Working out the logistics of biomass as a viable energy resource
Biomass is one obvious answer to the question of how this country will address its needs for renewable, sustainable energy resources. But logistical questions and related financial considerations surrounding the initiation and operation of biomass supply and energy output facilities — location, production, harvest, storage and transport, to name a few — are less obvious. University of Missouri industrial engineering Professor Wooseung Jang’s current research project will map out a dynamic simulation model of biomass-based energy with widespread adaptability, using Missouri as a prototype.
The computer-based model will pinpoint strategic locations for processing facilities and even potential sites for biomass power plants, taking a complex number of variables into account based on the flow and interplay among four areas of concentration: harvest, processing, storage and power plant destinations.
“Many logistics models are static, but this one is much more dynamic,” Jang said of the multi-stage biomass supply chain and logistics framework he is working to develop. “It’s much more complicated. There are strategic, long-term decisions to consider, and there are day-to-day operating, more tactical decisions.”
Jang received funding for the project from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the Center for Excellence in Logistics and Distribution (CELDi), an NSF-funded industry and university cooperative research project (I/URCR). The applied research consortium, in which Mizzou Engineering is a one of eight research universities, also includes 30 member organizations. Mizzou Engineering’s biomass proposal was selected for funding in an open competition among all I/UCRCs. The intent of the project is to position CELDi as a leading enabler of biomass.
The logistical process
“We started by listing all of the factors we were interested in considering, the data we would need to collect and how we would want to model it,” said Jang.
“The biomass must be dense, and it must be affordable to ship,” said Professor Cerry Klein, one of two colleagues from the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering (IMSE) who is collaborating with Jang. He said technologies are being developed that will compact the biomass, making it more economical to ship, and that the group is working on how to make logistics decisions about this part of the process as it is difficult to accurately predict.
“We are trying to predict some of the futurist technologies,” Klein said.
“The cost and yield are dependent on weather and political issues, including the cost of oil,” said Jang. “Those also are difficult to predict accurately.”
Government subsidies are an additional variable that make this project different than traditional models with fixed rules and policies. A Biomass Crop Assistance Program was created as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, in part to address “the chicken or the egg” aspect of a commercial biomass industry. Farmers will not grow biomass if there’s no demand, but without a guaranteed biomass source, energy facilities are hesitant about converting or building.
Missouri is an interesting test case as 14 million acres of the state are forested — the seventh most-forested state in the nation — and major river corridors and railroads transverse the state. Additionally, the project is working to identify underutilized farmland where biomass crops such as miscanthus and switchgrass can be planted.
“Missouri has demand points [for biofuels] where marginal land can be utilized just to produce biomass,” said IMSE professor Jim Noble, who serves as the MU College of Engineering’s CELDi site director.
“We are using two databases, one from the federal government and one from Missouri. With the Missouri spatial data map, we can see the state’s forest coverage,” said Kurt Ehlers, an IMSE junior working on the project. “We’ve combined the two to make a map of every county in Missouri.”
“We formulate coverage into cells and a percentage of coverage is assigned an amount of available biomass,” said IMSE doctoral student Zhongwei Yu, who is spearheading modeling efforts.
Yu said he used ArcGIS, a geographic information system, to store, analyze and display the forest database. Matlab was used to analyze and transform numeric data and he is using Lingo, optimization-modeling software, to solve the mathematical model.
In addition to biomass availability, Yu said there are a number of further considerations that rank each area’s viability. Highway access, elevation, proximity to waterways and urban areas, and distances between processing plants and biofuel power plants are all weighed. “Routing is a big issue,” he added.
The research group has an interesting opportunity with a “demand point” right in its backyard. The University of Missouri’s power plant currently blends up to 10 percent of woody biomass in its stoker boilers, and is replacing one of the plant’s solid fuel-fired boilers with a biomass boiler. Each year, the new boiler will use more than 100,000 tons of biomass, reducing the university’s fossil fuel use by 25 percent.
“We’re beginning commissioning of the various systems with the new boiler this summer and expect it to be operational this fall,” said Karlan Seville, MU’s campus facilities spokesperson. “We’re really excited about providing MU with sustainable energy and working with campus researchers in the development of biofuel resources.”
Because of MU’s biofuel initiative, Jang’s research team has used the university plant in the model, along with additional potential biomass power plants in Ava, Mo., and Salem, Mo. Both are in the southern part of the state where there is the highest concentration of woody biomass.
“The model will show where the MU power plant could go to buy biomass at the lowest cost,” said Klein.
Missouri’s woody biomass
“Pretty much any woody residue is considered biomass,” said Ehlers. “Waste from forest-harvesting operations, twisted trees, stumps and sawdust from sawmills. Missouri’s forests are very overpopulated, and most people don’t know it,” Ehlers said.
Gene Garrett, a retired MU silviculturist who knows Missouri’s forests, has served as a consultant to the research team.
Of the state’s 14 million acres of forested land, private landowners own 85 percent, and according to Garrett, only between five and 10 percent of it is managed with practices that would encourage a biomass industry.
“Many of these people are not interested in making a profit from their trees,” Garrett said. “For them, it’s recreational with hunting and outings. Even if we can make a case for managing their forests, they just want to leave it to nature.”
Garrett said Missouri’s forests are crowded and unmanaged. Depending on the number of stems [trees] per acre, the forest could be under stress, susceptible to insect infestation and disease. To maximize benefits, forests must be healthy and vigorous, meaning certain trees must be removed.
“Recently, the red oak stem borer has caused us to lose an incredible number of acres of trees,” Garrett added, saying that crowding contributes to these types of infestations.
The silviculturist said the very idea of managing Missouri forests and utilizing excess woody biomass for energy is extremely exciting, but educating landowners will be a challenge.
The research group also has spoken to foresters about fast-growing trees such as the poplar that could be planted and managed on biomass farms, just like other fuel crops.
“There are tremendous opportunities in this state — profound possibilities. It would create jobs in places where we need them,” Garrett said.
Challenges and payoffs
Jang is hopeful that within five to 10 years, the biomass industry in Missouri might be sustainable, but he said that there are some concerns.
“It may compete with other industries using wood products,” he said. “There are plenty of materials to sustain a small number of power plants, but what if there are many? There are some concerns, but we have to begin somewhere, and there are many benefits.”
“We see this as having a large rural economic component,” said Noble, echoing Garrett’s sentiment.
In addition to adding to the country’s energy independence, the group notes that using biofuels will reduce carbon emissions, and it will produce cost-effective energy.
Halfway through the project, they expect to have a base model within the two-year period of the grant, one that can be used by nearly any entity to predict the most cost-efficient approach to implement the use of biomass to produce electricity.
“As I’ve studied this and gotten more into it, I’ve become more and more interested in the impact this will have in 10 or even 100 years down the road. Many good things may potentially come from our model,” Jang said.