Oodles and Oodles of Biomass, Oh My!

There are several barriers to the success of converting biomass to biofuels including harvesting, transportation and storage. But of these three challenges, one of utmost importance is not only how to store the biomass but how long can it be stored without compromising the feedstock?

The most advanced commercial scale corn stover to ethanol project in the U.S. is Project Liberty, a biomass project funding by POET. Ultimately, the plant will produce 25 million gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol, but how much biomass will that take? According to POET, the plant will need 770 dry tons of biomass (corn cobs, some leaves and husks) for each day of operation. Yet how do you store that much material?

This is the very question that the Project Liberty team is working on with researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL). They are studying factors at POET plants in Hurley, SD and Emmestburg, IA, like the heat and moisture content of the biomass bale to determine how different types of piles and configurations will affect the quality of the bale. The answer to this question will aid farmers in storing the biomass in their fields until it is needed at the plant.

INL currently has 800 different bale configurations under study and they are attempting to discover the best balance of heat and moisture in the biomass bale. Kevin Kenney, and INL researcher, notes that they are looking at two areas in their research. First, the risk of biomass storage to farmers. Second, how the biomass degrades over time. After this year’s study is complete, the research team will discard the least effective methods and move forward with refining those configurations that hold the most promise.

You can lean more about the project in this video featuring INL researcher, Kevin Kenney.

The Economics of Ethanol from Corn Cobs

Producing a significant amount of ethanol strictly from corn cobs is possible but would require a specific set of circumstances to be economically feasible, according to a new report from Purdue University researchers.

corn cobsIn the report “The Economics of Harvesting Corn Cobs for Energy,” Matthew Erickson and Wallace Tyner found that factors such as corn yield, farm size, harvesting equipment rental costs and increases in harvest times greatly affected the price per ton, but that government incentives for a possible cob-based advanced biofuel would offset collection costs enough to make it an attractive fuel source. In assessing the economics of cob harvesting the researchers focused on three main factors – the decrease in harvest work rate cob harvesting necessitates, the expense of cob wagon rental and the percentages of cob in residue.

The overall conclusion they made is that corn cobs are more expensive to harvest for energy than originally thought, “maybe too expensive to be used for energy production unless the public is willing to further support development.”

Corn growers say it might be worth the price for the nation that wants to continue lessening its dependence on fossil fuels. “As we explore innovative ways to use corn, our most abundant feedstock, to produce renewable energy, we have to remain flexible and dedicated,” said National Corn Growers Association Ethanol Committee Chair Jon Holzfaster. “Currently, our society places an extremely high priority on developing alternative fuel sources. New cob-based biofuel continues our tradition of working towards the goals of the RFS2, keeping our resources at home and developing new jobs in the U.S.”

Read the entire report here.

Renewable Energy Progress

Earlier this month, the 25x’25 Alliance released a progress report on where the nation is in terms of the goal of meeting 25 percent of our energy needs with renewable resources by 2025, and they held a press conference with representatives of all the major renewable energy sectors to talk about the report and what still needs to be done.

25x'25In this edition of the Domestic Fuel Cast, we will hear from each of those representatives – Tom Buis with ethanol group Growth Energy; Bob Cleaves of the Biomass Power Association; Brad Collins with the American Solar Energy Society; Karl Gawell from the Geothermal Energy Association; and Rob Gramlich with the American Wind Energy Association – as well as 25x’25 steering committee co-chairman Reid Smith.

Listen to the Domestic Fuel Cast here. Domestic Fuel Cast

You can also subscribe to the DomesticFuel Cast here.

Peanut Growers Hear About Ethanol and Biomass

Southern peanut producers meeting in Panama City Beach last week heard about ethanol and producing energy on a local level.

Growth Energy representative Dennis Weise talked to the farmers about how they can advocate for domestically produced energy by getting involved.

“We have to get outside of the corn belt now, so it’s important that we talk to folks from the southeast United States, the southwest and everywhere else,” said Weise. He talked about the advertising and promotion efforts Growth Energy has undertaken and he encouraged the farmers to join Growth Force. “We need advocates for our industry,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s their industry as well.”

Listen to or download an interview with Weise at the Southern Peanut Growers Conference here: Dennis Wiese Interview

Taking renewable energy to a more local level was Steve Flick of Show Me Energy Cooperative in western Missouri, which is a non-profit, producer owned cooperative founded to support the development of renewable biomass energy sources.

Flick says they have shown that farmers can produce renewable energy on a local level and peanut farmers in the southeast can do the same thing. “They do have marginal land in Georgia and Alabama, not interfering with their peanut production, they can actually utilize that marginal land to create energy like we’re doing at Show Me,” he said. “I told them ‘You are in control of your own destiny’ so if you feel like energy is important to you, you can develop a group of farmers and learn how to operate and build a plant like we did.” The plant produces pellets from biomass that the co-op members use to heat their homes and poultry barns in the winter.

Flick also says that Show Me will have a big announcement coming in September about building a combined heat and power plant on their site in west central Missouri. “Now we’ve become a game-changer by creating our own electrical load for our own power supply right there in our own backyard,” he added.

Listen to or download an interview with Flick here: Steve Flick Interview

ISU Testing Biomass/Coal Blend to Reduce Emissions

In a recent article published in Inside Iowa State (ISU), researchers are looking into the replacement of some coal with wood pellets. The biomass is being studied as an additive to coal, to reduce it’s carbon footprint. Beginning on July 15, 2010, two coal-fired boilers located on the ISU campus, began to burn wood pellets as part of a series of tests that utilities staff are conducting over several weeks. The tests will help officials assess the feasibility of replacing some coal with biomass, which is considered a cleaner fuel source, according to Jeff Witt, assistant director of utilities.

“We’re doing this to see what other alternative energy sources are feasible,” he said. “We’ll be assessing both the environmental and economic impacts of using these sources.”

The first test will involve a mix of 10 percent wood pellets with 90 percent coal. In a recent test the mix was 5 percent wood pellets to 95 percent coal. The researchers have approval from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to test up to a 20 percent wood pellet blend. The study is estimated to take three months with air emissions one of the major components of the project.

The wood being used in the tests is from Colorado pine trees that have been decimated by pine beetles. For more than a decade, pine beetles have been attacking the trees and currently in Colorado and Wyoming, more than 3 million acres of trees have been lost.

One of the drawbacks of using wood pellets is the expense – nearly double the cost of coal – according to Witt. He notes, however, that like other technologies, long-term contracts and the maturity of a technology will lower the costs.

Energy Crop Production Looks Good in Tennessee

The University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative (UTBI) is closely watching how more than 1,000 acres of newly planted varieties of switchgrass will compare to current varieties. This project is part of a U.S. DOE project that was developed to study improved efficiencies in bioenergy production from biomass. The scale of the acreage will allow for assessment of the environmental and economic sustainability of the different varieties. Farmers and researchers should gain useful information on seed stock performance including disease and drought resistance, tolerance to humidity, and other agronomic variables.

The project team is headed by UT researchers Dr. Sam Jackson and Dr. Nicole Labbe who are also working with Ceres and Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE). Farmers from nine east Tennessee counties, along with members of the research team, have planted more than 1,000 acres of switchgrass varieties that have been developed by Ceres. The results will be compared with 1,000 acres of a more traditional variety of switchgrass known as “Alamo”.  These acres have been established on private farms as part of the UTBI farmer incentive program that now totals nearly 6,000 acres.

Once the switchgrass is harvested, it will be turned into cellulosic ethanol at Genera Energy/DDCE’s demonstration-scale biorefinery located in Vonore, Tenn. Genera Energy is hosting a groundbreaking of the facility located in the Tennessee’s Biomass Innovation Park on July 29, 2010.
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Ag Secretary Visits Ohio Ethanol Plant

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland toured the POET Biorefining plant in Marion, Ohio today and talked ethanol with industry stakeholders.

Vilsack and Strickland took part in a roundtable discussion with representatives from POET, the Ohio Corn Growers Association, Ohio Ethanol Producers Association and the Ohio Department of Agriculture as well as the federal Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

During the visit, Vilsack voiced support for increasing the ethanol blend level to 15 percent. “We are working at USDA to develop a roadmap for how to build that [ethanol] nationwide industry,” he said. “We understand it starts with allowing the capacity we have today to maximize its input. That means increasing the blend rate to 15 percent. I have been advocating for that, will continue to advocate for that, and I believe it will happen. Obviously I wish it had had happened now, but I believe it will happen sometime this fall.” Vilsack also stressed the need for increasing blender pumps and getting more flex fuel vehicles on the road.

Yesterday, Vilsack toured Quasar Energy Group in Wooster, Ohio to observe new technologies being utilized to generate larger supplies of biogas derived from cellulosic biomass. USDA, along with the State of Ohio, provided funding to support the development of the new facility.

The funding was used to install an anaerobic digester that processes 25,000 wet tons per year of organic biomass including food wastes from local food producers, crop residuals, grass and manure from livestock operations of the Ohio State University-Agricultural Technical Institute (ATI). Based on its electric generation capacity, this bio-digester can supply roughly one-third of the electricity needs of the Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center (OARDC) campus.

Purdue Develops Mobile Biofuels Processing Method

Mobile processing plants might hold the key to harvesting agricultural waste on the farm for biofuels production.

purdueChemical engineers at Purdue University have come up with the concept and developed a new method to process agricultural waste and other biomass into biofuels. The method would utilize various types of biomass, including wood chips, switch grass, corn stover, rice husks, and wheat straw.

The approach would solve one of the major problems in using agricultural waste for biofuels – transporting the biomass to a plant for processing. “It makes more sense to process biomass into liquid fuel with a mobile platform and then take this fuel to a central refinery for further processing before using it in internal combustion engines,” says chemical engineer Rakesh Agrawal.

The new method, called fast-hydropyrolysis-hydrodeoxygenation, works by adding hydrogen into the biomass-processing reactor. The hydrogen for the mobile plants would be derived from natural gas or the biomass itself. However, Agrawal envisions the future use of solar power to produce the hydrogen by splitting water, making the new technology entirely renewable.

The method, which has the shortened moniker of H2Bioil — pronounced H Two Bio Oil — has been studied extensively through modeling, and experiments are under way at Purdue to validate the concept.

Read more here.

America’s Slippery Slope of Support for Renewable Energy

Our country is quickly sliding down a slippery slope. Not too long ago, we were the leaders in renewable energy – wind, solar, biofuels. Today, not only have the major technological advancements come from overseas, our manufacturing facilities, entrepreneurs and investors are going, or have gone overseas as well.

Where are they going? Brazil. India. China. Why? Because these countries have the winning recipes for success: cohesive energy policy, long-term incentives and private investors. These are the exact three things we do not have in America.

We have other problems. We have states like California, that purport leadership in green policies and renewable energy, who make it nearly impossible to get permits for projects to meet its “green” initiatives.

Yesterday, Martifer Renewables Electricity dropped its plans to build a 107MW hybrid solar-powered biomass plant in California. The reason? After nearly 2 1/ 2 years, they have yet to obtain permits. Another company run out of California due to difficulty in obtaining permits, Blue Fire Ethanol – a next generation bioenergy company.

It may not be too late to head back up the hill but there are some things that must be done. Continue reading

Ceres Develops First Salt Tolerant Energy Crop

Now this is interesting. I was reading earlier this morning in Cadillac Desert about how agriculture in many areas is suffering from water issues that include too much salt. The salt damages the soil, kills the crops and ultimately the land is taken out of production. Today, there are over one billion acres of cropland that have been abandoned around the world and 15 million acres just in the U.S.

However, this may become an issue of the past. Today, Ceres, Inc., a company focusing on the development of energy crops, announced that it has developed a plant that could bring new life to millions of acres of abandoned or marginal cropland damaged by salts. According to the company, results in several of their crop tests, including switchgrass, have shown high levels of salt tolerance.

Ceres reported that its researchers tested the effects of very high salt concentrations and also seawater from the Pacific Ocean, which contains high concentrations of salts, on energy grass varieties such as sorghum, miscanthus and switchgrass, currently being grown in their greenhouses located in California. These sources of biomass are being considered to produce fuel and electricity.

“Today, we have energy crops thriving on seawater alone, said Richard Hamilton, Ceres President and CEO. “The goal of course, is not for growers to water their crops with seawater, but enable cropland abandoned because of salt or seawater effects to be put to productive uses.”

The next step in Ceres’ research is to evaluate energy crops with its proprietary salt-tolerant trait at field scale. Should the results be confirmed, the company says that biofuel and biopower producers will have more choice for locating new facilities, have more productive options for marginal land and ultimately, the ability to displace even greater amounts of fossil fuels.

Hamilton concluded, “In the end, this is not so much a salt trait, but a productivity trait and a land-use trait. I am convinced more than ever that techniques of modern plant science can continue to deliver innovations that increase yields and reduce the footprint of agriculture. Improved energy crops will enable the bioenergy industry to scale far beyond the limits of conventional wisdom.”

World Economic Forum Sees Bright Biofuels Future

A new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) concludes that converting biomass into fuels, energy, and chemicals has the potential to generate upwards of $230 billion to the global economy by 2020, most of that in the United States. The report, produced in collaboration with Royal DSM N.V., Novozymes, DuPont and Braskem, says that the biorefineries industry could supplement demand for sustainable energy, chemicals and materials, aiding energy security.

The report on the Future of Industrial Biorefineries was unveiled today during a keynote address at the BIO World Congress conference by Steen Riisgaard, CEO of Novozymes. “We need an energy replacement that comes at oil’s low price, but without its high environmental cost,” said Riisgaard. “Over time, cars, trucks, and even airplanes are going to run on sustainable low-carbon fuels derived from biomass. Plastics and chemicals will be made from plants rather than petroleum. As a result, biorefineries will infuse billions of dollars into the economy and create more than 800,000 new jobs.”

Riisgaard highlighted the U.S. as the world leader in developing biorefineries, accounting for more than 40,000 jobs. “While the U.S. has a head start, the race itself is only at the beginning,” said Riisgaard. “America’s competitive advantage cannot be taken for granted. If the U.S. wants to be a leader in developing these new clean energy technologies, it must build on the progress it’s already made. Congress and the Departments of Energy and Agriculture must ensure that the U.S. has a coherent and comprehensive strategy for the bio-based society and not just fragments of measures here and there.”

The report concludes that the development of the bio-based economy is at an early and high-risk stage and that government has a key role to play in providing seed support to the emerging bio-based sector and creating the market to ensure that it becomes established and successful as quickly as possible.

Read the full report here.

ZeaChem Claims Successful Ethanol Conversion

ZeachemBiomass refinery developer ZeaChem today announced the successful production of ethanol at a capacity that can be scaled to commercial production.

According to a news release, ZeaChem’s results have been confirmed by third party vendors and the company will now demonstrate the integration of its biorefining processes at its 250,000 gallon per year Boardman, Oregon biorefinery, announced earlier this month. The company plans begin cellulosic ethanol production at the plant next year.

Using off-the-shelf catalysts and standard equipment in an innovative way, ZeaChem produced ethanol from ethyl acetate through a process called hydrogenation –a common industrial practice that is readily scaled to commercial levels.

“Through the successful production of ethanol, we’ve completed ZeaChem’s C2 carbon chain suite of products, which includes acetic acid, ethyl acetate, and ethanol,” said Jim Imbler, president and CEO of ZeaChem. “The next step is to integrate these known processes to achieve the ultimate target of commercial production of economical and sustainable biofuels and bio-based chemicals.”

ZeaChem’s technology uses a bacteria found in termite guts in an anaerobic fermentation process that produces no CO2 emissions.

SunBelt Biofuels is Now Repreve

repreveSunBelt Biofuels and Unifi Inc. have formed a joint venture called REPREVE™ Renewables to develop and commercialize bioenergy crops, including Freedom™ Giant Miscanthus.

According to the companies, Freedom Giant Miscanthus is a heat and drought tolerant perennial that yields up to 25 tons per acre. It was developed at Mississippi State University and is the first and only University-released, licensed and branded variety of Giant Miscanthus available. The new venture plans to develop Freedom planting stock for sale to U.S. growers, who will in turn sell the energy crop as feedstock to the bioenergy and biofuel industries in the U.S. and E.U.

East Coast States Form Offshore Wind Consortium

A group of 10 states along the U.S. East Coast have signed an agreement with the the Department of the Interior to form the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium.

CalFinder.com says the group will also promote solar and biomass power:

Federal approval of Cape Wind, the United States’ first offshore wind farm near Cape Cod, essentially gave offshore wind the green light up and down the nation’s coasts. This agreement by the DOI and 10 East Coast states essentially assures us that wind energy will be developed in abundance with the full support of federal and regional governments.

The 10 states to sign the memo are: Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia. Six states also formed intergovernmental “leasing task forces” to develop and facilitate leases for private companies to build offshore wind farms. Florida and South Carolina did not sign the memo, but are developing leasing task forces as well. Apparently, Georgia is cooperating in some way, shape or form.

The efforts are expected to help create green jobs in construction, operation and manufacturing of renewable energy systems in the region. In fact, the Department of the Interior has set up a renewable energy office in Virginia to help coordinate the efforts.

USDA Nears Finish of Biomass Crop Assistance Rules

USDA officials say they are close to finalizing the rules for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), a measure that was in the 2008 Farm Bill and is designed to encourage farmers to grow new crops for energy production. But there’s still some work to do before it is finally implemented.

“We have put out a proposed rule, received over 24,000 comments, we’ve evaluated those comments and are in the process of then working on writing the final rule based on the proposed rule and the comments we got,” says Jonathan Coppess, Administrator of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Plus, he says the ag department will need to do an environmental impact statement.

Coppess says there two main provisions in BCAP: 1. the assistance for establishment provision, that has the federal government reimbursing farmers for 75 percent of the costs of establishing a new biomass crop; and 2. matching payments for the collection, harvesting, storage and transportation of biomass products.

The rule should be ready by this fall, however, there is one more hurdle to clear. Congress still has 60 days to comment.