PA State Wood Energy Team Highlights/Next Steps

Penn State Extension Shifting Program to Biochar for Energy and Coproducts
PA State Wood Energy Team Highlights/Next Steps - News


These wood chips, left over from maintenance operations, could be a feedstock for biochar production.

Penn State Extension’s recent Symposium on developing markets for low use wood marked the final major event sponsored (in part) by the USDA-funded PA State Wood Energy Team. This group is in the process of evaluating the successes and challenges during its three years spent expanding the market for wood as an energy source in the Keystone State.

One of the goals of that team’s efforts was to improve the transparency of market prices. One of the speakers at the symposium proposed an option to do just that. As a publisher of wood manufacturing and forest management information Dan Meyer proposed proving market pricing information for biomass fuel commodities in the mid-Atlantic region. Symposium attendees had an interest in that information as there were both sellers and buyers of biomass feed stocks in the audience. Still, the challenge remains that woody biomass carries a traditionally low price and as such often isn’t worth the transportation costs to move it any distance much further than fifty miles. That was found to be another of the obstacles to woody biomass market growth encountered by the PA Wood Energy Team.

The last month of the PA Wood Energy team, on the bright side, is being spent planning to overcome several of the road blocks that have held back woody biomass as a fuel of choice. Of course there isn’t much that can be done to soften the impact that abundant low cost natural gas has had. Transforming woody biomass by converting it to a higher value commodity is one option left to be explored. This approach, the logic goes, could open options to other higher priced markets in which conventional woody biomass can’t compete. With more market options on the table more material currently in the category of “underutilized” can justifiably be harvested from the woods helping the industry to grow.

A combination of the PA Wood Energy Team learning curve, an opportunity presented by the 2017 Wood Innovation Grant program, and an article that appeared in the last edition of this newsletter have led to a strategic opportunity to grow the market for wood based renewable products in the region. The result has been that Penn State has been awarded a Wood Innovation Grant to develop markets for biochar. The commercial partner for this effort is Koppers, Inc., a multinational company with deep roots in Pennsylvania and a long history of wood products production.

Bio-char, comprised primarily of carbon, is obtained by thermally treating biomass at high temperatures. Its resulting properties make it more valuable than raw woody biomass alone. As bio-char it is mainly free of water so weight-related transportation costs is a lesser concern. It can be substituted for carbon from other sources such as in activated carbon applications used in the filtration of fluids and the absorption of contaminants. Bio-char can also replace coal, helping to improve emissions and reduce the carbon footprint in co-firing applications producing electricity. But probably the most exciting opportunities are those that have yet to be identified. That is a large part of the grant’s mission. Unlocking the potential of bio-char means creating new, valuable markets for woody biomass, the material that often gets overlooked and left onsite as trees are removed for whatever reason, chipped, and left on the ground to decompose.

The partner in Extension’s new venture, Koppers Inc. has a key interest in finding a new markets for this low value woody material since they produce wooden railroad ties each year to replace ties at the end of their useful life. These used ties, if processed into bio-char, could compete in markets dominated by non-sustainable fossil derived carbon products that are not carbon neutral. Bio-char could, as an example, displace traditional sources of high grade carbon that is at the core of a new class of super-capacitors that are being designed to bridge the energy storage gap between fluctuating solar PV electricity production projects and battery storage. The current workhorse in the battery field is lithium batteries that have a slow charging format. Super-capacitors respond to over voltage nearly instantaneously and can store electricity long enough to either discharge back to the grid to help maintain fluctuating voltages or slow charge batteries if need be. If you think about it you may come up with a few applications where high value carbon is used that could be sourced from a renewable, carbon neutral resource like woody biomass. The key factor is that the carbon required has a significant value.

Prepared by Ed Johnstonbaugh, Penn State Extension