author: Kolby Hoagland
Data and Content Manager, BBI International