Schatz Energy Research Center

SERC Hosts Biomass Meeting

Biomass Meeting April 2011
Biomass energy VIPs gather around the torrefier at SERC. Photo credit Kellie Brown, HSU Photographer.

SERC’s recently launched collaboration with biomass energy startup Renewable Fuel Technologies (RFT) reached an important milestone on April 7, when a group of U.S. Forest Service officials, professional foresters, and biomass specialists from across the country convened at SERC for a Torrefaction Research, Development, and Commercialization Meeting.

The meeting included a demonstration of RFT’s prototype wood torrefier that had been recently moved to SERC. Many of the meeting participants, including RFT’s technical and business leadership team, braved late-season storms and a major landslide to make the trek up from the Bay Area.

The meeting took place just days after SERC and RFT engineers first got the newly arrived torrefier up and running in the courtyard at the new SERC building. A torrefier is a device that heats and dries woody biomass in an oxygen-free reactor. The solid end product has a higher energy density than the feedstock biomass and can be co-fired with coal in conventional power plants, thus directly replacing fossil fuel with a renewable energy source. The torrefier also captures the energy-rich gases given off by the biomass during torrefaction. These torrgases can be used to produce all the heat and electric power needed to drive the torrefier, thus making it a stand-alone device and able to process wood in remote forest locations where no utility power is available.

Under an agreement with RFT, SERC engineers will work in the coming months to perform a complete torrefaction energy and mass balance and characterize the torrefier’s performance under a range of operating variables, including reactor temperature, feedstock moisture content, feedstock tree species, and dwell time of biomass in the reactor. The prototype unit produces five pounds per hour of torrefied wood. Using outcomes from SERC’s testing, RFT plans to build a much larger, pre- commercial torrefier with an output capacity of 25 tons per day.

SERC’s interest in torrefaction grows out of the long- recognized need in western states for a technology to recover biomass fuel from forests economically. Such a device would help to reduce wildfire risk and improve air quality by providing an alternative to the current practice of simply piling and burning woody material from forest fuel reduction projects and logging activities.

In addition to the torrefier demo, the April 7 meeting included a round table session, with ten individual presentations by attendees, and a tour of SERC’s new research facility. The meeting was a chance for SERC and RFT to show off a promising new technology to foresters eager to find solutions to the wildfires that plague western forests. “The unit works great, and we’re looking forward to a long-term collaboration with RFT on this research,” said SERC’s project manager Greg Chapman. “The Forest Service and forest industry people showed a lot of interest in the technology.”

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