Coleraine NRRI Labs Create Wood Waste Biofuel

Baihly Warfield
October 04, 2017 09:23 PM

UMD's Natural Resources Research Institute hasn't found the substitute for coal, but researchers may have found a supplement. 

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It's part of a research venture 10 years in the making. NRRI Executive Director Rolf Weberg said they set out to try to find a way to make biomass easier to work with. 

"The funny part is, this started looking at our biomass sources as a way to provide carbon for making steel," Weberg said. "The first iteration of this was actually a pig roaster."

They are using agriculture waste, potential forest fire fuel, industrial wood waste and invasive species to be broken down and basically roasted. It all happens at the NRRI Coleraine Laboratories. 

Weberg compared the process to coffee. 

"You can do light roast, it just dries wood. but a dark roast, you concentrate the carbon into an efficient, carbon-rich fuel," he said. 

That process creates what looks like burnt woodchips. Then, they are turned into powder and densified into briquettes that look like chunks of charcoal. 

The substance burns like coal but without the sulfur and heavy metal pollutants. 

Don Fosnacht, associate director at NRRI, said there are advantages to these biofuel briquettes. 

"This is a very energy-dense product now," Fosnacht said. "It can be very tough to bust these. So it can be very nice in handling in shipment."

Plus, they're moisture-resistant. So they don't give off carbon monoxide like other materials might. The briquettes are not biologically active. 

Weberg said they have the ability to produce 4-6 tons of biofuel per day. 

"It is not a production facility," Weberg said about the Coleraine lab. "It's relevant industrially because we can process 5-6 tons a day. That means you can do big experiments."

Portland General Electric has tested NRRI's product in a coal-powered plant, according to Fosnacht. 

The plant, which is in Boardman, Oregon, went through about 5,000 tons of the wood waste biofuel. Fosnacht said the 5,000 tons lasted them about a day and a half. They did one test using solely the biofuel in the coal furnaces, and one using the biofuel to supplement the coal. 

Weberg said converting wood waste to biofuels is a worldwide endeavor, and it can't be done without collaborators. He praised partners like Minnesota Power and state legislators for help making it happen. 

Weberg is optimistic about what the biofuel could mean for Minnesota's energy future. 

"We're in the middle of an energy transition in Minnesota," Weberg said. "We have an $18 billion bill every year that goes out of the state because we import all of our energy."

They also hope this is the first step in developing higher value forms of the biofuel, like synthetic natural gas, diesel and jet fuel. 


Baihly Warfield

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