Rocky Mountain Research

Research station launches complex bioenergy research initiative.
By Lisa Gibson | June 22, 2011

Armed with a $5.3 million federal grant, a U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station laboratory in Montana will embark on a multifaceted research initiative to develop new systems for bioenergy production using wood waste and residues from forest restoration treatments.

“The main goal is to address what we think are some critical issues with regard to using woody biomass in the West for energy feedstock,” says Greg Jones, principal investigator for the biomass grant and research forester with the Rocky Mountain Research Station.

The five-year research effort includes:

• Experimental forest operations research to develop advanced feedstock logistics and improve feedstock supply chains.

• Development of new trucking and processing systems to reduce feedstock costs by improving access to dispersed forest treatment residues.

• Development of multifacility spatial models of forest biomass feedstock flow.

• Field research and modeling to evaluate the effects of biomass harvest on water resources, soil resources and forest ecosystem.

• Research and development of a gasification system for forest industry deployment.

• Product development focused on biochar soil amendments, activated carbon and liquid fuels from synthesis gas.

• Consequential cradle-to-grave life cycle analysis of all system products.

• Financial models for the gasification systems co-located at sawmills.

• Market and nonmarket economics research to quantify the costs, benefits and tradeoffs of the conversion technology if deployed in the forest sector.

The team has been able to produce a fairly high-energy syngas, as well as biochar, from a preliminary gasification system and feedback from the forestry industry about its utilization has been encouraging. “There is certainly interest in this industry if it’s feasible,” Jones says.

Transporting and processing residue from remote areas will also be an important aspect of the research, Jones says, adding that little access for wood chippers and other equipment makes biomass harvests in those areas a challenge. “A lot of these remote areas in our part of the world are accessible only by logging roads.” The group will also look for areas in need of improvement in existing equipment designs, says Nate Anderson, forest researcher with the Rocky Mountain Research Station.