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First-of-its-kind woody biomass project takes root south of campus

The first of six 10-acre plots of hybrid poplar have been planted at Michigan State University as part of a new, long-term plan to use woody biomass for energy on campus.

May 29, 2013 - Author: Holly Whetstone

Hybrid poplar plantings at the MSU Tree Research Center

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The first of six 10-acre plots of hybrid poplar have been planted at Michigan State University as part of a new, long-term plan to use woody biomass for energy on campus.

Eventually the trees will be harvested, chipped and burned as a coal alternative at the T.B. Simon Power Plant, the single largest on-campus consumer of fossil fuels. It is an initiative between MSU AgBioResearch, MSU Extension, and the departments of Forestry and Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering to help the university move toward 100 percent renewable energy.

The MSU Energy Transition Plan, adopted last year, will invest in sustainable energy research and development with the aim of improving the physical environment and helping MSU become an educational leader in sustainable energy.

Current estimates indicate that the Simon Power Plant produces 1.7 percent of its energy needs by using untreated wood chips. Only one of the four boilers at the power plant is equipped to burn wood chips. The remaining three can burn only a fuel that handles exactly like coal. By using a process called torrefaction, MSU scientists can create a material called torrefied biomass that is suitable for the boilers.

Through torrefaction, the biomass plant material is roasted for a brief period of time to eliminate excess moisture and volatile chemicals. These chemicals can then be burned to power the process, and the result is a concentrated material that can be transported and burned exactly like coal.

Ray Miller, director of the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation Center in Escanaba, is coordinating the project. He said utilizing woody biomass for energy is more ecologically sustainable than many other alternatives because it doesn’t release carbon into the atmosphere.

“Getting the carbon we need for fuel from trees that recently pulled it out of the air closes the loop, and so we don’t have any net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. If we do this right, the process can be economical, renewable, and sustainable.”

Through the new energy plantation and wood procurement system at MSU, researchers estimate that the university will be able to move quickly toward its renewable energy goals. The plantations and torrefaction research facilities will also be used for teaching, extension and commercialization activities that will aid growers interested in growing woody biomass.

Paul Bloese, tree improvement supervisor with the MSU Department of Forestry, is one of the scientists responsible for the new biomass plantings.

“Growers considering going into this in a commercial way are going to need some kind of assurance that what they’re putting into the ground and the systems they’re using to plant and maintain these plantations are actually going to work,” he said. “We can bring the growers out to these blocks and say, ‘This is what we’ve done, this is how we did it, and these are our results.’”

MSU’s energy plantations will also help researchers improve the commercial production process.

“The plots are at a semi-commercial scale, and large enough that we’ll be able to gather some true economic returns and cost information as well as refine the commercial techniques that growers would need to do this profitably,” Miller said. 

Using torrefied biomass could also have benefits for utilities providers and other groups across the state.

“If we use MSU’s teaching and extension resources wisely, we can encourage the commercialization of both these technologies – energy farming and torrefied wood production and consumption in Michigan. That does not have a benefit just for our university and its goals for the Energy Transition Plan but also for growers and businesses that might want to use these same techniques,” Miller said.

The project also involves the purchasing and development of a torrefaction reactor for campus. The reactor would provide a sufficient quantity of biomass to allow the campus to maximize use of biofuels under the current permits while opening the path for even greater biomass use in the future.

Projections also indicate that including a torrefaction reactor on campus will reduce the cost of altering the biomass, and that combining the use of the new torrefied biomass with other renewable energy sources such as biogas, wind power and solar power (as set out by the Energy Transition Plan) will enable MSU to reach its renewable energy goals by 2030. 

Staff members at the power plant are conducting analyses on the feasibility of using torrefied wood on a large scale, and Miller said the future looks promising for the new technology.

“As long as we’re using natural gas, coal or anything like that, we’ll never get to that renewable energy goal,” he said. “Torrefied biomass is basically a drop-in replacement for coal and will go a long way to reduce the fossil fuel consumed by the university.”

Photo: Ten acres of hybrid poplar cuttings were planted May 16 at the MSU Tree Research Center, south of the main MSU campus. Another 50 acres are scheduled to be planted in the near future.

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