Recently, Dr. Manuel Garcia-Perez, an assistant professor and scientist, and his graduate students who study biosystems engineering in the WSU Reaugh Laboratory for Oil and Gas Research, garnered some attention for their research. The research in their lab addresses the environmental burden associated with the world’s declining petroleum resources by using new thermochemical conversion concepts. They are helping to advance the emerging biofuels industry by developing pyrolysis technologies. The same technology that produces charcoal used in many barbeques this summer is also a building block for helping the vision of a commercial, wood-based biofuels industry in the Pacific Northwest become a reality.

Through the pyrolysis process, biomass like wood, grass, and other organic material is exposed to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. This produces bio-oil, a precursor to bio-fuel, and other useful products like charcoal, or bio-char. Bio char photos“The low-hanging fruit for commercializing the technology to convert biomass to energy comes from sources like construction debris, for example, that are concentrated in one location,” Garcia-Perez said. “But in cases where the biomass is spread out over a large region, as with forestry waste, transportation to a processing facility can be expensive.” Therefore, the wood fuels industry is exploring mobile pyrolysis units, or reactors, to process the raw material right at collection sites  in the forest before transporting the resulting bio-oil to a refinery.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources recently sponsored an event in Bingen, WA to offer the public and industry a chance to learn about this technology. Nine WSU graduate students in Garcia-Perez’s lab shared their knowledge of pyrolysis and evaluated the products of two different mobile pyrolysis units developed by Amaron Energy and Western Renewable Technologies. The students collected samples of the bio-oil and bio-char produced for testing in their WSU lab.

They will provide lab results to the Department of Natural Resources and the two companies later this year on how much oil versus bio-char  the two units produced, the quality of the products, and how the two units compare in terms of pollution. The graduate students  were given a valuable opportunity to meet people in the industry who build pyrolysis systems and policymakers interested in how the technology might serve society.

This mobile technology shows promise, but Garcia-Perez cautions there are still limitations with it.  These include  the technology to refine bio-oil is not yet at a stage where it is ready for commercialization. But Garcia-Perez remains hopeful. A wood-based bio-fuels industry is intended to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and when used as a soil amendment in agriculture, bio-char can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering carbon in the soil.

“Mobile pyrolysis units are not yet commercially viable and the technology to refine bio-oil is still developing, but it has the potential to be a great benefit to society,” he said.