CSR Looks to Convert Used Railroad Ties to Biofuels

The Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR) has announced a new initiative to review the feasibility of “upcycling” used railroad ties into advanced biofuels. The research project is funded by a grant from the Indiana Rail Road (INRD). Working with the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) of the University of Minnesota – Duluth, CSR aims to determine the viability of converting some of the 15 million ties replaced by U.S. railroads each year into a clean-burning coal alternative.

railroad ties“CSR is thrilled to have the support of the Indiana Rail Road on this important, potentially historic opportunity,” said CSR President, Davidson Ward. “INRD is dedicated to innovation and technology, and its investment in our primary research is an inspiration to the entire team.”

Using a biomass processing technique known as torrefaction, the researchers at NRRI and CSR will convert the structure of used railroad ties, primarily made from hardwood species, into a clean, renewable, homogeneous, and densifiable biofuel. The final result is anticipated to be a pelletized biofuel that can be used in power plants. However, the biofuel will first powe CSR’s test bed steam locomotive, the Santa Fe Railway’s 1937-built No. 3463.

“As the son of a Santa Fe dispatcher and a lifelong student of that railway, I’m intrigued in CSR’s desire to rebuild and modernize such an innovative piece of technology as the 3463, and especially NRRI and CSR’s pursuit of energy, fuel and transportation development,” said INRD President and Chief Executive Officer, Thomas G. Hoback. “This important research impacts not only the future of energy in the U.S., but it honors the tradition of American innovation, from the reconstruction and modernization of an iconic steam locomotive to the biofuel development associated with our donation.”

This initial investigation aims to identify any hurdles involved with the conversion of railroad ties to fuel, including the handling of wood preservatives found in railroad ties. CSR will make results of the research known through its “White Paper Program“.

Hoback concluded, “This is something that I believe could lead to a key development in the future of the railroad industry. It is important to take pride in the history of where we’ve been, and the unique melding of research with preserving history, as championed by CSR, is a great way to honor the legacy of the Santa Fe.”

Corn Oil Gains in Popularity as Biodiesel Feedstock

cornoilbiodiesel1Corn oil, squeezed from the seeds at the Nation’s many ethanol plants, has seen a meteoric rise in popularity as a feedstock for biodiesel. This article from Ethanol Producer Magazine says use of corn oil as a biodiesel feedstock grew by an impressive 245 percent between 2011 and 2013.

Corn oil’s role as a popular feedstock choice in the biodiesel arena is quite apparent and growing, which made 2013 a great year for corn oil-derived biodiesel. More than 1.04 billion pounds of corn oil were utilized for biodiesel production by the end of 2013, an EIA biodiesel production report showed, making it the second most popular feedstock choice. During the second half of 2013, corn oil finally broke the 100 million pound mark not once, but on three separate occasions.

Corn oil producers have options to sell within local markets, as well as destination markets, says [Joseph Riley, general manager of FEC Solutions]. Locally, the oil can be transported via truck to nearby biodiesel plants or feed producers. In the case of Marquis Energy, the company is located relatively close to one of Renewable Energy Group’s biodiesel plants, says Tom Marquis, director of marketing at Marquis Energy LLC, which installed corn oil separation units in 2008. REG is one of the leading North American biodiesel producers with a 257 MMgy capacity and has been using the feedstock since 2007. “Our freight to their facility is pretty reasonable, so that has been the best market for our plant,” Marquis added.

The article goes on to say that growing markets for corn oil include plants in Louisiana, which use a variety of feedstocks for renewable diesel and California, which likes corn oil’s carbon-related benefits.

IRFA: Strong Plantings Report Calls for Strong RFS

IowaRFAlogoExpected big plantings of corn and soybeans underscore the need for a strong Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). New estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show a possible record amount of soybeans expected to be planted this year and the fifth largest corn acreage to be planted as well. The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association (IRFA) says these factors show why a strong and growing RFS is needed this year.

“The past eight years were prosperous for agriculture because the RFS was allowed to act as a sponge, soaking up additional corn and soybeans when needed,” stated IRFA Executive Director Monte Shaw. “The vast amount of corn and soybeans expected to be planted in 2014 demonstrates the importance of a strong and growing RFS. If the EPA’s proposal to essentially gut the RFS is allowed to become final, we could see huge carryovers, crop prices plummet below the cost of production, and family farms placed in jeopardy.”

Nearly 92 million acres is expected to be dedicated to corn this year and a record 81.5 million acres for soybeans, a six percent increase from last year.

Genera Energy, UTIA Complete $5M Biofuels Grant

Genera Energy and the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) were awarded a $5 million grant in 2009 from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), to research and develop economical systems for bulk-handling and processing of chopped switchgrass and reduce the costs of baling in the field and subsequent bale grinding. Genera has announced that the research supported by the grant has been completed.

Funds from the grant were used by Genera Energy to add a bulk-format handling and research equipment to its existing Biomass Innovation Park facility, implementing new gI_135453_biomass-supply-chaintechnology best engineered to supply processed switchgrass within specification at the lowest cost. Genera’s added capabilities are unique in that they allow it to receive, convey, store, reclaim, discharge, and compact bulk-format switchgrass automatically with an effective, integrated system.

“Through this grant and by collaborating with Genera Energy, we’ve been able to evaluate existing switchgrass supply logistics and to develop ground-breaking systems that offer better and more cost-effective methods for handling, processing, and storing chopped switchgrass,” said Al Womac, Ph.D.,  professor of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science with UTIA and the project leader. “The funding began in 2009 and in that time we have been able to create and produce a fully-replicable system that saves money and time and which is logistically superior to traditional baling.”

Using scientific data collected during the research phases UTIA and Genera were able to develop innovative systems that were based on detailed analysis of switchgrass harvest and handling equipment and logistical efficiencies as well as material characteristics such as weight, particle size, bulk density, moisture content and other factors. Software was also developed to calculate effective field capacity, field efficiency, machine utilization and system limiting factors.

“Our collaboration with the University of Tennessee in the development of new feedstock logistics systems using chopped switchgrass has culminated in a first-of-its-kind system,” added Genera Energy President and CEO Kelly Tiller, Ph.D. “By working with our partners over the last several years, we’ve developed a fully-functioning and innovative biomass feedstock bulk supply chain. And in the process we are creating sustainable biomass feedstock systems that can be replicated on a larger scale, something we only imagined when Genera was first envisioned.”

Argonne National Lab Releases Updated GREET Model

The Argonne National laboratory has announced the release of the updated GREET fuel cycle model. The GREET model was first released in 1996 and since its release, Argonne has continued to update and improve the model. GREET (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation) is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).

GREET logoThe GREET model is a tool designed to fully evaluate energy and emission impacts of advanced vehicle technologies and new transportation fuels, the fuel cycle from wells to wheels It also takes into account the vehicle cycle through material recovery and vehicle disposal.

Key updates include:

  • New marine fuel pathways and commercial vessel operations
  • New sorghum ethanol pathways
  • New Tallow pathway
  • Electric power sector technology shares, efficiencies and emission factors by technology and utility regions
  • CH4 emissions for natural gas pathways
  • Transmission and distribution (T&D) emission factors, energy intensity, mode shares and distances
  • Biofuels land use change (LUC) data and new modeling options
  • Cellulosic biomass feedstock updates (e.g., farming, T&D, dry matter losses)
  • Fertilizers and nutrients use for biofuels pathways
  • Petroleum refining efficiency
  • Light duty vehicles (LDV) tailpipe emission factors
  • Hydrogen production with latest DOE H2A models
  • Urban share of criteria air pollutants (CAP) emissions (petroleum, electricity, LDVs)

The GREET model is free to use. Click here to download the updated GREET fuel cycle model.

AFAI Launches “Jetropha” Campaign

optimal_growth_jatropha_trees_-_2012_20130219_1955646226Alternative Fuels Americas (AFAI), an advanced biofuels company, is launching Project Jetropha, a campaign to encourage and promote the use of Jatropha based biofuels in aircraft. The project website will be launched in the coming weeks.

“The aviation industry has been under pressure to lower its disproportionately high contribution to carbon emissions,” said CEO Craig Frank. “With fuels costs comprising up to 50% of total costs, industry leaders such as Richard Branson, United Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa, Jet Blue, AeroMexico and others have embraced biofuels as part of an affordable solution.”

“Project Jetropha – through Jetropha.com will provide a platform for discussions, a forum for the exchange of information, and a voice to the Jatropha sector,” added Frank. “The time has come for us to assume a leadership role. Project Jetropha will provide great benefit to the industry as well as significant opportunities for AFAI, and rightfully establish AFAI as a leading force in the biofuels sector.”

USDA’s Doug O’Brien Visits Novozymes’ Facility

USDA 9-12-13 034--Doug O'Brien, Dwayne Breaux (crane operator)During the Advanced Biofuels Conference that took place last week in Omaha, Nebraska, Novozymes hosted USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development, Doug O’Brien. Following his keynote address, O’Brien headed to Blair, Nebraska, the home of Novozyme’s enzyme manufacturing facility.

Also on the tour of the Novozymes facility were several members of Novozymes plant management, Jim Realph, Mayor of Blair, Neb., and Maxine Moul, USDA Rural Development Director for Nebraska.

Novozymes operates two enzyme manufacturing plants, one of which opened in Blair in May of 2012. This plant produces enzymes for both first generation biofuel production, such as corn-based ethanol, as well as advanced biofuels such as cellulosic fuels produced from corn stover and cobs, switchgrass and more. Novozymes has dozens of strategic partnerships with biofuel companies around the world to help develop efficient and cost-competitive biofuels from a wide-range of feedstocks. The Blair production facility employs 100 people.

K State Offers Tips for Biodiesel Feedstock Canola

CanolaAs the popularity of canola rises, in part due to its role as a feedstock for biodiesel, extension representatives from Kansas State University offer some tips to encourage growing the golden crop during winter rotations.

Mike Stamm, a canola breeder and associate agronomist at Kansas State University, said about 80 percent of the canola oil consumed in the United States is imported, so it makes sense for farmers in the southern Great Plains to grow more winter canola.

“One of the reasons why we’re encouraging farmers to grow winter canola is that the same equipment used for wheat production can also be used for winter canola,” Stamm said.

Canola makes an excellent rotational crop with winter wheat, he said, because different classes of herbicide used to control weeds in winter canola also control weeds that can be troublesome for winter wheat. The roots of a canola plant can draw nutrients and water that are deep in the soil up to the surface that often times wheat roots can’t reach.

Seeds within canola pods are small, but their value is not. Each 2 millimeter (mm) diameter seed is about 40 percent oil. With a current futures price for the 2014 crop around $11.35 per bushel, canola is looking profitable for the coming year, Stamm said.

Stamm goes on to offer some tips on crop insurance, selecting the right cultivar and site, planting timing and methods, and soil, weed, insect and disease management.

Biodiesel Feedstock Camelina Genome Sequenced

GenomePrairieA Canadian company has announced the release of the genome for camelina, a rising, important feedstock for biodiesel. This Genome Prairie news release says the company’s “Prairie Gold” project was started as a public-private partnership between Genome Prairie, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the National Research Council Canada:

Camelina is a technically difficult species to sequence, and the latest in next-generation sequencing techniques were needed in order to assemble a complete and high quality genome sequence. One interesting feature is that the gene complement appears to be almost three times larger than that of Arabidopsis thaliana, the closely related species that is widely used as a model in laboratory settings. This is likely the result of two genome duplication events in a common ancestor in Camelina’s evolutionary past.

According to Reno Pontarollo, CEO of Genome Prairie, “the completion of the Camelina genome sequence marks an important milestone that will enable local businesses to be more innovative in developing Camelina-based value-added industrial bioproducts.”

The most important use of the genome sequence will be for current and future breeding applications. “When combined with a high-density genetic map, also developed as part of the project, we now have the most complete picture of the Camelina genome to-date,” said lead Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist, Isobel Parkin.

Scientists say the sequence will help them develop improved varieties of camelina. You can see the sequence at www.camelinadb.ca.

Why Sugarcane Ethanol is Essential to RFS

There is a significant amount of attention being paid to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) but one area that hasn’t been talked about much is the role of sugarcane ethanol in the RFS. To learn more, I spoke with Leticia Phillips the representative for North America with UNICA – the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association.

She said that under the RFS, Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is classified as an “other advanced biofuel” and by 2022 this category of fuel is to contribute 4 billions gallons to the fuel supply. Phillips said that today, sugarcane Leticia Phillipsethanol is the best performing biofuel commercially available today. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculations, sugarcane ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by at least 61 percent when compared to traditional fuel, i.e. gasoline.

Today, sugarcane ethanol represents 3 percent of all fuels under the RFS, but it is actually one quarter of the advanced pool of the fuels for the RFS. Phillips says it plays a pretty important role and provides a secure flow of biofuels.

Brazilian sugarcane ethanol has been under fire because its not “American-made” and also because many argue it doesn’t have the GHG emission reductions that the EPA says it does. I asked Leticia why UNICA believes push-back on the biofuel is misplaced.

Leticia said from her viewpoint is that the RFS doesn’t specify that the fuel must be made in America, but rather the goal is to reduce carbon emissions. “The goal should also be to help America become energy secure and energy diverse,” explained Phillips. She said that energy security and energy independence both mean looking at where the country can get better performing biofuels for the program.

While she understands some of the push-back from the market, she stressed that a bigger problem with the RFS today is the so-called “blend wall” issue coupled with the fact that American fuel use is dwindling – a scenario no one anticipated when the RFS was created.

To learn more, listen to my interview with Leticia Phillips here: Why Sugarcane Ethanol is Essential to the RFS

For more information on sugarcane ethanol, visit UNICA’s sugarcane website.

Greenbelt’s Distillation Module Exceeds Benchmarks

Greenbelt Resources Corporation has announced successful performance testing results from its automated distillation module. The module, available separately or as part of a complete sustainable energy production system, efficiently generated hydrous ethanol, Greenbelt logodistilled water and fertilizer from beer stock of 4 percent ethanol at a rate of 70,000 gpy (gallons per year) – or 10 gallons per hour. The test occurred in continuous operation under the control of a proprietary, fully-automated process control system. Greenbelt said efficiencies in process, output and energy consumption exceeded benchmarks set as baseline performance standards necessary for shipped systems.

According to Greenbelt, by applying automated controls, the distillation process operates continuously with only periodic operator attendance. Designed both for remote monitoring and remote adjustment and control, the system issues email and text alerts for conditions detected that are outside the customer-set limits or that require operator attention. With excessive water use a growing concern, the system is designed to distill with minimum use of cooling water. Through increased air cooling, the use of cooling water can be eliminated entirely.

“As national and global targets for commercial ethanol production increase, we believe that performance tests like this are crucial for proving that many distributed feedstocks available in limited local quantities are viable at a localized scale,” said Darren Eng, CEO of Greenbelt Resources Corporation. “Meeting these critical early benchmarks for automated distillation offers proof that our system is the best option out there for converting cellulosic and other biomass waste into ethanol for the masses with the smallest carbon footprint.”

The system will output at a higher rate of ethanol production when feedstock originates at a higher concentration of ethanol, but can produce fuel-grade ethanol with optimum energy efficiency from low-ethanol-concentration feeds according to the company. This condition is often encountered when producing ethanol from wastes and certain cellulosic feedstocks.

The module can be shipped as a complete, fully tested system to domestic or international locations and be ready to operate within five days of delivery.

Feedstock Flexibility Program Final Rule Published

The Farm Service Agency has made the final Feedstock Flexibility Program (FFP) public and was published in the Federal Register on Monday, July 29, 2013. Congress created the FFP in the 2008 Farm Bill, allowing for the purchase of excess sugar to produce Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 9.10.14 AMbioenergy in order to avoid forfeiture of sugar pledged as collateral by processors when securing short-term commodity loans from United States Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC).

Federal law allows sugar processors to obtain loans from the CCC with maturities of up to nine months when the sugarcane or sugar beet harvest begins. Upon loan maturity, the sugar processor may repay the loan in full or forfeit the collateral (sugar) to the government to satisfy the loan. The last time sugar forfeitures occurred was in 2004 but atypical market conditions have necessitated USDA to take a number of actions this crop year to manage the sugar supply at the least cost to the federal government. If needed, FFP is an additional tool to manage the domestic sugar surplus.

As part of continuing efforts to manage the surplus, USDA is currently operating a purchase of sugar from domestic sugarcane processors under the Cost Reduction Options of the Food Security Act of 1985, and simultaneously will exchange this sugar for credits offered by refiners holding licenses under the Refined Sugar Re-export Program.

Crude Oil Rise Fuels Biodiesel Feedstocks Rise

The recent rise in crude oil prices are fueling a rise in some of the feedstocks for biodiesel. Bloomberg reportssoybeans that palm oil and soybean oil prices rose this week as petroleum prices also climbed:

“One of the reasons that is pushing demand for palm oil is biodiesel,” said Sim Han Qiang, an analyst at Phillip Futures Pte. in Singapore. “When crude oil prices go up, there’ll be high demand for biodiesel.”

Increased blending requirements in the Americas and Indonesia’s foray into biodiesel as a major producer will create demand for biofuel feedstock, Yusof said.

Soybean oil for delivery in December climbed 0.6 percent to 45.57 cents a pound on the Chicago Board of Trade. Soybeans for delivery in November rose 0.2 percent to $12.7675 a bushel.

The article adds that food demands are also helping fuel the rise for vegetable oils.

Double-Cropped Feedstocks Tested for Biodiesel

AnokaRamseyCCA college in the Minneapolis, Minn., suburbs is testing whether double-cropped camelina could be a good alternative for biodiesel feedstocks. Minnesota Farm Guide reports Anoka-Ramsey Community College’s Cambridge Campus has a 24-acre double-crop plot of camelina and soybeans to see if the non-food camelina will produce enough oil in the double-crop environment.

“This is a true energy crop that isn’t used for food,” [Melanie Waite-Altringer, a biology faculty member who's leading the project,] said. “In this project, we are ‘intercropping’ camelina with soybeans to see if the two crops can be grown together with high yields of each.” Planted in early May, the camelina should be ready for harvest in late July or early August. A harvest party is planned for July 31 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The soybeans, planted in early June, are expected to be harvested in September or October.

“We’re pleased that Anoka-Ramsey can play a key role in this project, which may well spur new economic development in the region,” said Deidra Peaslee, vice president of Anoka-Ramsey Community College, “Besides enriching student learning, we are expanding opportunities for area farmers, businesses, and the workers needed in this emerging industry.”

“With the camelina not being widely known as a good source for biodiesel production, we are trying to showcase that it can be a sustainable resource of highly needed renewable energy,” Waite-Altringer said. “Our students are conducting research adjacent to the demonstration plot to see what ratio of camelina to soybeans will generate the optimal profit for farmers.”

The college has been working with Ever Cat Fuels LLC., an Isanti biofuel processor, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers, and local farmers to study the characteristics of various energy crops.

Carbo Analytics Recieves DOE Grant

Carbo Analytics, developers of sugar analysis systems, has received a Department of Energy (DOE) grant for the development of a biofuels sugar analysis system. The company was awarded a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for FY 2013. Their application “Simple and Rapid Determination of Total Accessible C5 and C6 Content of Biomass Samples” was one of 79 that were selected to receive this grant.

CarboAnalyticsCarbo Analytics has partnered with CEM Corporation, the worldwide leader in microwave digestion systems, to prepare biomass samples. According to the company, this combined solution will give biofuel operators increased visibility into feedstock quality.

Fermentable sugar content of a given material is directly related to the total amount of biofuel that can be produced. Now, a simple and fast method for sugar measurement allows raw material value to be readily assessed. It also allows biofuel operators to flag potential feedstock problems and facilitate suppliers in developing and supplying the highest value products.

“We are excited to be partnering with Carbo Analytics,” said Michael J. Collins, President and CEO of CEM Corporation. “The powerful combination of their sugar analysis system and our microwave digester makes for a unique capability that no other technology can currently match.”

Renewable energy from bioethanol involves pretreatment of biomass, enzymatic hydrolysis, fermentation, and distillation. Biomass contains the C6 sugars (e.g. glucose, fructose and mannose), primarily from cellulose, and C5 sugars (e.g. xylose, and arabinose) from the hemicellulose part of the plant material. Fast measurement of these sugars is the key indicator of feedstock value and the potential production of a biofuel plant. Continue reading