Researchers evaluate biomass handling solutions

By Anna Austin
Posted December 16, 2009, at 5:06 p.m. CST

A group of researchers at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences are poised to solve one of the biomass industry's most pressing issues-developing efficient solutions to transport and store large quantities of biomass.

Jude Liu and three other researchers recently received a $100,000 grant from the Sun Grant Initiative, a component of the 2002 Farm Bill, to establish a national network of land-grant universities and federally funded laboratories to create a biobased economy.

The project, which began in August 2009, will consider quantities of biomass based on what a medium-sized biomass plant would use, or about 400,000 tons per year, according to Liu. "This would represent direct combustion or cofiring biomass with coal," he said. "If this plant operates 24/7, 365 days per year, it will need 1,096 tons per day. If we are delivering large switchgrass bales (3 x 4 x 8 feet), each of these bales weighs 1,110 pounds at about 10 percent moisture." That would require the delivery of 2,190 large square bales per day, he added, or about 68 truckloads on the assumption that each truck contains 32 bales. "If the power plant has an eight-hour window to receive these truckloads, you can imagine that this is not possible because 30 minutes is the minimum to load or unload a truck with current technology."

Storage, one of the biggest pieces of biomass supply costs, is a major problem with mass feedstock handling-400,000 tons per year means 800,000 large square bales, which will create significant storage needs. Currently, storage cost under roof and tarp ranges from $15 to $25 per ton, according to Liu. "If storage is not a problem, trucking will be the bottleneck in the biomass supply chain," he said. "All of these problems are caused by the nature of biomass-it's fluffy. Current bales are not dense enough."

As far as technology and methods which currently look the most promising go, Liu said large and densified modules of biomass are the most attractive. "There are two ways to do this. One would be new mobile machine to make large and dense bales; the other would be preprocessing facilities located at satellite centralized storage locations (SCSL)," he said. "I prefer the second one because farmers or landowners do not have to invest in new equipment, which could be very expensive. All existing farm equipment can be utilized, and a machine located at the SCSL will densify all bales for trucking and/or storage.

By the end of the project, which will be in 2011, Liu believes the project team will have developed more mature technology and will then begin looking for industrial partners. He said that he is seeking additional grants to conduct further studies.