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USDA and RFT establish Cooperative Research and Development Agreement

February 18, 2012

Scientists Study Conversion of Raw Materials into Biocoal

By Marcia Wood

February 6, 2012

Link to USDA ARS original posting: Click Here

When grapes are crushed to make wine, or olives pressed to make olive oil, tons of natural leftovers—grape skins and broken olive pits, for instance—remain for the wineries and olive mills to deal with. Today, these leftovers are typically sold for compost or as an ingredient for livestock feed.

But chemist Bor-Sen Chiou and colleagues at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif., along with coinvestigators at Renewable Fuel Technologies in San Mateo, Calif., envision converting these natural byproducts into pellets of biocoal, a fuel.

Other raw materials targeted as possible biocoal candidates include the peels that accumulate when tomatoes are turned into catsup, juice or tomato paste, and the mountains of shells and hulls created when walnuts and almonds are processed.

Biocoal from agricultural residues, as well as leftovers from logging of forests, for example, has the potential to become an economical, sustainable, environmentally friendly energy source that might prove suitable for fueling coal-fired energy plants, according to Chiou.

Under the terms of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, Chiou and collaborators at the San Mateo firm plan to determine the cost-effectiveness and energy values of biocoal produced in a mobile processing unit that the company is developing. In a process known as torrefaction (from the French word for “roasting”), crop leftovers placed inside the portable unit would be heated to 500 to 572 degrees Fahrenheit in the absence of oxygen. The light, dry, torrified material would then be ground and pressed into water-repellent pellets that are easy to ship and store.

Neither torrefaction nor biocoal is new, but the agricultural and forestry uses that the scientists are investigating have not yet been widely commercialized in the United States, according to Chiou.

ARS is the chief intramural scientific research agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Chiou’s biocoal studies are one example of ARS research nationwide that supports the USDA priority of developing new sources of bioenergy.

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