Researchers work in the Synthetic Crude Oil Pilot Plant in the FBRI's Technology Research Center. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

With help from federal funding, two forest bioproducts processing plants at the University of Maine will upgrade their equipment to expand their research into finding renewable energy uses for wood byproducts, such as jet fuel or home heating oil.

The university’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute was awarded $4.8 million from the Defense Logistics Agency in September to continue its research into creating hydrocarbon fuel from biomass, like sawdust, tree bark, twigs and wood chips.

The institute — which operates the Technology Research Center in Old Town and the on-campus Process Development Center — researches ways to repurpose wood biomass outside of Maine’s traditional lumber uses, TRC Director Amy Luce said.

Established in 2012, the Technology Research Center is a pilot plant located in the Old Town mill that researches how to turn wood byproducts, such as sawdust, into organic acid which can then be made into crude oil — like petroleum. But unlike petroleum, it’s a renewable resource.

Normally, Luce’s team has to collect the sawdust on their own and then bring it back to the plant where they grind it down and strain it to be small enough for processing. But this year, the institute is purchasing new equipment to improve efficiency.

The institute is upgrading its biomass processing equipment to help convey the materials from one process to the next.

The Forest Bioproducts Research Institute also researches alternative purposes for biochar, a charcoal-like substance that is produced from biomass. Luce said the pilot plant is researching ways biochar can be cleaned up and burned for energy — but it needs more equipment to be able to wash the residual chemicals off biochar to repurpose it.

In addition to the Defense Logistics Agency funds, the institute is using other grant money to cover its research.

It received a total of $48 million from several federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Defense Logistics Agency has given the institute $22.9 million over several years through its Energy Readiness Program to research production of jet fuel and oil from wood biomass.

But along with the new processing equipment, another part of the grant funding will be used to upgrade its cellulose nanofiber production at the on-campus research center. Cellulose nanofiber is a lightweight, strong material that can be used for a variety of purposes like cosmetics, automobiles and paint materials.

Currently, the Process Development Center can produce up to one ton of cellulose nanofiber per day by refining pulp down to small particles. With upgraded equipment, the center could produce up to two tons a day, Luce said.

The center is also researching whether they can make cellulose nanofiber from sawdust, which can then be used for other purposes. Luce isn’t primarily focused on the increased production though.

The new equipment is going to help them be more self-sufficient and better able to handle the byproducts and continue research development, she said.

“To me, it’s exciting that we could do many things at the same time,” Forest Bioproducts Research Institute Director Hemant Pendse said. “To make progress in this field, that’s what we need.”

Pendse said some of the new equipment is being ordered and he expects to have everything in place by next year.