Analyzing the Impact of Intermodal Facilities to the Design and Management of "Uniform-Format" Advanced Biomass Supply Systems

In response to the Energy Independence and Security Act, the DOE aims to displace 30% of the 2004 gasoline use with biofuels (60 billion gallons per year) by 2030. This will require 700 million tons of biomass to be sustainably delivered to biorefineries annually. Recent reports prepared by INL and ORNL in collaboration with a number of Universities concludes that although there are sufficient biomass resources to meet these goals, much of these resources are inaccessible using the current biomass supply system due to unfavorable economics. The report indicates that the increasing demand for lignocellulosic biomass introduces many logistical challenges to providing an economic, efficient, and reliable supply of quality feedstock to biorefineries. This is due to the dispersed, bulky, heterogeneous, unstable nature of biomass, and poor flowability characteristics (when in formats such as a bale). The report suggests reformatting lignocellulosic biomass resources into a "uniform-format" product (see Figure 1) that can be stored and handled in an expanded grain commodity infrastructure. The proposal of this product is motivated by the need of the biofuels industry to be a self-sustaining enterprise. For that to happen, "the lignocellulosic feedstock supply system logistics (all processes involved in getting the biomass from the field to the conversion facility) cannot consume more than 25% of the total cost of the biofuel production [1]". The UFA system shifts the preprocessing operations (for example shredding/chipping, drying, densification, etc.) away from the biorefinery to earlier in the supply chain. This in return decreases the high costs associated with transportation, handing and storage. Due to the increase in bulk density, material stability, and flowability of biomass, it is expected that more cost-efficient transportation modes such as rail, barge and intermodal will be used by this new system. The design of the supply system which supports this new product will be substantially different from what has been seen with the conventional biomass supply systems. Figure 3 below presents the path and the barriers that the current biomass supply system need to overcome toward meeting the targets set by DOE. The motivation for developing this product came from the experience with the efficiency of the existing supply logistic systems for grains, such as corn or soy bean. Due to logistical challenges with biomass transportation, conventional biorefineries required that biomass supply be available within 50 miles of radius from the biorefinery. As a result of these limitations, the only transportation mode used by conventional biorefineries is truck (Figure 4). Conventional biorefineries are usually low capacity due to the limited amount of biomass available within this range. As a result, conventional biorefineries are not taking advantage of economies of scale that come from larger size facilities. The preprocessing of biomass as proposed by the UFA system will improve the efficiency of loading/unloading biomass to trucks/railcars/barges. Additionally, the quantity shipped by a truck/railcar/barge will increase due to the increase in density of processed biomass. It is then expected that the radius of the biomass supply system of a biorefinery will increase. This in turn will: (a) support the sustainable operation of larger size facilities, which will improve biomass processing economics due to economies of scale; (b) allow the use of more efficient transportation modes such as rail), barge and intermodal. In summary, these facts imply that the design of the supply system which supports this new product will be substantially different from what has been seen with the conventional systems (c) almost eliminate the risk to biorefineries associated with sustainable feedstock supply. Supply logistics costs vary substantially by region due to weather, crop species, transportation highway load limits, highway regulations, and accessibility to intermodal facilities. Nevertheless, these systems need to be managed to optimize the logistics of biomass supply and minimize the cost of the final product. It is believed that developing tools to design and manage the supply chain for biomass will help to increase the efficiency of the system, optimize costs, and eventually meet the goals set by DOE. The optimization tools that are proposed to develop will identify the best location for the biorefinery and the processing depots given the availability of biomass, and accessibility to transportation modes other than truck. These optimization models will also identify transportation modes to use, quantities to ship along the chain, location of inventories, etc. The objective of building these models is to demonstrate the positive impact of an intermodal facility when optimizing system-wise performance. Existing models do not presently incorporate tools to capture the dynamic transportation network available to move biomass through various transportation modes across the country, and even internationally. The supply chain design models will develop address this problem. Our ultimate goal is to incorporate the mathematical models developed to describe these various transportation options into these new models.