Where the Biomass Story Begins

By Tim Portz | July 22, 2013

In mid-June, a powerful summer storm tore through large swaths of Minneapolis, wreaking havoc on the city’s urban forests. Downed limbs and trees littered the city’s boulevards and interrupted power service for tens of thousands of homes. The echoes of the storm still reverberate at Ft. Snelling, where a wood waste-handling facility accepts truck after truck of fallen trees. To almost anyone else, the accumulated piles would seem to present the city with a massive disposal problem, but standing amidst the detritus with Mike Marsollek, Koda Energy’s director of supply chain, eyeing the front-end loaders and tub grinders working the pile, a carefully orchestrated process reveals itself. For him, the site holds only one thing: future Btus. The process to wring the energy from this tangle is a simple one.

The art and science of mechanically preparing wood residue streams for delivery to a boiler are well-developed, and as Anna Simet’s feature, “Preparation Protocol” (page 14)  illustrates, are vital aspects to the profitable operation of any facility making heat and power from biomass. But what about the incredible potential for biomass streams to contribute to liquid fuel and chemical markets? If this industry is going to establish itself as a relevant contributor to these markets, grab real market share, and deliver on its promise as a source for environmentally benign fuels and chemicals, the processes that prepare biomass streams for later conversion must become as well-understood by industry pros as mechanical pretreatment is by Marsollek.

In a continuation of this issue’s focus on pretreatment and material preparation, Chris Hanson’s  feature “The Cornerstones of Advanced Biofuels” (page 32) catches up with a sampling of the industry’s research efforts in the pretreatment approaches being pursued to unlock the soluble sugars bound up in miscanthus, sugarcane bagasse, corn stover and other abundant biomass streams. His feature digs into the work researchers around the world are conducting to find a pathway to the cost-effective pretreatment of these recalcitrant feedstocks, so their potential as fuel and chemical inputs can be realized.

This issue of Biomass Magazine provides evidence that the key to widespread deployment of biomass-to-energy production lies in the perfection of the very first conversion step that a feedstock stream undergoes. The challenge now lies in bringing the commercial viability of pretreatment enjoyed by the heat-and-power sector to our industry’s fuel and chemical endeavors.