Clean biocoal heating up with hemp, forest debris and kenaf
By Dawn Marie Yankeelov
On a recent afternoon, Dr. Jagannadh Satyavolu, the theme leader of biomass and biofuels at the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research, discussed the value of a new type of coal made from plants and wood waste that could be a game-changer in power-generation facilities. This is “biocoal,” and it holds real interest for those in Europe and Japan, as well as manufacturers in the United States looking at sustainability and green approaches to energy.
Dr. Satyavolu has a special interest in using forest waste, and even kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus, native to southern Asia) and hemp, in processes that can move energy consumers to greener, more sustainable sources. Those components are central to the biocoal formula that his team is producing and exploring for samples to export to interested industry partners. He is working with the University of Louisville, which has been a state-approved grower of hemp since 2016 as one of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s pilot program.
He pointed out that biocoal from forest waste and other plants has neither sulfur emissions nor mercury in its ash and, unlike other biomass products, is easy to grind. These factors move the yield to a burn that is cleaner than that of regular coal, which helps reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It also performs like traditional coal but with reduced ash content.
It is produced by processing dry biomass with a no-oxygen approach at high temperatures, a process referred to as torrefaction.
“We see an opportunity to ship these biocoal pellets to Europe and Asia, particularly Japan, to replace traditional coal. This is primarily wood chips and some plants. In the future of our economy, it may be possible to create rural jobs from the farming of plants and collection of forest waste for this process,” Dr. Satyavolu said. The manufacturing process also alleviates concerns related to heavy metals and adds to the agri-economy of the state. Various projects are being discussed with the state’s Department of Natural Resources to utilize forest ground and timber waste as well.
The best idea for coal-producing regions, he said, may be to assist in reclaiming land and jobs with this biocoal approach using wood waste from our forests. The biocoal also could then be used to assist in preparing the ground for the next hemp crop to increase soil fertility. This fact has not been ignored by industry—Vega Biofuels, in Norcross, Georgia, has begun creating such a biocoal product for market.
The carbon-neutral biocoal production is taking place in a new building where densification technologies are being applied. The densification process helps boost energy capacity. Dr. Satyavolu and his team have filed patents for various biomass solutions.
“Biocoal is a cleaner coal, and even with the conversion of just one power plant, we can make a difference,” he said.
Other companies and states have moved into this area of interest in the last two years, including Enginuity Worldwide, a company out of Mexico, Missouri, that looks to reduce the carbon footprint of coal-fired electricity in partnership with Nebraska’s Department of Environmental Quality.
The biocoal project is one of several key biomass approaches undergoing research and industry use in recent years at U of L’s Conn Center. Companies in the region are showing more interest in biofuels and biomass outcomes, looking at how to take their normal byproducts and make them work for a C5-based biorefinery, for example. The bourbon industry is exploring how to best use its distiller grains. University of Louisville has developed and demonstrated an integrated C5-based biorefinery concept in its published research. In this concept, Dr. Satyavolu’s team starts with a hemicellulose rich “captive” agricultural biomass and selectively extracts C5 sugars. The goal is to look at how the C5 sugars can be converted via chemical synthesis routes to higher-value bio-jet fuels and other fuel components.