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New Energy Economics: NDSU and USDA/ARS Partner to Establish Biomass Testing Lab

Cole Gustafson, NDSU Biofuels Economist Cole Gustafson, NDSU Biofuels Economist
The lab will be designed specifically to test the dimensional, thermal and physical properties of biomass.

By Cole Gustafson, Biofuels Economist

NDSU Extension Service

Igathi Cannayen, an NDSU assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, and I have received $450,000 from the North Dakota Renewable Energy Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Mandan to establish the first dedicated biomass testing laboratory in North Dakota.

The lab will be designed specifically to test the dimensional, thermal and physical properties of biomass and will be centrally located at the USDA/ARS site in Mandan.

Creation of the lab is timely for several reasons. First, NDSU has established 10-year yield trials using more than 50 different varieties of biomass. Production from these trials will be evaluated for both energy content and densification for shipping. Second, engineers are striving to develop new biomass harvesting, processing and transportation machines. Information on the physical properties of biomass will help the industry design optimal equipment.

Third, biomass product characteristics will be important in developing new market standards and grades, which in turn will facilitate commercialization. Fourth, information on biomass densification will aid in planning with respect to infrastructure and roads that may be needed to support the industry. Finally, the development of the lab requires time to calibrate and validate test equipment. Time is needed to conduct these steps in advance of industry demand.

Funding the lab aligns with my efforts to foster the development of a biomass industry in North Dakota. Previously, I created a searchable biomass inventory so prospective investors can evaluate potential biomass supplies in different geographic locations across the state. I also have developed “Biomass Compare” to help farmers and ranchers compare the profitability of biomass production with traditional farm enterprises. Both of these programs can be accessed at

Additional funding is being sought from the USDA to develop biomass market standards, assist agricultural producers in forming a biomass supply network, and develop a hands-on mobile biomass processing display to educate potential biomass suppliers on differing harvesting and processing methods.

The new biomass testing lab will contain four primary machines. A universal testing machine will measure the force needed to compress, shear or cut biomass. A second machine will monitor the mass and temperature of biomass as it is heated in a controlled inert environment. These data are useful in determining the burning point of biomass and temperatures needed for operations, such as pelleting.

A bomb calorimeter measures the energy content of various biomass samples. Finally, an environmental control chamber will enable us to do biomass storage studies in a controlled environment that has a constant temperature and humidity.

The lab is expected to take two years to develop before it becomes fully operational. At that point, the lab will be able to evaluate biomass samples submitted by the industry, researchers and producers.

One of the goals of the project is to develop a database of biomass characteristics obtained from samples coming to the lab from across the state. Information from the database will be utilized to recruit additional processors to the region.

These biomass characteristics will be shared with other research institutions for scientific comparison. The Biomass Testing Lab will complement similar testing facilities on the NDSU campus, including the Plant Diagnostic, Soil Testing and Veterinary Diagnostic labs.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Cole Gustafson, (701) 231-7096,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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