Finland--How long will the biochar produced by Preseco's biomass reactor keep carbon out of the atmosphere?

Probably at least until the next ice age, according to technical manager Sampo Tukiainen. Unearthed cooking pits formerly used by roving bands of hunters in the region still contain the char generated by their cooking fires.

"Bugs cannot digest it, so it stays in the ground," Tukiainen said. "And putting this carbon back into the soil makes it more productive."

Preseco's system -- a collection of boilers, valves, computers and pipes -- sits in a open-air workshop in Lempaala, just north of Helsinki. At one end, a technician vacuums up wood chips with a giant shop vac. The chips then get treated, plunged into a furnace heated to 800 degrees Celsius, and then converted to whatever combination of byproducts someone might want: biochar, which can be sold as fertilizer or industrial grade renewable carbon for 250 Euros a ton; plant vinegar, a biopesticide; natural gas; heat for regional district heating systems; tar; or carbon credits.

Feeding chicken waste into the system also produces a dense, renewable form of fertilizer. It can handle a half a ton of biomass in an hour.

Watch out when stepping over that aluminum pipe on the ground, Tukiainen says while giving the tour. It contains gases from the furnace. And don't stare straight into the small window that gives a view into the central furnace for too long -- it can cause retinal issues.

How economical and efficiently the system works in practice, along with other biomass technologies from other companies, will likely have a substantial impact on Finland's green industry and even the long-term health of the national economy.

Although Nokia has become Finland's largest company and exporter, pulp and paper remain a huge part of the gross domestic product. Forest covers 74 percent of the country (Europe's seventh largest) and 97 percent of it has been logged at least twice. In the 1800s, Sweden, which controlled Finland at the time, issued an order that only stumps could be harvested in an effort to stop rampant deforestation.

Because of replanting, deforestation has become less of a problem. Instead, the big scare is the Kindle. The decline in newspapers and magazines combined with the rise of e-books have the country's paper industry quaking. As a result, many firms in the sector have begun to transform themselves into energy companies.

"Why not use the woods as fuel?" Tukiainen said. Preseco has also devised a fish-waste-to-biofuel system that is now being tested in Vietnam.

Manufacturers of biomass equipment, meanwhile, want to take the expertise they've developed for biomass installations in northern Europe worldwide.

Metso, an industrial equipment giant based in Helsinki that generates around 5 billion Euros in revenue a year, has sold a 100-megawatt biomass system to Southern Company that will begin to produce power for Nacogdoches, Texas in 2012. Duke Energy and Xcel have also launched plans for biomass in the U.S., says Kari Remes, general manager of sales and marketing for the power business line of Metso.

While Preseco's fuel and biochar system is in the experimental phase, Metso's fuel-only systems play a key role in northern Europe's energy infrastructure. Finland gets about 38 percent of its heat from biomass systems. Metso itself has built a large number of small biomass plants capable of generating 5 to 10 megawatts of electricity, or combinations of heat and electricity, in various cities in northern Europe. These plants can serve homes or businesses within a 25 kilometer radius.

The company has also participated in a number of larger projects that can generate 20 to 300 megawatts of electricity and/or power. Vattenfall installed a 60-megawatt biomass boiler at the Vanaja coal/gas power plant in Hameenlinna, Finland. The video shows the original coal boiler with the 60 megawatt one next door. (The photo is of Preseco's prototype. More photos are coming in a subsequent slideshow.) Wood and waste go in and get subjected to a circulating bath of liquefied silicon.

"Combustion lasts for a few seconds. That is all," he said. Vattenfall then sends the heat generated through the local district heating system.

A 124-megawatt plant is currently under construction in France, while a 183-megawatt plant is under construction in Poland.

The new frontier lies in expanding beyond northern Europe, he said. Biomass manufacturers are also tinkering with their products to improve efficiencies, allow for more flexible feedstock consumption, and get them to produce different byproducts.

Metso, for instance, now makes boilers, shredders and automation equipment for the biomass industry, and the byproducts of its equipment are heat, electricity and steam. By 2020, the company will expand its equipment line to generate biodiesel, biocoal, pellets for biomass burners, lignin separation, and lignin production.

"We have already produced 70 tons of oil in the lab," he said. Additionally, Metso is working on machinery for converting solid waste from sewage facilities into methane.

Biomass does have its flaws. For instance, it costs more than coal, so policy and carbon taxation are important for the market. The power generated by biomass is closer to the price of wind, he says. Biomass is also less dense than coal. Thus, in a retrofit situation where a coal burner is being replaced by a biomass boiler, the capacity of the plant will go down.

"You have to keep the flue gas output the same. That is the limiting factor," he said.

Additionally, most large-scale jobs are somewhat customized. Large-scale biomass boilers can generally accommodate different types of feedstocks, but the boilers have to be optimized for the feedstocks that the owner will ultimately expect.

Deploying biomass as a form of distributed power can be challenging too because of the large, constant amounts of feedstock required. The fuel depot for the Vanaja plant is a warehouse.

Still, biomass is one of the few renewable forms of energy that is not subject to the vagaries of weather conditions, and the burgeoning interest in the sector is undeniable.

"Forestry is glamorous again," says Tukiainen.