The Role of Biomass in Supply Chain Sustainability

The MASBio project is an interdisciplinary team of researchers throughout the nation investigating uses of biomass to produce biofuel. "The main project objective is to develop a sustainable and economically feasible biomass system that will produce bioproducts in the Mid-Atlantic region," according to Dr. Evelyn Thomchick, Associate Professor of supply chain management, and Dr. Kusumal Ruamsook, Assistant Research Professor for the Center for Supply Chain Research®, Penn State.

Fifteen years ago, in the verdant forests and grassy land of Pennsylvania, Dr. Evelyn Thomchick, Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management, and Dr. Kusumal Ruamsook, Assistant Research Professor for the Center of Supply Chain Research®, explored biomass crops offered in the woodlands and agricultural fields, trekking through the soil and residue.

And it wasn’t just for the appreciation of nature — rather, it was for the research, education, and bioenergy supply chain ethanol initiatives aimed to make the biomass supply chain more sustainable and eco-friendly.

Working under the direction of Dr. Thomas Richard, the Director of Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State, Ruamsook and Thomchick found themselves working among an interdisciplinary team of researchers working through various projects that investigate uses of biomass to produce biofuel.

It wasn’t soon before they were invited to use their past experience, expertise, and leadership to participate in the MASBio project, which focuses on other bioproducts such as biochar, bioadhesives, and resins for 3D printing, run by Dr. Jingxin Wang, Director of Forest Resources and Professor of Forestry at West Virginia University. The MASBio project is ultimately a large interdisciplinary project and is sponsored by USDA-NIFA.

“The main project objective is to develop a sustainable and economically feasible biomass system that will produce bioproducts in the Mid-Atlantic region,” Ruamsook and Thomchick and Ruamsook said, definitively. “Other objectives are to encourage sustainable agriculture and forest management, and to stimulate business development in rural areas.”  

But the question remains: what is biomass and how does supply chain benefit?

To begin, biomass is a common material; it is renewable organic material that comes from plants and animals. The biomass materials on which the MASBio project is focusing include wood, wood processing waste, forest residues, purpose-grown crops that produce large biomass yields such as switchgrass (grass that grows about 12 feet in height), and shrub willow, a woody biomass.  

These types of biomass are not food or prime lumber, but rather forest and agriculture residues.  And that’s where supply chain comes in.

“Producing biomass bioproducts in a sustainable manner and at competitive prices stem from problems in the biomass supply chain,” the two doctor researchers explained. “The nature of the biomass itself— low bulk density — and the structure of biomass supply chains (fragmented supply sources, sometimes in remote areas) in the Mid-Atlantic region make it costly to harvest, store, and transport the biomass."

Working with the earth and finding ways to make a difference — it all starts in the backend of business models, in the production and underbelly of what eventually hits consumers. Much like the circle of life, the circle of supply chains is a cycle — and starting it off with sustainable design is not only meaningful but empowering.

For Ruamsook and Thomchick and Ruamsook, the cycle consists of growing, harvesting, storing, and transporting the biomass in a sustainable, cost-effective manner; using the biomass to produce environmentally-friendly products that are more easily disposed of or recycled; and returning carbon to the soil through the process of growing biomass. The MASBio project is therefore a good example of applying circular economy principles.

“Many business people are not aware of the biomass industry, but biomass has the potential for producing renewable energy and a variety of other bioproducts that promote sustainability,” they said. “The future of sustainable supply chains depends on businesses being proactive in preventing pollution and waste by starting at the design process and examining every step of the value chain for the potential to improve sustainability, rather than dealing with the effects of pollution and waste afterwards.”

A presentation given by Thomchick, Ciolkosz, and Ruamsook, December 2020, The Mid-Atlantic Sustainable Biomass Consortium - Bioproducts for the Bioeconomy, can be accessed with this link.