Engineering a Better Biomass Supply Chain

Agricultural and biological engineers are making significant contributions to the biomass industry.
By James H. Dooley | January 30, 2013

We all know the refrain, “How many gallons of biofuel does it take to grow and process enough biomass to make a gallon of biofuel?” This is not a rhetorical question to agricultural and biological engineers around the globe who have already achieved tremendous energy and conversion efficiencies throughout the biomass supply chain. Engineers at equipment firms are making improved combines and balers to enable single-pass harvest of corn and stover. High-density bales of dedicated energy crops and commodity-scale pellets improve transportation payloads, thus reducing the cost and fuel consumption for delivery from producers to refiners. Biological engineers who have special expertise at the intersection of plant biology, bioprocessing, and engineering are decreasing the energy consumed in grinding and drying. They are substantially improving yields from both biochemical and thermochemical conversion of biomass to biofuels and bioproducts to get more product out of each unit of biomass input.

Agricultural engineers at farm equipment manufacturers have designed new generations of balers that are compatible with crop residues and dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass. They are adapting forage harvesters to meet the more challenging physical properties of woody biomass, miscanthus, sorghum and other high-moisture biomass. For example, Jeremiah Johnson, a recent agricultural and biological engineering graduate, is working at John Deere on one-pass harvesting of grain and biomass, and other engineers at Deere are working to develop equipment for bale handling and transport through the supply chain.

Entirely new types of equipment are being invented specifically for use in the biomass supply chain. Engineers at Forest Concept created a new class of biomass milling equipment that works on both wet and dry feedstocks and consumes minimal energy to produce small particles; their new Crumbler machines came onto the market in the fall of 2012. The Anderson BioBaler round bale machine was developed in Canada by agricultural engineers for use with willow farms, and now is increasingly used in vegetation management applications to collect biomass for biopower applications. Engineers Dave and Chris Lanning from Forest Concepts, in partnership with Jim Fridley, professor of forest engineering systems design, applied a science-based process to design a street-legal, large-square baler to replace chippers and make it easier to recycle woody biomass and prunings from urban and suburban landscapes.

Outside of equipment, tremendous investments are being made in biomass engineering research by federal agencies, particularly the USDA and U.S. DOE.

Biomass Engineering Research

Federal research investments are being directed toward innovative research and development programs at universities, research centers, and private companies to further reduce the cost, improve sustainability, and improve worker safety throughout the biomass supply chain. Engineering research is a vital part of the effort.

One example is the work of Ray Huhnke, an agricultural engineer and director of the Biobased Products and Energy Center at Oklahoma State University, who is leading a team of engineers and plant scientists to improve biomass sustainability while reducing costs. The OSU biosystems and agricultural engineers use a “whole-system” approach consisting of industry-scale machinery performance evaluations, large-scale biomass storage trials, and comprehensive material property characterizations to develop best management practices for the biofuels feedstock system.

Another example is Hasan Atiyeh in the biosystems and agricultural engineering department at OSU, who is quantifying the effects of feedstock specifications on conversion technologies. Atiyeh is finding that a gasification-syngas fermentation hybrid technology is more tolerant to changes in feedstock specifications compared to biochemical conversion, because it utilizes all components of the biomass regardless of their compositions. The hybrid technology may increase the conversion efficiency of biomass feedstocks to biofuels by more than 35 percent compared to pure biochemical technology, while reducing supply chain costs.

Vance Morey and other agricultural engineers at the University of Minnesota are developing a system for bulk handling of corn stover and other feedstocks, to solve the problem of long-distant transport of low-density, round and square stover bales. These engineers are designing a low-cost method for farmers to grind baled stover and compact it into high transport-density units for delivery.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, more than 30 agricultural and biological engineers conduct biomass production engineering research under the direction of research leader K.C. Ting within the BP PLC-funded Energy Biosciences Institute. This research program has been organized into five task teams that span agricultural biomass supply chain technologies from sensors to machinery and operations management.

In the forest biomass sector, Han-Sup Han, a forest operations engineer at Humboldt State University, has been developing lower-cost methods to recover forest residuals and other woody biomass for delivery to biopower and bioenergy users.

While examples of engineer contributions are numerous beyond the aforementioned, as the biomass industry continues to grow, additional engineers will be needed by equipment manufacturers, feedstock processors, biorefineries, and downstream processors.

Educating the Next Generation

There are more than 40 agricultural and biological engineering academic programs in the U.S. and Canada, with many more around the globe. Many universities now have a bioenergy-related track for undergraduates, and professional-level master’s degrees specific to the needs of the bioenergy industry. 

Paul Weckler of the biosystems and agricultural engineering program at OSU prepares his students for entry into the bioenergy industry through immersion in design projects. One example is a current senior design project focused on highly mechanized biomass harvesting for biofuel feedstock production.  Students are developing an attachment to Agco’s large-square baler that will alter the bale’s placement onto the ground, reducing the cost of bale collection for delivery to depots or biorefineries.

Four universities—Oklahoma State University, Kansas State University, University of Arkansas and South Dakota State University—have collaboratively developed a new professional-level graduate program that prepares participants for careers in the emerging biobased industries through an innovative, distance-enabled platform. The multidisciplinary, master’s degree-level graduate certificate in bioenergy and sustainable technology includes course topics such as biomass feedstock development, bioenergy economics and sustainability, and biomass conversion technologies.

Agricultural and biomass feedstock engineer Mark Dilts is an example of the new generation of young professionals supporting the biomass industry. After graduation from Iowa State University, he became a feedstock development engineer with Poet LLC in South Dakota, and recently joined the CNH International agricultural machinery company in Pennsylvania where he is designing specialized field machinery. Dilts says that agricultural engineers receive a broad base of knowledge during their education, and nowhere is this more important than when solving multidisciplinary challenges such as development of the biomass supply chain. “As a feedstock development engineer, I had to interface with chemists, design engineers, and marketing folks,” Dilts adds. “Now I design machinery, dealing with CAD design, strength calculations, and power requirements.”

The demand for competent new engineers to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding biomass and bioenergy industry requires continuous recruitment of young people who are good at science and math. Through the profession’s technical society, the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, employers and academic institutions cooperatively market the profession to high schools, and participate in E-Week, the national event celebrating engineering. Each year ASABE sponsors the Most Sustainable Food Production System award as part of the Future City competition where middle school students are challenged to create a technical vision for communities 150 years in the future that are self-sufficient for food, water and energy.

ASABE provides a global forum for exchange of ideas and knowledge in the feedstock arena with more than 300 presentations at each of its recent annual conferences, and is the administrator of more than 50 voluntary standards being used in the feedstock supply chain. ASABE, which is leading the development and improvement of additional international standards, also hosts an online technical library that includes thousands of bioenergy-related conference papers, peer reviewed journal articles, and proceedings of specialty conferences. The next annual meeting, in July, will likely be attended by more than 1,500 participants, and will include hundreds of presentations related to biomass production, processing, and utilization, as well as dozens of technical committee meetings for discussion of topics of interest to technical specialists.

Engineers are a unique lot who hold a belief that the status-quo is not good enough, and that opportunities always exist to make the world a better place through innovation, creativity and disciplined engineering. Engineering has played a vital role in making today’s biomass feedstocks more economical, environmentally sustainable, and of higher quality. As second-generation cellulosic biofuels enter commercialization, the role of engineers competent in agricultural and biological systems will be increasingly important to invent and implement technologies at scale and in the context of local communities, biorefinery pathways and regulatory requirements.

Author: James H. Dooley
Chief Technology Officer, Forest Concepts LLC