Designing a Solution

Researchers develop a biomass supply chain model
By Erin Voegele | November 21, 2011

Developing effective biomass conversion technologies is only one component of building out the advanced biorefining industry. Those in the sector must also figure out ways to effectively and economically store, transport and deliver biomass to the many conversion facilities that will likely dot our national landscape.

A team of researchers at Texas A&M University is working on a modeling system that is designed to add to that process. Wilbert Wilhelm, a professor of Industrial Engineering, and Stephen Searcy, a professor of Biological and Industrial engineering, along with doctoral student An Heung, have formulated a statistical model that deals with multiple time periods and multiple commodities to address supply chain design problems for lignocellulosic biomass. The model considers all components of the supply chain, from feedstock suppliers to biofuel customers.

One of the big questions for biorefinery developers is whether you should have a centralized supply chain that serves a single large plant, or several smaller conversions facilities that are closer to sources of feedstocks, says Wilhelm. “There is a problem in moving biomass,” he says. “It doesn’t have a lot of energy content, and you may invest more energy moving it that you will be able to extract.”

The model developed by Wilhelm and his colleagues is flexible, allowing for the evaluation of various feedstocks. “You can define a particular feedstock by identifying certain parameter values,” he says, such as moisture content, energy content, and harvest area. According to Wilhelm, the model also addresses elements in the supply chain such as storage facilities. For example, he says, the model can evaluate the potential differences between small on-farm storage versus a larger, more regional storage solution. The model can also account for different conversion process parameters.

The research team is about to publish its third academic paper regarding the modeling system, and is hoping to continue to expand on this line of research in the future. “We are looking for funding to continue this work, and I have several colleagues who are interested in collaborating on such a project,” Wilhelm says, noting that the next step in the research would likely look to develop a solution methodology that would enable the model to better evaluate supply chain issues over larger geographical areas. 

—Erin Voegele