Restored Forests Absorb More Carbon

My last blog announced the grand opening of our demonstration plant. We had no idea how busy we would be over the next two years. While we had already performed a successful 72-hour continuous run before that grand opening ceremony, we continued to make the most of having a demonstration facility. For the next two years, we made many more production test runs, using a variety of feedstocks, and making improvements to make our process more cost effective and energy efficient along the way.

Our last production run used torrefied sawmill residues that were densified into these sturdy, water resistant torrefied briquettes. With the demonstration phase behind us, now all our efforts are toward having a first commercial plant producing TorrB® biocoal.

While our most recent run used mill residues as feedstock, it is HM3’s ability to use actual forest residues as feedstock for our process that sets it apart from other technologies. This use of forest residues could be extremely important for long range management of forests, and, in turn, their ability to absorb huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

Numerous studies have been conducted on the long-range benefits of forest restoration. A recent one, conducted by Lisa A McCauley (a spatial analyst at the Nature Conservancy) and others, concluded that quick restoration of forests means less fuel for wildfires and more storage for carbon in the long run.  The abstract on their research for a presentation at the Ecological Society of America’s Annual Meeting in Kentucky can be found here: https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/eap.1979 The ESA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of scientists that addresses issues such as natural resource management and ecological restoration.

They conducted their analysis based on restoration operations in northern Arizona, where the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) has been working collaboratively to restore forests. I have visited the area three times since last November and have seen first-hand the enormous restoration work being done there. Here lies the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world, and untreated areas are thick with small diameter trees that would provide fuel for catastrophic wild fires under the right conditions. As many as 600 or even 900 trees are crowded together per acre, so a lightening strike can start a fire that can spread all too quickly.

The huge amounts of forest residue left over from large restoration operations are usually disposed of in pile burns. And this is the reason why the community members, foresters and 4FRI members I spoke to about HM3’s torrefaction technology are excited. They will perform far fewer pile burns if TorrB® biocoal production uses that forest residue as feedstock.

As a result of my travels, HM3 Energy is working collaboratively with Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute and Coconino County to make commercial biocoal production there a reality. Small trees and brush will be cleared out of the forest more economically, and thus more rapidly when used as the feedstock for HM3’s process. In turn, the first of many TorrB® biocoal plants will turn the abundantly available biomass into carbon neutral fuel that directly replaces coal in coal power plants. Forest health in treated areas will increasingly improve and the forest will become more efficient at absorbing carbon. A win-win solution if I ever saw one!

You can learn more about 4FRI’s work in restoring forests here: https://4fri.org/

$4 Million Demonstration Plant Grand Opening

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I know it has been some time since my last blog, but there has been good reason… I’ve been busy! This spring, we completed construction of our $4 million demonstration plant. The plant uses commercial grade equipment, and can be easily scaled up for construction of commercial sized plants anywhere a sustainable biomass supply is available.

The demonstration plant serves two needs: 1) building this plant helped us hone our torrefaction and densification processes before building a commercial sized plant, and 2) now we have a demonstration plant to perform smaller scale testing on all kinds of potential feedstock for our waste-to-energy technology. This includes various kinds of woody biomass as well as agricultural residue such as orchard prunings, sugar cane or coconut residue.

On October 18 we held a grand opening and tour of our new facility. This is the first time we have opened the plant to energy policy makers, forestry managers and others in the timber industry, and the response has been fantastic.

I want to thank all those who came to see just what we have been up to lately. Also, a big thank you to all those who helped with the event, including enthusiastic, significant help from Oregon BEST in getting the word out to attendees and members of the press, and Senator Wyden’s office in working us into his schedule. We relished the chance to give a tour to Senator Ron Wyden, a strong and most welcome supporter of our efforts over the years.

Forest management and failure to thin

The Rim Fire in California is just a couple thousand acres away from becoming the
third largest fire in that state’s history. Let’s look at the statistics so far:

  • Started August 17
  • 237,341 acres (371 sq. miles) burned so far
  • Bay Area water supply threatened at one point
  • $77 million cost to date

Here’s something of note—nearly half of the Rim Fire burned in the first two
days
. Fire experts attribute decades of fire suppression and other human-caused
changes to spreading the fire. Once the blaze reached Yosemite National Park, where
the National Park Service has performed fire control projects to reduce stocked fuels
in recent years, and lets naturally sparked fires burn, the fire slowed down its
advance.

My question is… how can we NOT afford forest management? Why not reduce stocked
fuels through thinning and then torrefy that biomass to produce energy dense biofuel?

“My view is that unless we get ahead of the fuels/restoration problem in forests that
once experienced frequent fire, wildfires influenced by climate change will burn them
at severtities and spatial scales that will not conserve forests into the future,”
says Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the Unversity of California,
Berkeley.

The increasing severity of wildfires should concern all of us who look at forests as a
way to capture carbon dioxide. How California’s Rim Fire Grew So Big is a very
informative piece at livescience.com. You’ll also find a time-lapse video
of the fire
on the same site.

Juniper biomass – a great source of energy!

Large shrubby juniper trees are almost a western icon and rather picturesque – until you realize they are considered by many to be an intrusive species that is depleting the water tables in our grasslands and rangelands. Many plant and animal species are in decline where juniper prevails: indigenous grasses that provide food for wildlife and stock, as well as habitat for steelhead trout and the threatened Sage Grouse. Juniper has proliferated throughout central and eastern Oregon in the last 150 years, increasing as much as ten-fold, according to Oregon State University researchers. The situation is so bad that a “Western Juniper Utilization Group,” an Oregon Solutions project, has been designated by Gov. John Kitzhaber.
Sustainable Northwest, a nonprofit organization that works with communities to innovate and solve critical natural resource challenges, is promoting use of restoration juniper for landscaping, decking and other building materials. As a result, water tables are slowly being restored.
But there is lots more work to be done. Almost twenty years ago The Oregon State University Extension did an exhaustive study on the harmful effects of juniper on rangeland. They found that “on warm days, in mid-summer, a tree 18 inches in diameter at its base can transpire 30 – 40 gallons [of water] per day…” The report reviews techniques for eradicating juniper, concluding western juniper is highly sensitive to fire and difficult to burn. Burning slash piles would contaminate the air and possibly spread fire elsewhere. The already weaken soil could be sterilized due to the high heat.
I can’t help but imagine using juniper biomass – from after harvest by the Western Juniper Utilization Group or other efforts – as a feedstock for torrefaction, a technology that was not available at the time this report was written. HM3 Energy has torrefied and densified (using commercial equipment) sturdy, water resistant juniper briquettes at our pilot facility. I can envision commercial torrefaction plants in rural Oregon producing long-term family-wage jobs in the future.

Torrefaction – wildfire prevention and rural jobs

Welcome to my very first blog. Naturally, I’ll talk about biomass torrefaction, something HM3 Energy has been working on since 2009. Biomass is what’s created from thinning overgrown and unhealthy forests, waste from sawmills and forest products manufacturing and after-harvest agriculture vegetation. It can be woody waste materials left over from home construction and remodeling. Our technology combines the age-old value of thriftiness with new-age innovation to produce renewable energy, more rural jobs and cleaner air from biomass.

We are now in the wildfire season in the US.  Forests that have not been managed (often due to underfunding) and are overstocked with fuel in the dry summer air and vulnerable to forest fires. These intense wildfires don’t discriminate between old growth and underbrush. They burn it all, filling the air with particulate and leaving a swath of blackened stubs and ash.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Woody biomass can collected before a wildfire occurs, as a part of wildfire prevention. This woody biomass feedstock can be used in the commercial production of torrefied biomass briquettes – a much more energy dense, water resistant biomass fuel that can actually replace coal in coal-fired power plants without modifications. Because it has 20 percent more energy than raw (traditional) wood pellets and burns more cleanly than raw wood pellets, it is a superior product for wood boilers as well.

Today, Oregon is just one example of a state that has chronic unemployment in rural communities. Oregon has millions of acres of federal, state and private forest lands that need management and thinning, or risk damage from fire and disease. With an end user of the forest slash, these piles would no longer be burned in place. They would be used to produce torrefied biomass, a carbon neutral energy, and thousands of rural jobs.

Many of you are familiar with raw wood pellets. Torrefied wood is a very different type of product that uses low value feedstock (forest slash) to produce very high energy briquettes that handle like coal, and have a similar BTU to coal, but without the terrible toxic emissions that coal spouts into the air.

There is a global race to commercialize this technology in the most efficient way, and HM3 Energy is proud to be acknowledged as one of the foremost contenders in the field. Stay tuned for more.

HM3 Energy