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University of Louisville partners on wood-to-energy project

By John R. Karman III, University of Louisville | July 02, 2015

The University of Louisville Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research has formed a partnership with a South Carolina company to accelerate commercialization of a coal-like product made from wood and biomass materials.

Greenville, South Carolina-based Integro Earth Fuels Inc. is the developer of NuCoal, a product made from sustainable wood waste that can be burned with or in place of coal by heat and power generators. The Conn Center, part of the J.B. Speed School of Engineering, will establish research and development and pilot-scale production facilities to study the torrefaction and densification of wood and agricultural biomass sources.

Torrefaction is “roasting” wood to remove moisture and certain volatile compounds, leaving a bio-coal product. Densification of torrefied material is a step in making the product easier to make, store and ship.

“Conn Center’s expertise is crucial in making this technology work at any scale,” said Conn Center director Mahendra Sunkara. “The use of this product as a substitute for coal can help extend the life of Kentucky’s coal-fired power plants while significantly reducing pollutant and carbon emissions.”

The UofL project is being funded, in part, by a $256,890 grant over two years to the Conn Center from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities through its Consortium for Advanced Wood to Energy Solutions—a joint venture between the endowment and the USDA Forest Service. In addition, the Conn Center is investing about $135,000 toward this effort, which will be led by researchers Jagannadh Satyavolu and Thad Druffel.

Integro also has signed a joint development agreement with UofL to provide funding to the Conn Center for a series of projects. In the first, the company plans to provide the center with $80,000 worth of equipment to support research and development of the torrefaction process.

“We are looking at markets for NuCoal plants in Kentucky and other parts of the U.S., Europe and South America,” said Integro founder Walt Dickinson. “This partnership is critical to making that happen.”

Endowment president and CEO Carlton Owen called the partnership “foundational to our commitment to keep forests as forests, keep them healthy and add family-wage jobs in rural forest-rich communities.”

“This joint project has great potential,” said Conn Center benefactor and businessman Hank Conn. “Not only is the market potential for NuCoal huge, expected to be $200 billion by 2040, but the product also helps address the problem of forest fires in the U.S. by removing dying or dead trees and turning them into this coal-like product, one that is carbon-neutral and significantly reduces air pollutants.”