The future of biomass revealed?

Commissioner Peter Goldmark sees demo of woody debris conversion into usable energy.
Commissioner Peter Goldmark sees demo of woody debris conversion into usable energy.

This week, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark stopped by the Willis chip plant in Cle Elum to see a demonstration of how wood chips, bark, and twigs are converted into usable energy. Goldmark joined a group of landowners, foresters, and WSU students to view a demonstration of what is called ‘mobile pyrolysis.’ This emerging technology offers important potential to generate energy from woody debris often left on the forest floor.

Basically, pyrolysis is a thermochemical process where organic material, such as wood, is heated in the absence of oxygen, causing the material to thermally decompose into combustible gases and charcoal products, such as bio-oil, bio-char, and syngas. Bio-oil can be used for heating or can be upgraded to transportation fuel. Bio-char can be used to make charcoal briquettes and increase the water- and nutrient-holding capacity of soil. Syngas can be used to produce thermal energy or electricity.

Several large research projects are underway in the United States and overseas to create biofuels from woody biomass and, in the process, generate clean energy from materials that would otherwise be discarded. The goal is to help keep both forests and the forest industry around here more resilient while contributing to local economies.

Mobile pyrolysis unit demonstrates the transformation of woody debris into gas, char and oil. Photo Janet Pearce/DNR
Mobile pyrolysis unit demonstrates the transformation of woody debris into gas, char and oil. Photo Janet Pearce/DNR

In 2013, approximately 23 percent of all renewable energy consumed was from wood – more than wind and solar combined – and second only to hydroelectric energy, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The U.S. Forest Service works with partners to support the development of wood energy projects that promote sound forest management, expand regional economies and create new rural jobs. The Washington Department of Natural Resources recently obtained a grant from the Forest Service to support the development of small to mid-scale wood energy systems in Washington state. The Cle Elum demonstration was one of 40 events in 24 states and Canada held by the U.S. Forest Service, state agencies, timber companies, and the biomass industry to raise awareness about bioenergy.

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