Widgets Make Our World Go 'Round

Biomass Magazine Executive Editor Tim Portz discusses the significance of the individual components and equipment used all along the biomass supply chain.
By Tim Portz | November 26, 2013

Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate to witness a number of biomass-to-energy systems in various stages of development. I began the calendar year reporting on a 100-MW biomass power plant being constructed in Florida, and from there I traveled to England, where I saw not only a 3,000-MW coal-burning facility being converted to biomass inputs, but also the port infrastructure required to keep an uninterrupted flow of wood pellets moving to facility’s boilers. 

I saw the finishing touches put in place on an anaerobic digester that accepts cheese whey from a parmesan cheese plant situated just across the street. I toured pellet mills large and small, and drove through the laydown area on the construction site of one of North America’s first cellulosic ethanol plants. At each of these facilities, probably the only things more interesting than the system itself were the various widgets that make the whole system viable.

At the U.K.’s Port of Tyne, which will receive a significant percentage of the wood pellets that U.K. power generators will buy, I watched in amazement as a pellet hopper near the loading port produced a vacuum that instantly captured the dust plume created by the bucket full of pellets being dumped into it. Near Emmetsburg, Iowa, I watched as an accumulator and its operator made short work of a field full of round bales of corn stover, which will ultimately be converted into cellulosic ethanol. Finally, I watched as jumbo bags full of small plastic discs resembling Trivial Pursuit game pieces were dumped into a digester’s primary reactor, where they will provide media for the microorganisms digesting the organics in the cheese whey to live on. 

This issue of Biomass Magazine takes a close look at the equipment that makes the larger systems we all find so fascinating possible. Without a device to efficiently gather and stack biomass bales, the cellulosic ethanol industry simply will not pencil out. Digesters without adequate pumps and mixers will fail to achieve the biogas production levels required to make the project work financially. Without innovation in grinders and chippers, the growth rate of the exploding pellet market could arguably be slowed.

As an industry, we all tend to celebrate the larger system, but this month we celebrate the ingenuity in the development of the widgets that make these incredible systems work.