Michigan Tech professor at forefront of emerging 'biocoal' industry

Most of our lives are highly dependent on energy, and most of that energy comes from non-renewable sources.  The oil that runs in your car’s engine and the gasoline that fuels it came from the Earth. The natural gas that heats your home or powers your oven came from the Earth. The coal that runs the power plants that create electricity came from the Earth.

With every gallon of gasoline and ton of coal that we burn, there is incrementally less of the resource that will remain for future generations.  That coal or oil began its life as living organisms hundreds of millions of years ago, and cannot easily be replaced.

At least, in the past, it couldn’t be. Now, that might not be the case.

A scientist at Michigan Technological University in Houghton believes he has unlocked methods to create coal in a matter of minutes rather than millions of years.

The research of Ezra Bar-Ziv and others might eventually lead to energy that is both cleaner and renewable, helping the United States and other countries toward the goal of energy independence.

“We can mimic nature by taking biomass and turning it into coal,” Bar-Ziv says. “It takes nature 200 million years, but we can do it in 10 to 20 minutes. We (researchers worldwide) are looking for technologies to do that easily and economically.”

Bar-Ziv compares the process to roasting coffee beans.

The biomass is essentially cooked at a temperature of 200-300 degrees Celsius (about 400-600 degrees Fahrenheit) in a oxygen-free environment, in order to produce a material that is not actually coal, but that has similar properties to coal.

The technical name of the process is torrefaction. The result is torrefied biomass, or “biocoal,” a substance that burns better and releases fewer harmful emissions, such as carbon dioxide, into the air. An added bonus: biocoal can be used without making any changes to existing electrical-producing facilities that already use coal.

Possibly more exciting, other scientists at Michigan Tech are working on techniques that can use that man-made coal to create oil capable of fueling our transportation networks.

The process of creating biocoal is multi-step and requires a large feed stock of biomass. Transporting so much biomass can be expensive and drives up the cost of producing it. Bar-Ziv says the current cost of biocoal is about 2½ to 3 times the cost of the coal mined from the Earth.

As could be expected, the level of biomass needed to sustain the yearly operation for a typical coal-burning power plant would require tens of thousands of acres.

Picture that – miles upon miles of forestry products being grown to run just one small energy plant. Now think about the number of energy plants that can be found in the U.P.; two in Marquette alone.

Bar-Ziv and the forestry department at Michigan Tech are in the process of experimenting with different forms of biomass – including bamboo – to find a fast-growing yet affordable source to fuel the plants.

Beyond that, careful attention to logistical efficiency has to be paid so some of the gains are not lost in the gas tanks of the trucks used.

The solution for that comes in the form of economic incentives and requirements by the government. Electric companies will choose to use biocoal as part of a portfolio of renewable energy options, he believes. Over time, the price difference between biocoal and the kind that comes from the earth should begin to decrease as well.

As for why Bar-Ziv, a native of Israel, chose to set up his operation at Michigan Tech rather than any number of other interested universities not just in the United States, but throughout the world, he said it was actually the ideal location.

Michigan Tech has a strong team of researchers who could assist him in tackling all the different parts of the process – from the feedstock that goes into the plant to creating efficient procedures to helping develop the markets in which to sell the biocoal, he says.

“Tech has a policy of investing significantly in energy-related areas,” Bar-Ziv says.

Beyond that, Upper Michigan, as well as fellow Great Lakes states Wisconsin and Minnesota, provided not just plenty of available forestry land, but also affordable transportation on the Great Lakes.  Markets would not be limited to local regions, but could be expanded to Europe as well.

Bar-Ziv, through his company E.B. Clean Energy and Michigan Tech, hopes to begin producing the biocoal at a new plant outside Houghton this fall. After proving on a smaller scale that the plan works, Bar-Ziv would like to continue expanding production.

Other companies around the world are experimenting and helping create the market, too. It might eventually account for billions of tons of coal worth trillions of dollars, Bar-Ziv says.

“It is a huge market,” he says. “The bigger the market, the better off everybody is.”

If the market for biocoal continues to develop as Bar-Ziv envisions, forests in the Great Lakes region could find themselves as one important rung of a future-saving industry.

Kurt Mensching is a Marquette-based freelance writer and editor. He studied political science and mineral economics in college.