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MASBio launches $10m project to research biomass opportunities

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The Mid-Atlantic Sustainable Biomass for Value-Added Products Consortium (MASBio) is bringing researchers from five universities in the region together with government agencies and industry leaders to investigate biomass opportunities.

The project will look into land reclamation, biomass crop production, forest residue utilisation, supply chain logistics, and bioproduct development to advance the renewable biomass and bioproducts industries.

Funded by a $10 million (€8.48 million) competitive grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the project includes industry partners as well as researchers from Virginia Tech, West Virginia University, West Virginia State University, Penn State, the State University of New York, the US Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory, and the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Chad Bolding, professor of forest operations and engineering in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, and a co-principal investigator of the project will focus on the use of forest residues – secondary materials such as branches and treetops left behind after traditional forest products are transported to mills.

“My primary focus is developing cost-effective drying and processing approaches to these residues,” said Bolding. “These are low-value materials, so the margins to make them economically feasible are extremely thin.”

One of the main challenges of the project is that the residue materials are ‘green’ wood, meaning water comprises almost half the material’s weight. Bolding will research the practice of allowing the residues to dry on-site for months to reduce transport weight.

“Hauling water increases transportation costs and reduces efficiency, making it harder to profit from these materials,” added Bolding. “But the trade-off is that when you reduce the moisture, it makes the wood harder to process for energy production.

“The processing machines used on site such as chippers are designed to process flexible green wood, so when you introduce that is more brittle, it requires more effort from the machines, and more fuel to power them.

“It is also difficult to load trucks to maximum payload when hauling dry material. Trailer volumes are often reached prior to achieving the maximum gross vehicle weight.”

Bolding will also look at processing the materials on site and leaving the chipped product to dry before collecting it for transport. He added: “We’re working to find the right balance between reducing moisture content and minimising processing challenges and associated hauling cost.

“We will test the finished materials by analysing their energy and ash contents along with chip size distribution. These variables all affect product quality and value.”

Bolding is also involved with the education and outreach components of the project. Virginia Tech, working with other universities, will foster an undergraduate scholars’ programme that will rotate a summer internship programme among the universities, with students researching biomass and bioproduct development at host institutions. The scholars’ programme will specifically encourage the participation of minority and first-generation students.