Donation drives new direction of bioenergy research at UI

By Alecia Hoene | January 04, 2011

A $25,000 donation from Texas entrepreneur Randy Hill and his company, APT Advanced Trailer & Equipment LP, to the University of Idaho has funded research focused on converting woody biomass to energy.

The gift has allowed the university to install a pilot-scale pyrolysis unit at its steam plant. Pyrolysis is a type of incineration that uses almost no oxygen. When applied to an organic material like wood, pyrolysis yields biofuel plus a small amount of charcoal.

Armando McDonald, professor of wood chemistry and wood composites, researches pyrolysis of woody biomass to create bio-oil.

“This involves thermally cracking the wood to break it down into smaller molecules,” said McDonald. “The process yields about 60 percent bio-oil; 20 percent syngas, a gas mixture that is then used to fuel the operation; and about 20 percent char that can be used as a soil amendment.”

McDonald said the value of bioenergy methods such as pyrolysis resides in the usability of all products generated. Such processes have the potential to generate substantial amounts of clean energy with little to no waste.

Hill also donated a biomass drying trailer and funding to install it at the university steam plant, and funding to formalize bioenergy and bioproducts efforts at the University of Idaho. In June 2010, the university received a proposal from Hill outlining a vision for the University of Idaho to establish a national level bioenergy research center. In that proposal, Hill committed to this and a number of other research projects and more than $700,000 in future licensing revenues benefiting the university’s bioenergy research. In August 2010, the university committed to the vision. University officials expect to make an announcement in the next two weeks.

“We are improving biomass drying equipment for faster drying equals less fuel, less cost and fewer carbon emissions. We see the University of Idaho as the go to place for innovative research in the future of bioenergy,” Hill said.

University of Idaho Sustainability Director Darin Saul sees research on woody biomass utilization as part of a larger bioenergy and bioproducts effort focused on regionally important feedstocks, including manure, oil seeds and food processing waste.

“Each feedstock has its own needs, byproducts and waste streams,” Saul said. “With this approach, we keep going cradle-to-cradle until each waste stream is turned into energy or a commercial byproduct. The goal is no waste, only energy and value-added products.”

McDonald, Saul and the bioenergy and bioproducts working group plan to collaborate with private sector partners to address identified bottlenecks in bioenergy/bioproducts industry development.
For more information about the university’s sustainability efforts, contact the University of Idaho Sustainability Center at [email protected] or visit