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Biocoal is in the news as a possible substitute for traditional coal in power generation.


Smoke This! Clean “Biocoal” From Hibiscus Cannabinus & Hemp Helps Reduce GHG Emissions

Biocoal is in the news as a possible substitute for traditional coal in power generation.

No, it’s not some Trumpian doublespeak. A new type of renewable energy source made from plants and wood waste, called “biocoal,” could reduce dependence on coal and mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in power-generation facilities. The conversion of biomass to biocoal creates a product with similar characteristics to traditional fossil-based coal, making it a viable option for coal consumers looking to reduce their emissions. It holds real interest for those in Europe and Japan as well as manufacturers in the US looking at sustainability and green approaches to energy.


Image courtesy Proud Green Building

A biorefinery in India will convert bamboo into biocoal, which will be one of the sources used to fuel a combined-heat-and-power (CHP) plant. Clean Electricity Generation and Stork, a Fluor Co., will build and maintain new biocoal production facilities in Estonia in late 2018. Biomass Secure Power, Inc. has entered into a memorandum of understanding with a Natchitoches, Louisiana power plant and will commence shipping biocoal in the third quarter of 2019.

So what’s this excitement over biocoal all about?

Biocoal is a product produced by thermally upgrading biomass in an inert environment (no oxygen) at high temperatures. From forest product residuals to sugarcane bagasse, from Hibiscus Cannabinus to hemp, the term biomass is used to describe anything with a cellulosic structure. And while biomass itself is often used as a fuel source, upgrading biomass to biocoal offers many benefits. The conversion of biomass to biocoal creates a product with similar characteristics to traditional fossil-based coal, making it a viable option for coal consumers looking to reduce their emissions.

Biocoal can be used as sustainable fuel in power plants and heating installations all over the world, giving a boost to reducing climate change. Clean Energy Generation claims that, by using biocoal, it is possible to make existing coal-fired power plants sustainable without any major adjustments.

High temperature briquetting provides a product that is can be stored and handled using the same equipment currently in use for handling brown coal. Biocoal is created through “torrefaction,” which is roasting wood to remove moisture and certain volatile compounds. “Densification” of torrefied material is a step in making the product easier to make, store, and ship. Biocoal has a high energy density of up to 13,000 BTUs/Lb and is considered a renewable energy fuel that meets the Renewable Portfolio Standards and Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) in the US.

Biocoal from forest waste and other plants has neither sulfur emissions nor mercury in its ash and, unlike other biomass products, is easy to grind. Its burn is cleaner than that of regular coal, which helps reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It also performs like traditional coal but with reduced ash content. The densification process helps boost energy capacity, alleviates concerns related to heavy metals, and adds to agri-economies.


Biocoal Can “Replace Traditional Coal” and “Create Rural Jobs”

The University of Louisville has been a state-approved grower of hemp since 2016 as one of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s pilot program. The Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research hopes to accelerate commercialization of a biocoal made from wood and biomass materials, including hemp. The Conn Center, part of the J.B. Speed School of Engineering, has established research and development and pilot-scale production facilities to study the torrefaction and densification of wood and agricultural biomass sources.

“Conn Center’s expertise is crucial in making this technology work at any scale,” said director Mahendra Sunkara. “The use of this product as a substitute for coal can help extend the life of Kentucky’s coal-fired power plants while significantly reducing pollutant and carbon emissions.”

Dr. Jagannadh Satyavolu, the theme leader of biomass and biofuels at the Conn Center, has a special interest in using forest waste, kenaf/Hibiscus cannabinus (which is native to southern Asia), and hemp.  “We see an opportunity to ship these biocoal pellets to Europe and Asia, particularly Japan, to replace traditional coal. This is primarily wood chips and some plants. In the future of our economy, it may be possible to create rural jobs from the farming of plants and collection of forest waste for this process.”

The best idea for coal-producing regions, he said, may be to assist in reclaiming land and jobs with this biocoal approach using wood waste from our forests. The biocoal also could then be used to assist in preparing the ground for the next hemp crop to increase soil fertility. “Biocoal is a cleaner coal, and even with the conversion of just one power plant, we can make a difference,” he said.


“This joint project has great potential,” said Conn Center benefactor and businessman Hank Conn. He noted that the biocoal industry is expected to be $200 billion by 2040. “The product also helps address the problem of forest fires in the U.S. by removing dying or dead trees and turning them into this coal-like product, one that is carbon-neutral and significantly reduces air pollutants.”

Ever-increasing global economy and trade pushes the need to elevate production capacity to meet product demand. This causes more demand than ever for energy and the fuels that produce that energy. Of course, pollution emissions that far surpass acceptable world policy levels have caused governments to implement mandates for power generating companies to include alternative sources in their power generating. Manufacturing plants and municipal governments at all levels have started looking for alternate sources of fuel that are more efficient, cost effective, and have lower, more acceptable emissions. Biocoal is a good fit to meet these needs.

A Case Study of Biocoal in Rural Georgia

Formed to pursue the production and sale of biofuel products throughout the world, Vega Biofuels in Norcross, Georgia, has begun creating a biocoal product for market. The company has identified that, with the growing need for clean energy and the uncertain costs of fossil fuels, power generating plants around the world are looking at more useful and economical methods to run their power systems.

Vega Biofuels argues that physical and energetic properties of the biomass are comparable to conventional coal. Once the biomass goes through the torrefaction process, a bonding agent is added so it can be compressed into very dense briquettes. The torrefaction process has the added benefit of reducing or eliminating undesirable volatiles, such as nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxides in the biocoal. The company offers a list of benefits of biocoal:

  • Comparable in price to conventional coal
  • Made from renewable sources. Oil and coal cannot be replaced.
  • Contains no sulfur. Oil and coal have high sulfur content and when burned, pollute the environment.
  • Has a higher practical thermal value and much lower ash content compared to conventional coal
  • Has no fly ash when burning
  • Has consistent quality, higher burning efficiency, and is the ideal size for complete combustion
  • Combustion is more uniform compared to conventional coal, and boiler response to changes in steam requirements is faster with biocoal due to the higher quantity of volatile matter
  • Easy to store and hygienic to handle

Nothing is Certain — Biocoal Included

The economics of fuel sources can change, and proponents envision a robust role for biocoal if it can be burned in existing coal-fired power plants that investors are reluctant to retire. It costs more than wind and solar power, so, without a mandate, subsidies, or a spike in natural gas prices, opponents say that its prospects outside of the lab appear to be limited. Some also question its purported carbon benefits, calling them “controversial and disputed.”

As with any energy source, there are strengths and deficits to biocoal across many domains, including environmental, fiscal, and efficiency. Biocoal as a renewable energy source in a developing market is one more in a wide array of possibilities to diminish reliance on fossil fuels, which is an absolutely necessity to meet global emissions goals.

To quote Bill McKibben of

“If you could continually turn a lot of organic material into biochar, you could, over time, reverse the history of the last two hundred years…We can, literally, start sucking some of the carbon that our predecessors have poured into the atmosphere down through our weeds and stalks and stick it back in the ground. We can run the movie backward. We can unmine some of the coal, undrill some of the oil. We can take at least pieces of the Earth and – this is something we haven’t done for quite a while – leave them Better Than We Found Them.”

Photo by Bert Kaufmann on / CC BY-SAP and on

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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