A Major Upgrade

The newly renovated Biomass Feedstock National User Facility aims to serve as a vital industry partner as the most complete feedstock preprocessing R&D facility in the world.
By Anna Simet | August 24, 2023

In May, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm cut the ribbon at Idaho National Laboratory’s Biomass Feedstock National User Facility, celebrating $15 million in upgrades largely designed to assist industry partners in the scale-up of the sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) sector. BFNUF Director Lynn Wendt tells SAF Magazine that the U.S.-DOE funded lab’s first physical process development unit was actually installed in 2010, a time at which a modest selection of tools were available. “Now, we’re really the go-to lab for feedstocks logistics and mechanical processing, and really one of the only facilities in the world that has all these capabilities all under one roof,” she says.

Then and Now
Prior to the lab overhaul, it could receive biomass—which has historically been corn stover and woody biomass—and grind it down for blending into other materials and pelletization. “At the time, it was evident there were some challenges with the biorefineries being built,” Wendt says. “A couple of these things included lack of flowability and feedstock quality issues where the where the feedstock itself had characteristics that would have a negative impact in the biorefinery and would cause downtime.”
The facility upgrade, which took roughly three years to complete, was designed to address many of these challenges. “The new concept is really to take biomass apart in a new way using new tools, so that you can remove some of these bad components, but also fractionate the biomass into different streams and provide them to the right end use," Wendt says.

One example is corn stover stalks. “We can take the rind section that is really hard and has a high lignin content and separate it from the inside of the stalk—the pith—which has lots of absorbency characteristics and high nutrient levels," she explains. "By taking those apart, processing them separately and then combining them, you’re going to meet your quality targets better."

For challenges specific to SAF, BFNUF has purchased many new analytical and mechanical tools, such as a biomass dryer. “Many times, you’ll need to dry wood or herbaceous residue, and drying is a huge energy consumer,” Wendt says. “It’s critical for efficient gasification or pyrolysis. We installed inline moisture and particle size sensors to do real-time analysis predictions as to how much drying time and energy you will need, instead of waiting for material to exit the dryer 10 minutes later. We can change the operation of the dryer and move it through faster, so it’s not overdried or overexposed, using excess energy. That’s just one example of doing more things in real time—we can take something from 10 minutes after the drying operation to a matter of five to 10 seconds to get an answer.”

Wendt says the lab is doing a lot of work with municipal solid waste (MSW) and fractionation. “We’re separating the biogenic carbon, fibers and papers from the anthropogenic carbon and plastics, and doing that with high fidelity even in black bag garbage,” Wendt says. “If you’re able understand your feedstock going into SAF, then you can selectively remove parts or blend as you want, so you get your conversion quality at the end. You can do things upstream so that when you have to do a C14 (carbon-14) analysis downstream to get your SAF credit, you already have an idea of what that might be.”  

As for the lab’s capabilities, there are three main components—a full-scale, fully integrated process development unit, a biomass characterization laboratory and a biomass feedstock library.

Lab Components
The lab’s full-scale, fully integrated process development unit includes tools that range from a kilogram-per-hour scale up to a ton-per-hour scale, size reduction and separation, densification, chemical signature detection and robotic separation. “It’s housed in a 40,000-square-foot building with a mezzanine and a large outdoor footprint as well, so we can receive a wide range of material in the state it would be in for SAF, whether it’s baled or bulk MSW, or a truckload of material.”

 The biomass characterization laboratory consists of analytical tools, as well as chemical and physical characterization tools for understanding the biomass’s quality and to pinpoint important variables including particle size, composition and flowability. “We also do things to help understand storage stability—we have storage reactors that will help us predict things in the lab scale that would happen in the field,” Wendt says. “For example, a large stack of bales—we can actually stimulate that with high fidelity, in the lab setting.”

The biomass feedstock library is both a physical and a virtual facility, Wendt says. Feedstock samples have been added to the laboratory since 2007, and to date, the virtual facility has approximately 110,000 samples in it and over 100 types of biomass and waste resources.  “Right now, it houses quality data for feedstocks, and it assesses chemical characteristics looking at things like energy consumption for size reduction or drying—all of those data points are in there,” she says.  The physical library hosts about 60,000 samples and offers the capability of probing historical data, oftentimes containing the crop’s production data—i.e., where it came from, harvest information and how it was stored.

From Wendt’s perspective, the mechanical processing capability of the BFNUF is really what differentiates it from other labs. “In the upgraded facility that we just opened, we now have all of these mechanical tools," she says. "You wouldn’t use them all for one conversion pathway to SAF—you might just use a selection of them based on your feedstock and its quality—but we can put that together for any entity.” 

There is a great deal of interest from industry in using the facility, Wendt says, and the lab has been busy talking with partners and helping them understand things that are often overlooked when it comes to feedstock logistics. “We assume these things are standardized and they’re not, so what we’ve really seen is an increased interest in solving challenges like flowability and getting the feedstock quality right to eliminate downtime.”

As for gaining access to the lab, BFNUF works on competitive awards through different entities as a collaborator with different industry partners, or directly with the industry to help derisk SAF production. “The first step is to call or email me, and we’ll go over capabilities and what the industry partner needs," Wendt says. "We can host visitors to see the facility and meet with the researchers who can help with defining and executing work to scale for a specific process.”

Currently, BFNUF has about 60 unique projects at various levels across the DOE and private sector right now, many of which have numerous industry partners, Wendt says. “We have a really strong interest in collaborating with entities as they’re working on their SAF scale-up ... we are really interested in applying our techniques to pilot scale, demonstration and even commercial scale, and we want to be involved with as many partners as we can.”

 On a final note, Wendt says that something the lab is really moving toward is the digital space. "It is likely much cheaper to have things fail in the digital space than the physical space," she says. "We have a really strong program in computational modeling combined with laboratory and pilot-scale testing, where we’re trying to predict in real time what’s happening in a grinder or a screw conveyor, and we have high fidelity models to predict some of those things." What BFNUF  envisions as a huge asset to derisk the biorefinery industry is development of models in the 3D or digital space before any building is done. "We can do lab and pilot scale, and demonstration scale to validate models and that will help inform the size of things, the chemical makeup of things," she adds. "We're really moving to this digital space, and not just a physical footprint in the future,"

Author: Anna Simet
Editor, SAF Magazine
[email protected]