BRDI Waste to Wisdom

biochar machine2

Biochar unit with instrumentation installed for testing.

In late July, Marc Marshall, Mark Severy, and I traveled to Pueblo, Colorado to conduct testing on a biochar production machine manufactured by Biochar Solutions Incorporated (BSI). The purpose of our three-week trip was to collect experimental data for use in evaluating stand-alone operation (i.e. without an external source of energy to power the process) of the biochar unit as part of the BRDI project.

Infrared image of biochar unit flare during operation.

Infrared image of biochar unit flare during operation.

Biomass conversion technologies (BCTs), such as the BSI biochar machine, can create higher market-value products in near-woods environments, justifying the transport of these products to market. This in turn could allow fuels reduction and forestry residual management projects to be implemented in greater numbers thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the risk of catastrophic wildfires. One of the goals of the BRDI project is to explore whether stand-alone operation of BCTs improves the economic and environmental benefits of removing slash and other woody residues from the forest.

We spent the first week in Pueblo installing instrumentation on the machine and setting up the data acquisition system. During the second and third weeks, we conducted experiments producing biochar with various biomass feedstocks.The variations in feedstock included tree species, particle size, anatomical distribution, percent contamination, and moisture content. Additional experiments led to design changes in the feedstock drying system and the air injection system for the flare.

The machine generates significant heat while operating (see photo at right). Some of this thermal energy is used for drying feedstock and some is used to preheat fresh air that is injected into the flare for complete combustion. Beyond the heat used for those purposes, there is a significant amount of high quality thermal energy that could potentially be used to generate electricity to power the machine at a forest landing site. Over the coming months, we will analyze the data and evaluate technologies that could be paired with the biochar machine to generate process electricity for stand-alone operations in near-woods environments.

Forest Biomass Energy: Looking for the Big Picture

This spring SERC embarked on a major forest biomass energy research project in partnership with Humboldt State University’s forestry department and researchers, entrepreneurs, and natural resource management agencies from a number of western and midwestern states. The “Waste to Wisdom” project will examine the entire supply chain of biomass, including collection, transportation, and pre-treatment of the material in the woods, as well as conversion of the material into energy and other marketable products using a variety of emerging technologies. Experts in economics, life cycle analysis, and environmental impacts will assess and compare the different biomass pathways.


Mike Alcorn, chief forester for Green Diamond Resource Company, shows the BRDI research team a site where material is collected for use at Humboldt County’s biomass power plants.

The project officially launched with a kick-off meeting at HSU on May 13 and 14. The project’s thirteen principal investigators as well as several other stakeholders gathered to meet one another and discuss how to coordinate the many components of this complex effort. The meeting included a trip to a nearby timber harvest site on Green Diamond Resource Company land where state-of-the-art technology and logistics are being used to gather, chip, and haul slash for use in Humboldt County’s biomass power plants.


SERC director Arne Jacobson, U.S. Forest Service economist Ted Bilek, and HSU forestry professor Han-Sup Han will lead BRDI’s three research teams.

SERC’s role in the project is to oversee the testing and evaluation of three different types of biomass conversion technologies (BCTs): a biochar unit, a torrefier, and a briquetter. Biochar is solid, carbon-rich biomass that has been treated at high temperature, above 500°C, and is used principally as a soil amendment. Torrefaction takes place at a lower temperature, near 300°C, producing a solid fuel that can be directly substituted for coal in existing power plants. Briquettes are made near ambient temperature by compressing finely ground biomass and can be used in place of cordwood in biomass-fired heating and power generation systems. An important goal of Waste to Wisdom is to adapt each of these BCTs for mobile, stand-alone use at remote sites where utility service is not available. Decentralized deployment of these BCTs could be an economically viable alternative to the costly collection and transportation of raw biomass from far-flung timber harvest and wildland fuel reduction sites.

The $7.45 million, three-year project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) program, jointly supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each of the collaborating partners is making a cost share contribution to the project’s total budget. SERC’s share of the federal funding is $900,000, to which the lab is adding $185,000 worth of labor, equipment, and facility use.

SERC director Arne Jacobson will act as principal investigator for the BCT evaluation component of Waste to Wisdom. “We are excited to be involved in this project. We have a great set of partners, and we look forward to a successful effort.”