Biomass Fuel Production

Biomass Fuel Production

A microorganism first found in the Valley of Geysers on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia in 1990 may be a key to more efficient cellulosic biofuel production, said January 6.

The microoorganism can digest cellulose almost twice as fast as the current leading component cellulase enzyme on the market, according to researchers at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

In its Russian home, the enzyme’s diet consisted of whatever it could find in a really hot environment with no oxygen: crystalline cellulose, hemicellulose, pectin, starch, and gum Arabic.

Biofuel researchers saw the potential to use the bacteria for munching through the tough cell walls of woody plants and converting the biomass to sugars, at a far lower cost than current technology allows. The bacteria loves to digest poplar as well as napier grass, Bermuda grass, and switchgrass,  In this round of tests, the researchers confirmed that enzyme, called CelA, can digest cellulose almost twice as fast as its conventional counterpart, a widely used enzyme called Cel7A.

Elsewhere, the projection for biomass fuel production in 2014 is glowing indeed.

A New Discovery

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) offers the early release of their energy production and consumption forecasts for the US all the way to 2040 in the Annual Energy Outlook (AEO), wrote Kolby Hoagland in Biomass Magazine January 3. Last year’s AEO predicted a sharp increase in the use of biomass fuel in cofire scenarios at coal fired generation plants. EIA continues to predict a steady increase in cofiring of biomass based on current policy trajectories. The 2014 AEO forecast for cofiring is slightly delayed and smoother than 2013 but continues to project that cofiring will have the greatest influence on the growth of the biomass sector with an annual growth rate of 14.5 per cent.

Private industry currently possesses close to two times more biomass power generating capacity for its private use than the biomass power sector can put onto the grid. Industry’s production capacity for private use totaled 4.9 gigawatts in 2012, while grid-connected biomass power capacity rates in at 2.7 gigawatts, continues Hoagland. A number of companies in the paper and pulp industry along with other large wood and biomass industries produce all the electricity that they use onsite and do not put any of their capacity onto the grid. The 2014 AEO forecasts further growth of private generation capacity of biomass power. Non-grid connected biomass power generation has an annual growth rate of 2.9 per cent while grid-connected biomass power’s growth rate is 0.9 per cent.

Meanwhile, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo released his agenda for 2014, which includes plans to launch a biomass heating initiative in the state.

Como’s agenda outline describes Renewable Heat NY as “a long-term commitment to help the high-efficiency and low-emission biomass heating industry reach scale.”  In its first year, the program will aim to raise consumer awareness and develop the larger-scale anchor customers that energy firms need to begin the transition of their heating oil delivery fleet to bulk biomass.

Renewable Heat NY will also aim to develop long-term, reasonably priced private sector financing to cover the up-front cost of qualified biomass heating systems for buildings outside of the municipal sector, and the state will provide support so that sustainable forestry practices are available for small and large landowners and are utilized to maintain and enhance the long-term health and productivity of New York’s forests.

In other government funding projects, a four-state team involving Montana State University (MSU) was awarded nearly US$10 million to investigate turning beetle-killed trees into biofuel, according to Big Sky Business Journal November 26. The award came from the US Department of Agriculture, and involves colleges in Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado in an effort to deal with the 42 million acres of forest impacted by the beetles.

The Agriculture Dept announced the award saying it would allow an academic, industry, and government consortium led by Colorado State University to study the major challenges that limit the use of beetle-killed trees in the Rockies as biofuel.

MSU will be responsible for mapping dead trees throughout the northern Rockies to help determine how much beetle-killed wood is available for biofuel, and will develop tools so scientists can rapidly detect outbreaks that will produce more dead wood. The work will involve ground surveys, remote sensing, geographic information systems, and spatial modeling, which will help evaluate the history, current extent and logistics of using beetle-killed trees for biofuel. MSU researchers will work with rural landowners, resource managers and communities to examine the practicality and ecological sustainability of woody debris acquisition and refinery locations.

As well, new projects producing energy from forest and sawmill residue are springing up across North American, Europe, and the UK.

Colorado Springs Utilities has just begun its year-long biomass power pilot project to determine the best cofiring blend at its Martin Drake Power Plant, said Biomass Magazine January 3.

The plant will consume 50 to 60 tons per day of one inch or less sized woodchips, supplied by Rocky Top Resources, out of Colorado Springs, CO. Fort Carson will also provide scrap wood and purchase 2.5 megawatts (MW) of energy to meet its goal of becoming a net zero energy and waste installation. Of the biomass fuel mix, 60 per cent is composed of industrial wood waste and 40 per cent derived from woody biomass, such as dead juniper trees, said Terry Meikle, energy supply manager at CSU.

The plant has combusted a biomass blend since December 18 and is addressing an issue around a particular pulverizer’s ability to process the biomass, Meikle said.

Scrubber bars within the hammermill at the Drake No. 5 unit made it the ideal choice for the biomass fuel, Meikle says. CSU has tested the biomass in a ball mill pulverizer, but found that it only flattened the biomass and plugged the mill.

Over the next few months, the utility company will be investigating other technology to make system feeding more efficient, said Biomass Magazine. Still in the US, researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a simple, effective and relatively inexpensive technique for removing lignin from the plant material used to make biofuels, which may drive down the cost of biofuel production, said TG Daily, a technology newsletter, Wednesday. Lignin, nature’s way of protecting plant cell walls, is difficult to break down or remove from plant materials called “biomass,” such as the non-edible parts of the corn plant. However, that lignin needs to be extracted in order to reach the energy-rich cellulose that is used to make biofuels.

The researchers began by making a number of liquid salts called “protic ionic liquids” or PILs. These PILs are fairly inexpensive to prepare, because they are made by mixing together an acid, such as acetic acid (more commonly known as vinegar), and a base (a chemical class of materials called amines). As part of the pretreatment process, one of the PILs is mixed with biomass and then heated and stirred. The lignin dissolves into the PIL, leaving the cellulose behind as a solid. The cellulose, which is now much easier to process, is then easily filtered from the mixture for use in the next biofuel production steps.

And in Canada, the Ontario government has announced plans to convert its last coal-fired electricity generating plant to an advanced biomass fuel. This will put the government on target to achieve its goal of eliminating coal-fired generation before the end of 2014.

The Thunder Bay Generating Station, which is operated by Ontario Power Generation, is said to be the first advanced biomass station in the world that was formerly a coal plant. It will have a five-year contract to generate electricity. The modifications to the plant will begin in 2014, and it is expected to be operational in 2015.

In September 2013, Ontario Power Generation conducted a successful test burn using 100 per cent advanced biomass, which was the first of its kind in the world.

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