By Grace Schneider
The University of Louisville has signed a joint development agreement with a South Carolina company to create a coal-like product made from fallen timber and biomass.
In an announcement Thursday, U of L officials said that deal involves Greenville, S.C.-based Integro Earth Fuels Inc., the developer of a product made from wood waste that can be burned with or in place of coal by heat and power generators.
Work on developing the densified wood, called NuCoal, and piloting production facilities will be performed at the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research, part of the university’s Speed School of Engineering.
“Conn Center’s expertise is crucial in making this technology work at any scale,” said Conn 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,” Sunkara said.
The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities has agreed to provide a $256,890 grant over two years to the Conn Center through its Consortium for Advanced Wood to Energy Solutions — a joint venture between the endowment and the U.S. Forest Service.
U of L officials said that Conn Center would invest about $135,000. Researchers Jagannadh Satyavolu and Thad Druffel will lead the research and develop pilot models of production facilities, officials said in a release.
Integro agreed to provide funding to the research center for a series of test projects. That includes $80,000 worth of equipment to support research and development of the process called “torrefaction,” which roasts wood and biomass to strip out moisture and volatile compounds to create a bio-coal product.
“We are looking at markets for NuCoal plants in Kentucky and other parts of the U.S., Europe and South America,” Integro founder Walt Dickinson said in the announcement. “This partnership is critical to making that happen.”
Forestry endowment President and CEO Carlton Owen called the partnership “foundational to our commitment to keep forests as forests, keep them healthy and add family-wage jobs in rural forest-rich communities.”
Conn Center, which focuses on innovation in advanced materials, including catalysts, recently had two startup businesses spun from its labs. NuCoal is envisioned to create another, potentially more visible Kentucky-based company.
“This one is a really big deal,” businessman Hank Conn, whose donations have funded and will sustain the center created in 2009, said in an email.
“Not only is the market potential for NuCoal huge, expected to be $200 billion by 2040, but 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,” Conn said.