Census of Ag to Ask About Renewable Energy, Biomass

The USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture forms soon will be going out to farmers and ranchers across the country, and this year, the survey will be asking asking about renewable energy and biomass.

“We’re asking for more details on whether farmers are using solar, wind… what type of energy, and some of the crops they’re growing to produce biomass,” says Renee Picanso, Director of the USDA’s Census and Survey Division, asking that those surveyed return their census by Feb. 4, 2013. During an interview at Trade Talk at the National Association of Farm Broadcasting convention, she added that also new this year will be the opportunity to fill out the survey over the internet, something they believe will help response rates. “I hope so, because it leads you through the questions, and if you go on the internet, it will skip through the questions [not relevant to your operation].”

Picanso stresses that it’s very important for producers to respond because the survey helps USDA determine policy, as well as how it helps rural communities and agribusinesses. Results should be released in February 2014.

Listen to Cindy’s interview with Renee here: Renee Picanso, USDA Census and Survey Division

Virgin Islands Go “Giant” with Biomass Energy Crop

Giant King(TM) Grass is now growing in the Virgin Islands and could help the U.S. territory meet its goal of 22 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. California-based Viaspace, Inc. sent the first shipment to St. Croix, and Tibbar Energy USVI LLC has planted it with hopes that it will become a key part of that company’s 6 MW biomass energy project on the 1,000-acre Giant King Grass plantation.

The Giant King Grass will be used as a feedstock for anaerobic digestion, generating biogas which will be used to produce electricity. No grass is burned in this process. Anaerobic digestion is a biological process.

The benefits of this project to the island are not only in the energy production. Additional benefits include:

– The branding of St. Croix as a renewable energy producer
— Helping to meet the Virgin Islands renewable energy goal of 22% by 2025
— Provides organic fertilizer for local farmers, agricultural scholarships and new agricultural activity
— Developing co-operative growing agreements with local famers
— Creates high quality permanent jobs.
— Converts 800 acres of underutilized land to agricultural use
— Invests millions of dollars into the island”

This is part of Tibbar’s 20-year project, expected to be fully online early in 2014.

Besides growing Giant King Grass, Viaspace is also growing its social media presence. You can also follow the company on its Facebook page, www.facebook.com/viaspaceinc, and through Twitter @viaspace.

Cool Planet – 3 Years, 30 Biomass Plants

Cool Planet Energy Systems has announced a breakthrough in the commercialization and affordability of biofuels from biomass. Using a mechanical process and scaling approach, the company says it can produce high octane gasoline at the cost of $1.50 per gallon without the need for subsidies and also while removing carbon from the air during the course of production.

The company, backed by Google, BP, General Electric, NRG, and others, says it has already successfully tested the technology internally as well as at Google’s headquarters with its campus vehicle, GRide, that has driven 2,400 miles on the fuel. By running on a 5% Cool Planet carbon negative fuel blended with 95% regular gasoline, the test car blend met California’s 2020 Low Carbon Fuel Standard – eight years ahead of schedule according to a Cool Planet statement.

The statement also said the control car used 100 percent regular gasoline, and successfully passed five smog checks with no significant difference between cars. The total mileage of the test car was virtually the same as the control car, driving a total of 2,490 stop and go miles in the test car compared with 2,514 miles in the control car. Additionally, both the test car and the control car were virtually identical in emissions testing. Other field tests are planned.

“Innovations in alternative fuels will be key in addressing growing climate change concerns,” said Brendon Harrington, Transportation Operations Manager at Google, Inc. “We are thrilled to be a part of Cool Planet’s field testing and believe that this product has the potential to make a significant impact on our future energy needs.”

A byproduct of producing the biofuel from biomass is the activated carbon, or biochar that can be used as a soil enhancer increasing land fertility while isolating the carbon captured from the atmosphere. Continue reading

Biorenewables Technology Moves Closer to Market

Hyrax Energy and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) have signed a licensing agreement for a renewable chemical and biofuel production method. The chemical process uses ionic liquids to break down cellulosic or non-food plant-based biomass without using enzymes or the need for pretreatment steps. The technology was developed with the aid of University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemistry professor and Hyrax founder, Ron Raines.

The company’s process creates fermentable sugars, which can be converted into a variety of chemicals, including fuels and plastics. Hyrax says the process developed avoids the need for costly pretreatment efforts typically used to overcome key problems with biomass including its water-insolubility and resistance to molecular deconstruction. The technology avoids these problems by employing ionic liquids to dissolve raw biomass from the beginning.

“Doing the entire conversion process in ionic liquids eliminates enzymes, pretreatment steps and harsh energy inputs and leads to a dramatic reduction in process complexity and capital intensity,” said Raines. Coupled with its scientific significance, the licensing of the new technology marks a major step toward commercializing this approach to biofuel production on an industrial scale.”

Raines said the paten-pending technology has been validated by third parties. He also said that the help of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) and WARF Accelerator Program helped to fund development of the technology and provide the intellectual property protection necessary to support the process of commercialization. Hyrax is the first company that is part of GLBRC to begin the process of commercialization and also won the 2012 Clean Energy Challenge sponsored by the Clean Energy Trust.

Bloomberg U.S. Awarded WindMade Label

The first news organization in the world, Bloomberg, has been awarded the WindMade certification label for its U.S. operations. WindMade is a global consumer label that identifies companies that use wind energy and other renewables that are certified by UN Global Compact and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). To be considered, a company must obtain at least 25 percent of its electricity from wind power. Bloomberg obtains 58 percent of its electricity from wind power and 25 percent from biomass energy.

“Not only does the label demonstrate our commitment to renewable energy, it provides consumers with the choice to favor companies and products using wind power,” said Curtis Ravenel, Bloomberg’s Global Head of Sustainability. “As both a Founding Partner and the Official Data Provider for WindMade, receiving the WindMade Certification for our operations was the logical next step for us to show our commitment to this very important standard.”

Henrik Kuffner, CEO of WindMade, added, “We are delighted for Bloomberg. By committing to renewable energy and using the WindMade label, Bloomberg has set a great example that will inspire companies and consumers all over the world.”

Study Looks at Converting Biomass & Electricity to Fuel

In a collaborative effort between University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, a continuous process for converting biomass and electricity into renewable liquid transportation fuels has been developed. The researchers used a proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell to convert the model biomass compound acetone into isopropanol. This chemical compound can be used in a myriad of pharmaceutical and industrial applications and can also be used as a gasoline additive.

The project, led by George Huber, a UW-Madison professor of chemical and biological engineering, and other members of his research team, say the advance paves the way for researchers to convert biomass molecules such as glucose into hexanes, which are significant components of gasoline currently derived by refining crude oil.

“Essentially, we are making renewable liquid fuel that fits into the existing infrastructure,” said Huber, whose team published its results in the Sept. 7, 2012, issue of the journal ChemSusChem. Unlike other technologies that use large quantities of expensive hydrogen gas to convert biomass to biofuels, the team’s process is driven by electricity, which is inexpensive and readily available in rural areas. And, we’re storing the electrical energy as chemical energy.”

A fuel cell converts chemical energy into electrical energy, or vice versa. Reactions in a proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell, which consists of two “halves,”  require only water, electricity and the biomass-derived molecule. The chemical reaction is facilitated by a positive electrode coupled with a catalyst. The other side-the cathode-consists of a negative electrode and a catalyst.

The next step involves reducing biomass molecules into fuel. Continue reading

Ag Energy Coalition Talks Farm Bill

The 2008 Farm Bill has officially expired giving the agricultural industry and renewable energy industry, which had programs in the 2008 Farm Bill, a grave level of uncertainty to growing segments of the U.S. economy. This move has caused private sector investments to dry up and threatens good paying jobs.

In response, Lloyd Ritter, co-director of the Agriculture Energy Coalition (AgEC) said, “With support from energy programs in the 2008 Farm Bill, U.S. companies have raised private financing to start construction of the nation’s first six advanced biofuels biorefineries; farmers in more than 150 counties across the nation have begun raising and harvesting next generation energy crops on 150,000 acres of underutilized farmland; rural families are saving money through energy efficiency and/or renewable power generation on their farms through the use of wind, solar, geothermal, and anaerobic digestion technologies; and nearly 100,000 people are now employed in the rapidly growing biobased products market.

This progress is at risk if Congress fails to finish new Farm Bill legislation that has already passed the Senate and been voted out of the House Committee on Agriculture.”

Ritter stressed that there is certainty provided by a five-year Farm Bill and is needed to keep farmers, business owners and investors interested in rural energy initiatives. He concluded by saying a five-year extension of the Farm Bill that includes funding for the energy title is needed to keep investments flowing and jobs intact.

Napiergrass Potential Biofuel Crop

There is another potential biofuel crop you don’t hear much about being studied for the Southeast: napiergrass. The potential feedstock is currently used in the tropics to feed cattle, but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientist William Anderson, it could be a good biofuel feedstock as well. Napiergrass is fairly drought-tolerant, grows well on marginal lands and filters nutrients out of runoff in riparian areas says Anderson, who is a geneticist.

The study, recently published in BioEnergy Research, monitored several potential bioenergy crops including cane, napiergrass, switchgrass and giant reed for four years and compared biomass yields and soil nutrient requirements. The team included Joseph Knoll, Timothy Strickland and Robert Hubbard, ARS scientists with the agency’s Southeast Watershed Research Unit in Tifton, Georgia, and Ravindra Malik of Albany State University in Albany, Ga.

With the need for biofuels to be produced from diverse feedstocks, the Southeastern U.S. is expected to play a large role with longer growing seasons than other areas of the country. The team’s initial research is showing that napiergrass could be a viable biofuel crop in the Southeast’s southern tier. Although it is not as cold tolerant as switchgrass, it has other advantages including the ability to produce biomass until the first frost.

The research team is continuing to study napiergrass with an eye toward improving yields, usable fiber content, and disease resistance. They are also evaluating production systems that use chicken litter, synthetic fertilizer, and winter cover crops, as well as different irrigation levels, harvest times and planting dates. Preliminary findings in those studies show yields are sufficient without irrigation, and that there is little difference in yield when poultry litter is used instead of synthetic fertilizers.

“Semi-dwarf” Trees May Enable a Green Revolution

Researchers at Oregon State University recently published results of a study looking at the advantages of growth traits of “semi-dwarf” trees. Through genetic modification, advantageous growth traits could be developed to grow trees better suited for bioenergy or more efficient water use in a drier, future climate.

According to the research team, this approach is contrary to the conventional wisdom of tree breeding which operates under the philosophy that larger and taller is better. Yet similar to how the green revolution in agriculture helped crops such as wheat and rice produce more food on smaller, sturdier plants, this same strategy could be successfully applied to forestry.

“Research now makes it clear that genetic modification of height growth is achievable,” said Steven Strauss, an OSU professor of forest genetics. “We understand the genes and hormones that control growth not only in crop plants, but also in trees. They are largely the same.”

In a study published in Plant Physiology, researchers inserted a several genes into poplar trees, a species often used for genetic experiments, and valuable for wood, environmental and energy purposes. The report details 29 genetic traits that were affected, including growth rate, biomass production, branching, water-use efficiency, and root structure. All of the changes were from modified gibberellins, plant hormones that influence several aspects of growth and development.

The researchers found that the range and variation in genetic modification can be accurately observed and selected for, based on hormone and gene expression levels, to allow production of trees of almost any height. Other genes could be modified to produce trees with a larger root mass that could make them more drought resistant, increase water efficiency, increase elimination of soil toxins, and better sequester carbon. This could be useful for greenhouse gas mitigation, bioremediation or erosion control.

Although researchers can already point to beneficial results of genetic modification of poplar trees, and eventually other trees, it may be difficult to actually use the research for the greater good.

“The main limitation is the onerous regulatory structure for genetically-modified plants in the United States,” Strauss said. “Even short, safe and beneficial trees are unlikely to be able to bear the high costs and red tape inherent to obtaining regulatory approval.”

Small Solution for Big Biomass Problem

Many people have high hopes for biomass as a bioenergy crop. For example, several companies are looking to convert corn stover and corn cobs to cellulosic ethanol. But there are several challenges currently being researched including transportation, storage and moisture content. High moisture feedstocks can muck up the hammer mill system. However, many advanced biofuel producers do not want completely dry feedstocks.

The solution will lie in a technology that works well to produce uniform small particles from we feedstocks. Forest Concepts engineers have been working on this and believe they have the technological solution. Supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Crumbler M24 shears high moisture feedstocks to uniform particles as small as 1.6 mm (1/16 inches). The company says the technology has been used successfully on wood chips, corn stover, switchgrass, bamboo, sage and other biomass-based feedstocks with moisture ranging from 10 to 80 percent.

The Crumbler M24 is now commercially available and has a 24 inch cutting width, and can process more than two green tons of wood chips or other plant materials per hour. According to Forest Concepts, the machine is powered by a 20 hp electric motor and operated by a built in computerized programmable logic controller (plc). The plc enables full integration with other process controls at a biomass processing facility or biorefinery. Other models with capacities up to 20 green tons per hour are currently under development.

New Study on Water-wise Biofuel Crops

A new study has shown that putting the water-use-efficient and turbo-charged photosynthesis from plants such as agave into woody biomass plants can hedge against high temperatures and low moisture. It can also enable growers to plant dedicated energy crops on marginal land.

A team of researchers including John Cushman, a biochemistry professor at the University of Nevada, Reno; Xiaohan Yang at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL); James Hartwell at the University of Liverpool, UK; and Anne Borland at Newcastle University, UK and ORNL are exploring the genetic mechanisms of crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) and drought tolerance in desert-adapted plants as a way to improve drought resistance for biofuel crops.

The study is part of a five-year, multi-institutional $14.3 million U.D. Department of Energy (DOE) grant, “Engineering CAM Photosynthetic Machinery into Bioenergy Crops for Biofuels Production in Marginal Environments.” The funds are through the DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Genomic Science: Biosystems Design to Enable Next-Generation Biofuels.

The team will develop novel technologies to redesign bioenergy crops to grow on economically marginal agricultural lands and produce yields of biomass that can readily be converted to biofuels. The development of water-use efficient, fast-growing trees such as poplar for such sites will also help reduce competition with food crops for usable farmland according to the research team.

“With climate change predictions for a 7 degree Fahrenheit (3.8 degree C) increase in temperature and a decrease in reliable precipitation patterns by 2080 for much of America’s breadbasket, and with a greater need for sources of biofuels for transportation, these biodesign approaches to enhancing biomass production become very important,” Cushman, director of the project, said.

The ultimate goal of the project is to significantly improve an energy crop’s drought resistance by enabling the crop to adapt to hotter, drier climates.  Continue reading

“Forever Young” Switchgrass for Cellulosic Ethanol

Scientists at the USDA might have found a way to keep switchgrass forever young and better for cellulosic ethanol. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) geneticist Sarah Hake, working with University of California-Berkeley plant geneticist George Chuck, found that taking a gene from corn called corngrass and inserting it into switchgrass keeps the grass always in a juvenile form that doesn’t flower, doesn’t produce seeds, and doesn’t have a dormant growth phase. And that means the sugars in the plant starch are more readily available for conversion into cellulosic ethanol.

The scientists observed that the leaves in the transgenic switchgrass are not nearly as stiff as leaves in switchgrass cultivars that haven’t been modified. In addition, they determined that leaf lignin is slightly different in the transgenic switchgrass than leaf lignin in other plants. This could lead to new findings on how to break down the sturdy lignin and release sugars for fermentation, a development that will be essential to the commercial production of cellulosic ethanol.

The researchers are now introducing DNA segments called genetic promoters that would “turn on” the expression of the corngrass gene just in aboveground switchgrass shoots. This could help increase root mass development that otherwise would be inhibited by the gene. Hake and Chuck also suggest that developing nonflowering switchgrass varieties would eliminate the possibility of cross-pollination between transgenic switchgrass cultivars and other switchgrass cultivars.

The work was published in 2011 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

MU Grant Studies Biomass Growth on Marginal Lands

University of Missouri (MU) researchers have received a $5.4 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) to continue its studies on how non-food biofuel crops grow in marginal land along floodplains. This is an area where crops cannot typically thrive.  he project is part of a $125 million international project to study how use marginal lands to to grow biofuel crops for advanced biofuels.

“In the 10 states along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, 100 million acres of marginalized agricultural land is unused or underutilized often due to frequent flooding,” said Shibu Jose, H.E. Garrett Endowed Professor in the School of Natural Resources and director of the MU Center for Agroforestry. “If farmers can plant just 10 percent of marginal floodplain land with crops designated for use in biofuels, we can produce 6 to 8 billion gallons of liquid fuel annually. Planting this land with crops designated for biofuels would have little to no effect on the food supply.”

Several trials are being planned including one that will test 15 types of biomass sorghum and 15 types of switchgrass. Both crops need less water than traditional crops and less care including less fertilizer. Other advantages of these crops is that the root system reduces erosion and water pollution by filtering water as it runs into streams and rivers. Ultimately, the team will identify which varieties grow best under flood and drought conditions and which crops grow best in various soil types.

Many energy producers are looking at biomass as a biofuel and electricity source. Biomass can be converted into pellets and then the pellets can be burned for electricity or produced into biofuels.  Jose envisions a network of farmers producing biomass and shipping it to local pellet-producers, who will ship the pellets to refineries.

“We need to build a network of pellet producers because transportation costs need to be low enough that farmers can still profit off of growing crops for biofuel,” said Jose.“With the smaller condensed pellets, we can transport a great amount of energy at a low cost.”

New Investments to Drive Biofuels Innovations

USDAThe U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Energy Wednesday announced a $41 million investment in 13 projects designed to drive more efficient biofuels production and feedstock improvements.

“If we want to develop affordable alternatives for oil and gasoline that will help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we need investments like these projects to spur innovation in bioenergy,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “By producing energy more efficiently and sustainably, we can create rural jobs, boost rural economies and help U.S. farmers, ranchers and foresters prosper.”

Five projects will be funded through the joint Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) to develop economically and environmentally sustainable sources of renewable biomass and increase the availability of renewable fuels and biobased products. Those projects include $4.25 million for the Quad County Corn Cooperative in Galva, Iowa to retrofit an existing corn starch ethanol plant to add value to its byproducts, which will be marketed to the non-ruminant feed markets and to the biodiesel industry.

Agricultural Research Service’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois will receive $7 million for a project to optimize rapeseed/canola, mustard and camelina oilseed crops for oil quality and yield using recombinant inbred lines. The oils will be hydrotreated to produce diesel and jet fuel.

A $6 million project at the University of Hawaii will optimize the production of grasses in Hawaii, including napier grass, energycane, sugarcane and sweet sorghum. Harvest and preprocessing will be optimized to be compatible with the biochemical conversion to jet fuel and diesel.

More information on the projects funded can be found here from USDA.

Renewable Energy in House Farm Bill

The U.S. House Agriculture Committee has passed its version of the Farm Bill… better known as the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act or FARRM Act… but the measure doesn’t seem to give much love to renewable energy… and by love, we mean FUNDING!

Because of the lack of funding, most proposed amendments were withdrawn. One that did pass that required no specific funding was Arkansas Republican Rep. Rick Crawford’s measure for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP). Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) introduced the measure in the committee on Crawford’s behalf that would protect funding already invested. “The worst thing we could do to a project that has benefited and been a part of the BCAP program is pull the funding from it before it has had a chance to establish itself,” she told the committee. Noem added that if existing projects have their funding pulled before coming to fruition, it would send the wrong message to the farming community about biomass fuels. Despite some misgivings about the overall program from Ranking Member Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), the amendment passed and is headed to the House floor with about 40 other amendments.

Listen to the debate on the BCAP amendment here: BCAP amendment debate in House Ag Committee Continue reading