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Biomass Pretreatment Techniques

Energy Management

Site image of machinery in large lab

Biomass, whether forestry, agriculture-based, or from other biomass sources requires different pretreatments to make the material useful for specific downstream processing. Removal of water, natural resins or other components allow concentration of the carbon in the raw material to prepare it for next steps.
At NRRI, we are developing large-scale demonstrations of biomass pretreatment processes to provide industry-relevant data and support. During the summer of 2016, we completed commissioning of our Renewable Energy Laboratory located at our NRRI-Coleraine site. The first phase of facility capabilities will include the following techniques:


This is essentially a “light to dark roast” of woody biomass chips in an oxygen-deprived environment to deliver a uniform, dry solid fuel that contains approximately 90% the BTU content as an equal weight of western coal. This fuel product is to be furnished in tonnage quantities to industrial and power companies interested in offsetting use of coal to meet air standards and reduce ash output.  In addition to various bench scale reactors, NRRI has commissioned a rotary kiln based system capable of producing 4 t/d of torrefied material from 11 t/d  green wood chips.

In 2019, NRRI will also have a moving bed torrefaction system that will be capable of producing 3 t/d of torrefied product.  Recently, a successful test was conducted using the torrefied fuel as a coal replacement in the steam train at the Milwaukee Zoo.   Also, in 2019, the laboratory will have a newly designed steam boiler and engine/generator system capable of converting fuel products directly to electricity at the 100 kW level.  It also possesses two Biomax 25 low pressure gasification systems for converting solid biofuels into syngas for use in producing power or chemical products.

Hydrothermal Carbonization (HTC)

This process takes “wet” biomass such as agricultural waste or invasive water plant species and processes it in a process similar to a pressure cooker to produce an aqueous “energy mud” that has energy content similar to the dry torrefied fuel. This material is an excellent binder for the dry fuel to be compressed into briquettes for shipment. NRRI’s  pilot HTC process is now fully operational. The concept can be applied to help manage environmental issues associated with nuisance plant materials by providing an economic lever for their harvesting and conversion into useful fuel and chemical products. Some degree of ash and chemical removal can also be attained with this approach.  This unit also is targeted to process other waste biomass materials such as biosolids, manures, and the organic fraction from municipal solid wastes.

Densification Equipment

NRRI also has various capabilities for densification of the pretreated biomass including commercial-scale briquetting, pilot-scale pelleting, and pilot-scale ram extrusion equipment.  These capabilities allow simulation of potential biomass processing schemes to fully understand both technical and economic feasibility.