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Report: Pacific West Biomass Conference and Trade Show, Seattle WA, January 12-15 2011

By Kelpie Wilson, IBI Communications Editor

Can biochar be produced in bioenergy facilities? What are the associated technological and financial challenges? How much do biomass energy project developers know about biochar? IBI attended the Pacific West Biomass Conference and Trade Show to gather ideas about how biochar might fit into an existing and emerging bioenergy industry. IBI has agreed to be a supporting organization for a series of biomass conferences sponsored by BBI International, publishers of several US bioenergy industry magazines, including Biomass Thermal and Power. As a supporting organization, IBI was able to attend and distribute a basic biochar information flyer to all the participants. IBI has also agreed to be a supporting organization to the 19th European Biomass Conference and Exhibition: From Research to Industry and Markets taking place this June in Berlin, Germany.seattle steam

The conference began with a field trip to see several facilities, including Seattle Steam, a privately-owned utility that supplies district heat to 200 buildings in downtown Seattle, including the high rise hotel housing the conference. This biomass facility combusts 250 tons a day of woody biomass that comes off the back end of a municipal greenwaste composting center, ie, the wood chunks that are still intact after 90 days of composting. The plant is impressively small, wedged into about half a city block. The visibly clean smokestack and tiny footprint speak well to the feasibility of integrating biomass district heating systems in dense urban areas. About a third of the footprint is taken up by the fluidized bed boiler, a third by the truck garage and wood storage silo and another third by the baghouse and other pollution controls. Commenting on the size of the baghouse, our tour guide remarked: “burning biomass is easy – it’s cleaning up the emissions that’s hard.”
Photo: Inside Seattle Steam, courtesy of Kelpie Wilson

The emissions challenge was a consistent theme throughout the conference, with EPA due to issue its new rules on boiler emissions within days. The rules, known as the Boiler MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) have been heavily criticized by the biomass industry. On January 20th, EPA was granted a one month extension to respond to comments, but whatever the final rule looks like, the pressure is on to make biomass combustion as clean as possible. This may open the door to alternative biomass energy technologies like gasification and pyrolysis, which could in turn provide new opportunities for biochar production. Construction firms I talked to all said they could build a gasification facility but had not had many orders for one. When I asked one project developer if he thought the impending rules would push new facilities to gasification over combustion, his answer was: “Gasification is the wave of the future.”

How will biochar fit into a new energy future where fossil fuels are at peak, pollution controls are tight and carbon life cycle accounting comes to the fore? Dr. Jerry Whitfield, Director of Product Development for BioEnergy Systems LLC was ready with answers to this question in his presentation during one of the sessions on industrial heat and power.

Dr. Whitfield is an aeronautical engineer and entrepreneur who invented the wood pellet stove in 1983 and built a company, Pyro Industries, Inc. to manufacture and market this stove that is now in widespread use internationally. Biochar proponents will be happy to hear that Dr. Whitfield is now in the process of developing and commercializing a biochar-producing furnace for space heating applications at many scales. Space heating of buildings

Whitfield has also put a good deal of thought into the big picture and what he calls the “Char and Energy Value Paradigm” for Combined Heat and Char (CHC) systems. While burning pyrolysis gas for energy is inherently clean, about 40 percent (depending on the fuel feedstock) of the energy is left behind in the char. This would make the energy more expensive compared to complete combustion, but there are two main factors which change this equation. First is the fact that cheaper, lower quality fuel can be used in pyrolysis systems, including waste biomass like grass pellets that are not easy to use in combustion facilities. Second is the monetary value of the biochar produced, whether from sale as a soil amendment, carbon credits or both.

But how can developers finance biochar projects when the monetary value of biochar has not been established? One of biochar’s value streams is as an agricultural amendment, but there is a lack of large scale field trials to prove this value, partly because researchers can’t get enough biochar. One answer came from Joseph James, President of Agri-Tech Producers, LLC. James has a license for torrefaction technology developed by North Carolina State University and with support from the Forest Service Woody Biomass Utilization program and EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute), he is producing torrified wood pellets for co-firing with coal. This is not biochar, but pyrolysis is just torrefaction at a higher temperature, so the technology can easily produce biochar from wood or ag waste.  Over lunch, James asked me, “Who wants biochar? I’ve got lots of it.” Interested readers can contact James through his website.

Having a biochar presence at biomass energy conferences is a way to open doors and to make progress on some of the important issues in the biochar industry. One question that came up was whether or not char that is a byproduct of current technologies is usable as biochar. Several project developers I spoke to are operating wood gasifiers that have a char residual of about 10%. I was asked: “Where can I get my char tested to see if it is good biochar?”

While there is no definitive answer to this question yet, there should be soon. IBI is moving forward with a biochar characterization and standards effort that is on track to produce a draft standard by the end of this year. Clearly this effort is a high priority for the emerging biochar industry.