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June 5, 2013

MSU plant switches to wood biomass fuel

The first of six, 10-acre plots of hybrid poplar trees have been planted at Michigan State University as part of the university’s goal to move toward 100 percent renewable energy.

The trees will be harvested, chipped and burned as a coal alternative at the T.B. Simon power plant. The plant is the largest on-campus consumer of fossil fuels.

The energy transition plan, adopted last year, will invest in sustainable energy research and development. It aims to improve the physical environment and help MSU become an educational leader in sustainable energy.

Current estimates indicate the Simon Power Plant produces 1.7 percent of its energy needs by using untreated wood chips. Only one of the four boilers at the power plant is equipped to burn wood chips. The remaining three can only burn a fuel like coal.

Through a process called torrefaction, MSU scientists can create a material called torrefied biomass that is suitable for boilers.

Torrefaction occurs when a plant material is roasted to eliminate moisture and unstable chemicals. These chemicals can then be burned to power the process. The result is a concentrated material that can be transported and burned like coal.

About 300 tons of the torrefied biomass is scheduled to be pulverized in the power plant’s burners in 2013. If test burns are successful, torrefied biomass will replace a fraction of MSU’s coal use as early as 2014.

The director of the MSU forest biomass innovation center in Escanaba, Ray Miller, is coordinating the project. He said utilizing woody biomass for energy is more ecologically sustainable than other alternatives because it does not release carbon into the atmosphere.

The torrefaction research facilities will also be used for teaching the process to growers interested in producing their own biomass.
Staff members at the power plant are conducting analyses on the feasibility of

using torrefied wood on a large scale. Miller said the future looks promising for the new technology.

Contributing members to this goal include MSU Extension, MSU AgBioResearch, and the departments of forestry and biosystems and agricultural engineering.