Schatz Lab Gains $95K Biomass Research Grant

The Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University has received a $95,000 state grant to continue experiments aimed at converting biomass—slash from logging and fuel reduction efforts—into energy dense “bio-coal.”

The funding from the California Energy Commission enables the Schatz Center to continue its partnership with start-up company Renewable Fuel Technologies (RFT), San Mateo, which has developed and is now testing a pilot-scale, one ton per day torrefier. An emerging technology, the torrefier produces bio-coal from timber waste by heating biomass to 300C in the absence of air. Bio-coal can be co-fired in a power plant with standard fuels such as coal or wood chips to generate renewable electricity.

RFT has worked with the Schatz Lab for three years to operate a demonstration-scale, prototype torrefier for research, experiments and evaluations. The latest $95,000 grant supports continuation of that work, aimed at carefully measuring the energy and mass balances in RFT’s new pilot-scale unit. The measurements will aid in designing the torrefier for mobile, stand-alone operation and optimizing the technology for commercial use.

The focus on mobility is considered crucial if torrefier technology is to become commercially viable. A good deal of forest debris lies in many remote locations that are difficult to reach, generating high logistics overhead. By making biomass three times as energy dense, the mobile torrefier would provide a far more economical approach as well as a major incentive to commercial conversion of timber waste into very-low-carbon renewable energy.

“Biomass from timber industry waste and forest fuel reduction is a substantial resource for producing very-low-carbon energy,” says Schatz Center founding director Peter Lehman. “Portability is key. Mobile torrefaction would be a big leap over the obstacles to gathering, transporting, and co-firing biomass. A torrefier could be put on a trailer and taken into the woods where utility services are not available.”

In that connection, Professor Han-Sup Han and his students from Humboldt State’s Department of Forestry are modeling the deployment of portable torrefaction equipment for use in Humboldt County demonstration projects.

“Humboldt County, with its focus on sustainability, intends to be the leading renewable energy county in California,” says RFT’s Mark Wechsler. “Together with Schatz, we are planning to develop the engineering processes and forest management practices to transform mobile torrefaction technology into an economical production system.”