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Sprucing Up Wood Waste Biomass Magazine Examines the Processes Used to Clean and Recycle This Abundant Biomass Resource

The future of fuel Transforming corn and other grains into biofuels is a major industry today . But what about tomorrow? The future of biofuels will also rely on the next generation of raw materials – biomass. At Novozymes we’re taking a fresh look at all types of biomass, and © Novozymes A /S · Customer Communications · No. 2007-35469-02

considering how we can turn it into something useful. And you know what? Corn cobs and wheat straw are just the beginning. Who knows what other types of waste we can transform into fuel? Novozymes is the world leader in bioinnovation. Together with customers across a broad array of industries we create tomorrow’ s industrial biosolutions, improving our customers’ business and the use of our planet’ s resources. Read more at www 2 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 8|2008

Novozymes North America, Inc. 77 Perry Chapel Church Road · Franklinton, NC 27525 Tel. +1 919-494-3000 · Fax +1 919-494-3485 · www



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FEATURES ..................... 22 PROCESS Cleaning and Reforming Syngas The U.S. DOE is investing in several research projects aimed at improving the thermochemical processes used to produce renewable fuels. By Ron Kotrba

28 INNOVATION A Sweet Energy Source The University of Florida and American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead, Minn., have teamed up on a project to turn sugar beet waste into methane, which can be used as a heat or energy source. By Kris Bevill

34 HANDLING Flexible Biomass Conveyance When designing a biomass handling system for Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co., Rapat Corp. incorporated a combination of mechanical and pneumatic conveyors, safety features and flexibility into the design. By Ron Kotrba

40 FUEL Building Better Biofuels


DEPARTMENTS ..................... 06 Editor’s Note Getting a Handle on Biomass Handling By Rona Johnson

07 Advertiser Index 08 CITIES Corner Facing the Challenge of Development By Art Wiselogel

Biomass Magazine details the progress of companies that are using synthetic biology to create “designer” microbes to produce biofuels that are chemically similar to petroleum and diesel. By Diane Greer

46 FEEDSTOCK Sprucing Up Wood Waste Environmental concerns have led to some novel processes to clean up wood waste so it can be used to generate energy. By Anna Austin

52 PROFILE Breaking Through to the Other Side of Biofuels Sustainable Power Corp. is refining its catalytic process technology developed by its founder and Chairman John Rivera to produce a biomass-based biocrude oil called Vertroleum, which can be further processed to produce several different fuel products. By Bryan Sims

58 OUTLOOK A Multi-Prong Approach to Carbon Neutrality 09 Industry Events 11 Business Briefs

By focusing on regionalized biomass sources and processing techniques suited for specific crops, cellulosic ethanol producers could create a product with little to no life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions. By Stephen Paley

12 Industry News 63 In the Lab From Problem to Profit By Jerry W. Kram

65 EERC Update Green Acres is the Place to Be By Chris Zygarlicke



NOTE Getting a Handle on Biomass


don’t think I have to tell those of you who are in the biomass business that handling is an issue. That’s why our staff writers are always on the lookout for features about biomass handling equipment and systems. In this issue, for instance, Ron Kotrba talked with Rapat Corp., which designed the biomass handling system to feed Benson, Minn.-based Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co.’s gasifier. The design was tricky because CVEC needed a system that could move wood chips quickly from the truck to the storage silo in order to keep truck drivers happy and at the same time move the wood from the storage silo to the plant at a slower pace. To make the project even more interesting, CVEC’s biomass conveyance system had to be capable of moving different types of biomass such as wood chips, corncobs and corn stover. If you want to find out how they dealt with that situation, take a look at Kotrba’s “Flexible Biomass Conveyance” feature on page 34. I also want to mention staff writer Anna Austin’s feature “Sprucing Up Wood Waste” that starts on page 46, where she looks into some ways to clean and recycle wood waste, including wood that’s treated with creosote. Creosote seems to me like a good news/bad news chemical. Yes, it prolongs the life of power poles and railroad ties so we don’t have to keep using more wood to make them, but it’s also a toxic material. In Austin’s feature, you can read about the process through which Canadian-based Enerkem plans to turn decommissioned power poles that have been treated with creosote into ethanol. I hope these features are useful, and if there’s anything in particular that you’d like us to write about, don’t hesitate to ask.

Rona Johnson Features Editor


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CITIES corner Facing the Challenge of Development


I am writing this column from the small Eurasian country of Armenia which is east of Turkey. BBI International is part of an international team of experts working on a study for the development of an ethanol industry in this interesting landlocked country. As part of the initial visit, I gave a presentation that was translated into to Armenian. Under the feedstock section I discussed commodity markets and risk. While working with the translator I was told that there is no direct translation for the word commodity in the Armenian language. I guess first we need to define the term commodity. According to most references a commodity is any item that has demand which also has a consistent definable quality across its market. Most raw feedstocks are considered commodities for example corn, copper and oil while many final products aren’t because they differ across their market such as corn chips and television sets. These products vary by manufacturer, price, performance and physical characteristics. Another important characteristic of a commodity is that the price is determined by the market as a whole. Of course, a local price for a commodity is somewhat responsive to the local supply and demand, but these prices have a base relationship to the set market price. This local effect is known as basis. Basis is given as a deviation from the price at a given location. For corn the price set by the Chicago Board of Trade is the most commonly used standard from which basis is calculated. For example, if local demand is low the basis may be 5 cents a bushel under Chicago. Based on this definition, biomass in general is not a commodity because of its inherent diversity. Wood chips


from pine trees are certainly different from corn stover and switchgrass, and even from hardwood wood chips. So, biomass as a whole is not a commodity, but types of biomass definitely have the potential to be a commodity. Wood chips and bales of switchgrass certainly could become commodities. For types of biomass to become a commodity several events need to occur. First, a national market needs to form. For wood chips there has long been a market from the pulp and paper industry, but this market has been local in nature and not national in scope. For any type of biomass to become a commodity there will need to be trade across the country. Next, quality standards have to be set to control variability. Again, the pulp and paper industry defines the characteristics of a pulp chip based on physical conditions required to optimize the pulping process. Since a defined biomass industry does not yet exist the development of quality standards is off in the future. Finally, a regulating body and location are needed. Biomass may develop its own trading structure, but most likely it will be traded on existing commodity exchanges such as CBOT. It may be a while, but some day I can envision buying futures of No. 1 grade switchgrass bales for June delivery. It will be great when that happens and a true testament that the biomass-based industry has faced the challenge of development. Art Wiselogel is manager of BBI International’s Community Initiative to Improve Energy Sustainability. Reach him at or (303) 526-5655.

industry events International Conference on Oil Palm Biomass

Biobased Industry Outlook Conference

August 19-20, 2008

September 8-9, 2008

Matrade Exhibition & Convention Center Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia This conference will address the latest technologies for the commercialization of oil palm biomass, identify new uses, discuss sustainability, highlight current trends and discuss new developments in the timber industry. The production of pulp and paper products, carbon credits, animal feed, and chemical constituents of oil palm will also be discussed. +6013-3388382

Iowa State University Ames, Iowa This event will focus on strategies aimed at meeting the new federal cellulosic biofuels mandate, and advancing the Midwestern Governors Association energy and climate change platform. It will feature cutting-edge research on cellulosic feedstock production and processing technologies; biomass harvest, storage and transportation systems; biofuels and climate change; human, social, economic and policy dimensions of the bioeconomy; and biofuels. There will also be a tour of Iowa State University’s New Century Farm. (712) 769-2600

Biofuels Markets Americas

Biofuels Markets East Africa

September 9-10, 2008

September 16-18, 2008

Buenos Aires, Argentina Officially supported by the Argentine Biofuels and Hydrogen Association, last year’s inaugural event focused on the biodiesel market. Due to popular request, this year’s event has been expanded to include BioPower Americas, a concurrent event. The joint general session will include discussion of the “bio revolution,” the global industry, climate change, energy supply and demand, finance and investment, sustainability, and feedstocks. The second day of the event will break the agenda into the two groups: biofuels and biopower. +44 207 801 6333

Kilimanjaro Hotel Kempinski Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania This inaugural event will particularly focus on Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. The case-study-led agenda will include presentations and panels that review the current status of the biofuels market in this region, and address the expanding opportunities for the production of feedstocks and biofuels for use in Africa and for export. There will also be a preconference seminar on jatropha. +44 207 801 6333

Texas Biofuels Conference & Expo

Biomass World 2008

September 17-18, 2008

September 23-24, 2008

Hilton Austin Airport Austin, Texas This third annual event will take an in-depth look at the latest regulatory, agricultural and technical developments impacting the renewable fuels industry in Texas. Special attention will be given to the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007 and the impact it will have on the future of renewable fuels in Texas. (512) 358-1000

Hilton Hotel Beijing, China This forum will focus on the conversion of biomass to power, gas and liquid fuels. Attendees will hear updates on such projects in China, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines. Other topics will include cellulosic ethanol, biogas, cofiring, gasification, combustion, enzymes and the economics of various biomass feedstocks. +65 63469115

Bioenergy: From Words to Actions

Energy from Biomass and Waste

October 6-8, 2008

October 14-16, 2008

Ottawa, Ontario The aim of this annual conference, hosted by the Canadian Bioenergy Association, is to identify package solutions for communities exploiting biomass for energy and to examine policies needed to make this happen. It will feature sessions on developing biomass supply chains, and solid fuel development and utilization. It will include tours of the world’s longestoperating, fast-pyrolysis bio-oil plant; a biomass cogeneration unit at a pulp mill; and a harvest waste operation. (647) 239-5899

David L. Lawrence Convention Center Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania More than 1,000 people are expected to attend this event, which will address sustainable waste management, the commercial viability of wasteto-energy and biomass-to-energy technologies, positive effects of energy from biomass and waste programs, domestic and international markets, business opportunities, and legal and financial issues. More than 100 exhibitors will showcase the latest in sustainable energy production and safe waste handling, as well. +49-2802-948484-0




a BBI International event October 19 – 21, 2008 Indianapolis Marriott Downtown Indianapolis, Indiana, USA 10 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 8|2008





EnerTech names president, COO

The Pure Power Brains Trust team

Atlanta-based EnerTech Environmental Inc. named John Prunkl as the company’s new president and chief operating officer. Specifically, he will oversee the execution of EnerTech’s first commercial SlurryCarb facility in Rialto, Calif., and focus on developing multiple SlurryCarb projects throughout the United States and internationally. Prunkl has spent more than 20 years in the energy sector. Previously, he was president of Epcor USA and Primary Energy Recycling Corp., a leader in energy recycling. BIO

Pure Power forms brain trust Pure Power Global, a Hong Kong-based renewable energy technology company, has formed a “Brains Trust” to increase its research and development activities regarding lignocellulose, and to capitalize on the company’s expertise in that field. The company’s lignocellulosic team is working from a technology center in Auckland, New Zealand. Last December, Pure Power acquired New Zealand-based BioJoule, whose employees specialize in the extraction of bioproducts from lignocellulosic feedstocks. Pure Power’s operational headquarters is located in Singapore. BIO

Advanced biofuels conference to be held in September

Renewafuel chooses Michigan for biomass plant Renewafuel LLC, a subsidiary of Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., will build a biomass fuel production facility at the Telkite Technology Park in Marquette, Mich. The plant will produce 150,000 tons of biofuel cubes annually from a sustainable composite of wood and agricultural feedstocks, including corn stalks, grasses and energy crops. Production is projected to begin in the first quarter of 2009. The facility will cost approximately $10 million and directly employ 25 people. BIO

BBI International Inc. will present the leading edge of advanced biofuels at the Advanced Biofuels Workshop & Trade Show on Sept. 28-30 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The federal renewable fuels standard requires 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels to be produced by 2022, so the conference will address where and how these biofuels will be produced and marketed. Leading companies in the biochemical and thermochemical conversion of biomass into fuel are invited to present how they have brought their technologies to the edge of commercial viability. Workshops will focus on a number of topics, including future feedstock options, the management of feedstock logistics and markets for advanced biofuels. One workshop in particular will give investors, project developers, engineering companies, technology providers, feedstock suppliers and policymakers a glimpse at the future of biofuel technology. BIO



NEWS Hot topic at FEW: cellulose


Almost 25 years ago, a conference was formed for members of the ethanol industry to gather, share ideas and network with others in the business. The International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo has come a long way since its first gathering of a handful of people, as has the ethanol industry. This year’s conference, held in Nashville, Tenn., was attended by almost 4,000 people, and the session topics and conversations between participants indicates that the ethanol industry is preparing for a shift—from corn as a feedstock to cellulose. As a precursor to the official start of the 2008 FEW, attendees had the option of attending the Ethanol 101 Seminar. Approximately 200 people attended the daylong event and heard from a wide variety of speakers. The most popular presentation of the day was delivered just after lunch by Mark Holtzapple, a professor at Texas A&M University. His presentation, titled “Carboxylate Platform: The MixAlco Process,” might have seemed a bit advanced for an audience presumed to be new to the industry, but the long line for questions after he left the stage proved that people were interested in hearing more about the process. It consists of forming a large pile of biomass, pretreating it with a combination of lime and air to remove the lignins, and then utilizing a carboxylate method to produce fuel. The fuel produced in this case is a biobased gasoline, rather than ethanol. According to Holtzapple, research on the process began in 1991. He said some of its advantages as opposed to other cellulosic conversion methods include the ability to use wet feedstocks that are composed of any material, including biomass, sewage sludge


Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher Jonathan Mielenz presented International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo attendees with evidence that soybean hulls can be used to efficiently produce ethanol.

Texas A&M University professor Mark Holtzapple delivered a presentation at the International Fuel Workshop & Expo about a biomass-based process he’s working on that results in gasoline. The information he delivered about the MixAlco Process spurred many questions and comments from seminar attendees.

and municipal solid waste (MSW). The MixAlco process doesn’t require the use of genetically modified organisms and is an energyefficient process. A semiworks plant is currently under construction in Bryan, Texas, and should be operational in September, according to Holtzapple. The plant will be capable of producing 300 to 400 gallons of gasoline per day. He estimated that once the process is commercially realized, a city with a population of 800,000 can produce enough MSW and sewage to fuel a plant that produces 45 MMgy of fuel at a capital cost of 81 cents per gallon. During a workshop session titled “Alternative Feedstocks,” Jonathan Mielenz, biomass program manager for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, presented the possibility of soybean hulls as a cellulosic ethanol feedstock. He has been experimenting with this product in the laboratory and has come to the conclusion that soybean hulls can be used as a viable feedstock to not only produce ethanol but also to still be used as a high-protein animal feed. Mielenz used a simultaneous saccharification and fermentation process in his experiments and discovered that pretreatment doesn’t make a difference in production levels, thereby potentially saving the producer 18 percent in production costs. Mielenz assured session attendees that the fermentation portion of production is simple, and the end result is both ethanol and a high-protein, low-lignin animal feed. He has determined that by utilizing his method—if soybean hulls were put into production as a feedstock nationwide—the United States could produce an additional 300 MMgy of ethanol and 1.4 million tons of animal feed. -Kris Bevill



NEWS Another U.S. DOE grant and a collaborative agreement with Harvard University are helping to pave the way for a cellulosic ethanol company to develop a unique biomassto-ethanol process. Amherst, Mass.-based SunEthanol Inc. received a $100,000 research grant from the DOE to help develop a process that converts biomass into ethanol in one step, compared with the current process that hydrolyzes and ferments pretreated cellulose. The grant was the DOE’s third to SunEthanol in the past year. The latest grant is a nine-month, phase one Small Business Innovation Research project consisting of a collaboration effort between SunEthanol, Texas A&M University and the University of Massachusetts. It’s expected to aid in SunEthanol’s quest to develop a one-step “consolidated bioprocessing” system to produce ethanol. SunEthanol’s previous DOE grant came in January when it was selected as one of four small-scale biorefinery projects to make cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive within five years. To commercialize the technology, SunEthanol is working with ICM Inc.


DOE, Harvard aid SunEthanol

Left to right: Khursheed Karim, Sarad Parekh, Greg LaTouf and John Kilbane are working on the Q microbe in SunEthanol’s laboratory in Amherst, Mass.

at a pilot biorefinery next to LifeLine Foods, a 50 MMgy corn-based ethanol plant in St. Joseph, Mo. On June 12, the company and Harvard’s Office of Technology Development announced a collaborative research agreement, in which Harvard University will research and produce new genetically modified strains of SunEthanol’s patented Q Microbe, a naturally occurring anaerobic microbe. Jon Gorham, SunEthanol’s cofounder

and manager of business development, told Biomass Magazine that the latest DOE grant and the Harvard research collaboration are aimed at manipulating the molecular genetics of the microbe. The projects are parallel to SunEthanol’s research in finding more effective native strains of the microbe. The research will be conducted in the laboratory of George Church, Harvard professor of genetics and director of the school’s Center for Computational Genetics. His laboratory will apply its expertise in DNA synthesis and genome engineering to create modified strains that will be tested by scientists at SunEthanol to improve biomass conversion and ethanol production. SunEthanol will have an option to license any of the strains created under the partnership. “Teaming with a Massachusetts leader in alternative energy illustrates the broad impact that Harvard’s expertise in genetic engineering may have well beyond its traditional applications in medicine,” said Isaac Kohlber, Harvard chief technology development officer. -Dave Nilles

Air New Zealand, Sustainable Power test biobased jet fuels With the price of jet fuel hovering near $4 per gallon internationally, at least two companies are taking steps to develop cheaper, more sustainable biobased jet fuel. In the fourth quarter of 2008, Air New Zealand plans to conduct the world’s first test flight on a large passenger aircraft using biofuel produced from jatropha oil. The company expects to be using 1 million barrels of environmentally sustainable fuel annually by 2013. Jatropha is an inedible evergreen shrub that produces lipid oil. The drought and pest resistant plant can be grown under a range of arid and nonarable conditions, and is generally found in Asia, Africa and the West Indies. Seeds produced by the plant can contain up to 40 percent oil. The jatropha oil used to produce the fuel that Air New Zealand is testing comes from seeds grown on environmentally sustainable plantations in southeastern Africa and India. In order to take part in the company’s test flight program, the fuel must meet three criteria:

First, the fuel must be environmentally sustainable and not compete with existing food stocks. Second, it must be as good as the product currently being used. Finally, it needs to be readily available and significantly cheaper than existing fuel supplies. In the United States, another company is working toward making a biobased jet fuel commercially available. Sustainable Power Corp., an international green energy service provider, recently conducted joint testing on its All Green biobased jet fuel with an undisclosed airline. The fuel, produced from palm waste, was 10 percent biomass-based fuel and 90 percent petroleum jet fuel. Sample testing conducted by AmSpec Services LLC concluded that Sustainable Power’s blend met and exceeded current jet fuel specifications and that All Green biobased jet fuel is a viable replacement for a portion of the petroleum-based jet fuel used in passenger aircraft. -Erin Voegele



NEWS Colorado school trades coal-fired furnace for biomass One of the last coal-fired heating systems being used in a Colorado public school was shut down May 19 to make a switch to biomass power. The South Routt School District will now be using woody biomass to heat its buildings. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter attended the event and symbolically shoveled the last scoop of coal into the Soroco High School furnace in Oak Creek, Colo., to “commemorate change,” said Megan Castle, director of communications for Ritter’s Energy Office. The outdated coal-fired system had been in place since the 1930s, Castle said, adding that it may have been updated in the 1950s. The outgoing coal-fired system was unhealthy—the school would often have ash within it—and it often needed maintenance, she said. The coal-fired system will be replaced with a modern geothermal heat pump, often

called a “geo-exchange” system, and a woody biomass heating system. The environmental benefits of the new system include less coal dust, ash and soot, and 977 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. The Colorado Department of Local Affairs is providing $625,000 toward the overall project cost of $4.1 million, and the Colorado Department of Education is providing $1.5 million. The change was recognized by Ritter at an assembly and community lunch featuring the school’s student-run Green Team. “It’s clear you have a vision about your future and about how we can build a new energy economy that blends education with renewables and healthy forests,” he said. “It’s a perfect trifecta.” The school district’s effort is consistent with Ritter’s three-point objective to develop a new energy economy, improve the schools

and quality of education by reducing energy costs, and building healthy forests, Castle said. With the new heating system, the school is expected to save money and time, reduce maintenance, and improve the health of those in the facility. The student body’s Green Team was awarded a scholarship by McKinstry Co., which was contracted to install the new system. The wood pellets to be burned as fuel will come from wood damaged by local pine beetles supplied by Confluence Energy, based in nearby Kremmling, Colo. Woody biomass heating systems provide jobs for rural and mountain areas, a clean energy source, and solutions to the pine beetle problem, said Castle, who added that this is also an important step for Colorado’s healthy forest initiatives. -Timothy Charles Holmseth

Dutch biomass gasification process comes on line


ever, he added, the technology will become commercially available after the demonstration. The demo plant will initially produce gas for a boiler. Later, it will include an oil gas scrubber tar removal system developed by the Energy Research Center to recycle tar for combustion to produce green gas. Ultimately, the plant will be equipped with a gas cleaner to produce substitute natural gas at grid specifications. “The technology to have the gas on specification for gas grid injection or use as [biobased compressed natural gas] should be ready for commercialization in 2015,” van der Meijden said. Because the carbon dioxide stream that is produced during substitute natural gas production will be stored in empty natural gas fields, the overall process will produce a carbon-dioxide-negative result, van der Meijden said. -Ryan C. Christiansen


The Energy Research Center of the Netherlands has completed an 800 kilowatthour pilot-scale gasification plant based on its Milena gasifier technology, which uses an indirectly heated biomass gasification process with high cold-gas efficiency and a high methane yield, and is optimized for the production of substitute natural gas. According to Christiaan van der Meijden, a researcher with the center’s Biomass, Coal & Environmental Research division, the primary feedstock for the pilot plant is waste wood. “We plan to test other biomass fuels, as well, [such as] sunflower husks,” he said. The green gas produced by the pilotscale plant will be used to fuel one of several natural-gas-powered consumer automobiles currently available in Europe, he said. The next step will be to begin construction of a 10-megawatt demonstration plant in 2009. “Several industrial parties are interested and involved in parts of the development,” van der Meijden said. “We have not licensed the Milena technology yet.” How-

This 800 kilowatt-hour pilot-scale gasification plant uses Milena gasifier technology developed by the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands.


NEWS Minnesota county explores plasma gasification project Koochiching County, Minn., launched an extensive feasibility study in June for a proposed biomass-waste-to-energy plasma gasification project. If completed, the project would be the first in North America to employ such a technology for biomass utilization, according to Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching County Economic Development Authority in International Falls, Minn. The project, called the Renewable Energy Clean Air Project, has the support of the USDA, the U.S. DOE and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It has received funding from the state. The purpose of the project is aimed at utilizing a novel plasma gasification technology for the conversion of municipal solid waste (MSW) into a renewable energy source such as synthetic gas to replace steam or electricity. All aspects of the project—environmental impacts, emissions, siting issues, input and output, technological and operational performance, and economic viability—will be assessed by Seattle-based engineering firm R.W. Beck, Nevanen said. “We’ve made some assumptions about how this might work with regard to tipping fees and revenue streams, but we want somebody to come and independently assess the plan as we’ve proposed it, as well as the performance of the technology,” he said. The MPCA will be overseeing the feasibility

study, which will be subsequently presented to Koochiching County board members once data is collected for final approval. Westinghouse Plasma Corp. is heading the preliminary design for the gasification reactor and plasma torch. The company, owned by Canadian firm Alter Nrg, is experienced in plasma gasification technologies, providing torches for similar commercial facilities in Japan. It has signed up for a similar project with ethanol process technology company Coskata Inc. The developer and project manager for the Minnesota project is Coronal LLC. If the county decides to proceed, the demonstration project would process more than 100 tons of MSW per day using all of Koochiching County’s waste and waste from neighboring counties, which would be a boon for Koochiching County since it doesn’t house a landfill to supply additional waste. “[The proposed project] has generated a lot of interest across the country,” Nevanen said. “There are a lot of people watching this. Our hope is that the feasibility study will come back with a number of answers to questions that will give the county board enough confidence to move forward with it.” -Bryan Sims

GE provides Italy, China with biomass technologies


in order to monitor and control GE Energy announced June various plant mechanisms. 4 the successful installation of its Jack Wen, president of GE Ecomagination-certified Jenbacher Energy-China, said for the indusgas engine at a commercial farm in trial renewable energy initiative in Limena, Italy, owned by farmers and China to succeed, Wuhan Kaidi cattle breeders Azienda Agricola di was seeking a technology that Giuseppe and Paolo Gomiero. The would ensure a short delivery cyengine will power the Baita del Latte cle, improve plant performance, farm’s first biogas plant. reduce power plant emissions and Currently, the plant is fueled by overall be of high quality. the biogas it produces from a wet The underlying reason for mixture of animal waste and agrithe great number of new plants cultural biomass materials such as to be constructed in China is the rye and corn. The biogas project is country’s rapid increase in power aimed at reducing ecological condemand, which is projected to cerns in the area such as the proper GE Energy provided the Baita del Latte farm with this Jenbacher gas rise by 13.5 percent in 2008. The disposal of animal manure, which engine. plants are expected to genercontains high levels of nitrate, and ate enough electricity to support poses regulatory and ecological challenges for farmers. Gomiero said he and be built in China. The Atlanta-based com- 70,000 families yearly in China using straw, Giuseppe expect many other farms to fol- pany will distribute the controls technology rice husks and animal manure as feedstocks. to Wuhan Kaidi Electric Power Engineerlow their lead in embracing the technology. -Anna Austin GE Energy also announced June 18 that ing Co. Ltd., which is building the facilities. it would be the provider of control systems The systems will link all plant operations, for 50 new biomass-fueled power plants to data acquisitions and performance analyses 8|2008 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 15


NEWS Frontline teams with Fagen Biomass gasification systems provider Frontline BioEnergy LLC and leading ethanol plant design/builder Fagen Inc. have announced a new partnership. “Kicking Gas with Biomass” is one of its slogans, and executives of both companies are hoping to help new and old ethanol plants significantly reduce natural gas consumption for the production of process heat and steam, while laying the foundation for future ethanol production from biomass. “I think the Fagen organization is looking for ways to go back to plants they’ve built, making them stronger and better, and one of the opportunities that seemed the most appealing to them was biomass to energy,” said Bill Lee, general manager of Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. The 47 MMgy ethanol plant in Benson, Minn., is part-owner of Frontline BioEnergy and host to one of the gasification company’s biomass-to-energy systems.

In late 2005, Frontline partnered with CVEC to help alleviate the producer from its $13 million-per-year natural gas bill. The gasifier currently takes in wood waste but may use corncobs in the future because the co-op has the unique ability to acquire a feedstock supply from its producer-members. Preliminary firing of CVEC’s gasifier occurred in March, and at this year’s Inter-

national Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo in Nashville, Tenn., Jerod Smeenk, engineering manager for Frontline BioEnergy, said the fluidized bed gasifier continues to run while emissions monitoring and systems adjustments are made. CVEC will reduce its natural gas consumption by 90 percent with the new 280-ton-per-day biomass gasifier, although Lee said the plant is currently only gasifying approximately 115 tons per day. “We were very fortunate to develop this relationship between Fagen and Frontline,” Lee told Biomass Magazine. “It combines Fagen’s tremendous industry presence and construction capacity with Frontline’s technology, which is really geared heavily toward retrofitting corn ethanol plants with natural gas power to biomass energy.” -Ron Kotrba

Funds available for woody biomass workshops Financial support is available for organizing and conducting woody biomass utilization workshops from the National Association of Conservation Districts in cooperation with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the USDA Forest Service. The agencies are making a limited amount of financial support available for the planning of such state or regional multi-county events. State and local governments, tribes and not-for-profit organizations are eligible for $2,000 grants to sponsor workshops across the United States between July 1 and March 31, 2009. The total funding available for grants is $24,000 but is subject to funding availability. Applications must be submitted no later than August 31. They will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis until the total available funds have been awarded. Workshop sponsorship application forms are available on the NACD’s Web site at /forms.doc. Applicants will be notified whether or not their applications were approved within 21 days of receipt. Applications accompanied by letters of endorsement; proof of matching funds or in-kind services; and collaboration opportunities with local, state,


tribal, commercial and private industry will strengthen the opportunity for being awarded a workshop sponsorship. Funds will be disbursed upon completion of a successful workshop and the submission of documentation. For more information or to submit an application, contact Fred Deneke, NACD forestry programs coordinator, at (928) 4435456 or The NACD is a nonprofit organization that represents America’s 3,000 conservation districts, and the 17,000 men and women who serve on their governing boards. Conservation districts are local units of government established under state law to carry out natural resource management programs at the local level. Districts work with millions of cooperating landowners and operators to help them manage and protect land and water resources on all private lands, and many public lands in the United States. The NACD supports voluntary, incentive-driven natural resource conservation programs that benefit all citizens. -Jerry W. Kram


NEWS Biomass conference brings German, American companies together Attendance at the 4th German American Renewable Energy Conference in Syracuse, N.Y., which focused on forging partnerships between German bioenergy companies and American corporations and research facilities, was “overwhelming,” according to Sebastian Göres, manager of consulting services for the German American Chamber of Commerce Inc. in New York. Göres said planners expected 100 people to attend. However, 250 people registered to hear 14 speakers talk about the U.S. and German biomass markets and technologies. Attendees from the nearby community of Auburn, N.Y., in particular, were interested in the case study about Jühnde, a village in Germany. According to a USDA report,

Jühnde uses a biorefinery to process methane gas from cow manure and garden waste to produce more than its entire electricity consumption. In a 2004 referendum, residents of Auburn created the Auburn Public Power Agency, which plans to use waste and manure from nearby dairy operations to produce electricity, according to the city’s Web site. In addition to the one-day conference, Göres said “the whole week was packed with meetings because the American companies that we contacted were highly interested,” he said. U.S. companies met with representatives from Bekon Energy Technologies GmbH & Co. KG, Biopower Renewable Energy Inc., EnviTec Biogas AG, EOil Automotive & Technologies GmbH,

Lahmeyer International GmbH, Nörr Stiefenhofer Lutz, and Vikat Energiesysteme GmbH. The meetings were facilitated by the German American Chamber of Commerce in partnership with a group dubbed “The Green Team,” which includes representatives from Syracuse area civic, governmental and educational institutions. The conference was sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, and supported by the German Energy Agency and Ecofys Germany. “We would love to have another one [that focuses on biomass],” Göres said. “It was one of the most successful conferences we have had.” -Ryan C. Christiansen

Swedish ethanol producer Sekab Group said it intends to start construction of a demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in early 2009, which would scale up the technology that it has been testing in its pilot plant since 2004. The demo-scale plant would continue to use the softwood feedstock being used in the pilot plant. However, Anders Fredriksson, vice president of Sekab BioFuels & Chemicals, said the company plans to use Brazilian sugarcane bagasse in the future. “We see a lot of competition developing for woody material,” he explained. The new plant will be built with full-size components but have a limited capacity of 5,000 tons per year (1.7 MMgy). The technology is based on acid hydrolysis, Fredriksson said. “We have tried enzymes, but it is still too expensive.” In late May, Sekab announced it will be supplying Sweden with the world’s first verified sustainable ethanol. The company has been developing a framework for sustainability with its Brazilian sugarcane ethanol suppliers for the past 18 months. Not only have they focused on environmental sustainability in this framework, but they have also addressed working conditions, labor laws and wages. Initially, harvesting is required to be at least 30 percent mechanized and is expected to increase to 100 percent by 2014. The criteria call for at least an 85 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared with fossil fuels. “This initiative for verified, sustainable sugarcane ethanol is the first of its kind in the world, and a major step in the right direction for speeding the replacement of today’s petrol and diesel,” Fredriksson said. “The criteria will gradually be developed over the coming years


Sekab to scale up cellulosic ethanol plant

Sekab’s pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol plant

and synchronized with coming European Union regulations when these are in place.” Sekab imports 200,000 tons of ethanol from Brazil each year (67 MMgy), supplying nearly 90 percent of the Swedish ethanol market. The company produces ethanol using black liquor waste from the pulp and paper industry in a facility that began producing ethanol in the 1940s. -Susanne Retka Schill



NEWS Pacific Institute completes GHG emissions study The findings of a study conducted by the Green Power Institute, the renewable energy program of the California-based Pacific Institute, show that biomass-based renewable energy reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and makes a positive impact on the environment. The study, titled “Bioenergy and Greenhouse Gases,” was conducted by Gregory Morris on behalf of the institute and was released May 28 by Robert Cleaves, chairman of USA Biomass. “This latest research by Greg Morris finds that bioenergy production reduces greenhouse gas levels by enhancing forest carbon sequestration,” Cleaves said. “Biomass electricity is produced from the controlled combustion of untreated cellulosic wastes, such as bark, orchard trimming, rice hulls and sugar bagasse.” The report concluded in part that, “Bioenergy production reduces atmospher-

ic greenhouse gas levels by enhancing long-term forest carbon sequestration and reducing the greenhouse gas potency of the carbon gases associated with the return of biomass carbon to the atmosphere, Maritato which is in an intrinsic part of the global carbon cycle.” In addition to the GHG reduction benefits of biomassbased fuel, the report pointed out the benefit of reduced fossil fuel use. However, Mark Maritato, principal of Alternative Energy and Environmental Consulting in North Waterboro, Maine, acknowledged fossil fuels will never be totally out of the picture. “We have to be a little careful here on giving the impression that fossil fuels are entirely

out of the equation,” he said. “[However,] any time you are using biogenic-derived fuels and not petroleum-based ones, you are offsetting the carbon that could have been liberated but was not.” He also pointed out that better forest management practices encouraging optimal forest growth through active pruning and thinning will remove more carbon from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. The report also concluded that the value of GHG offsets expected to become available in the next several years should improve the competitiveness of energy production from biomass resources in the future. “Biomass should be recognized for the significant role it will play in providing a net reduction of the greenhouse gas effect,” Cleaves said. -Timothy Charles Holmseth

Raven Biofuels announces plans in Washington, British Columbia California-based Raven Biofuels International Corp. announced in June plans to build an 11 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant in Washington. A month earlier, Raven Biofuels announced a partnership with Spectrum Energy Ltd. in Vancouver, British Columbia, to develop cellulosic biorefineries in the province. The Canadian partnership will use softwood infested with mountain pine beetles and other woody biomass as feedstocks, while the project in Washington will also use wood waste. Raven Biofuels will use a proprietary two-stage, diluted acid hydrolysis technology to turn woody biomass into ethanol and high-value furfural chemicals. The company said it can produce the ethanol for less than $1 per gallon. Pure Energy Corp. developed the technology from earlier work done by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Raven Biofuels announced its intention to merge


with Pure Energy in March. “The technology is based on simple and proven pulp and paper mill technology used in the industry for many years successfully,” explained John Sams, chief operating officer of Raven Biofuels. “This reduces the risk of commercial deployment and will facilitate a fast rollout of multiple sites in North America.” Raven Biofuels projected a $30 million investment in the plant to be built in Longview, Wash. It intends to raise onethird of that through equity investments, while the remainder will come from project debt financing. It also intends to apply for financial support through grants, loan guarantees, and subsidies from state and federal programs. Sams said the permitting process and final engineering are underway with groundbreaking slated for December. In early July, Raven Biofuels secured equity funding totaling $10 million from Blackhawk Investments Ltd. and Clean Energy

Holding Corp. Construction in British Columbia is expected to follow three to six months after the Washington project begins. It would be the first cellulosic ethanol plant in the province. Spectrum Energy and Raven Biofuels have submitted a funding proposal to the province’s Clean Energy Fund. In British Columbia, beetles are quickly killing pine forests that cover an area the size of Texas, containing enough biomass to produce more than 1 billion gallons of biofuels. Raven Biofuels projects it will have 100 MMgy of cellulosic ethanol in production within four years. In June, the company announced the development of an offtake agreement with Eco-Energy Inc., a Franklin, Tenn.-based renewable fuels marketing company. -Susanne Retka Schill


NEWS As conventional renewable fuels help to allay some of the strain caused by soaring oil prices, research conducted on algae as a biomass feedstock continues to gain traction. San Diego-based Sapphire Energy is one of several companies conducting this research, but with a slightly different angle. The company was founded in 2006 when it first began developing “green crude,” a gasoline equivalent derived from algae that comes in light and heavy fractions (the light being gasoline and the heavy being biokerosene or biobased jet fuel). Although Sapphire Energy won’t divulge details of its production process, it did announce in May that it’s producing 91-octane gasoline using nothing more than sunlight, carbon dioxide and complex photosynthetic microorganisms, according to Chief Executive Officer Jason Pyle. “It’s culminated into what we describe as this new category, which is ‘green crude,’” he said. According to Sapphire, green crude is a completely new source of petroleum that is domestically produced, carbon-neutral and identical in composition to fossil fuels. “We feel we are the first entry


Sapphire Energy further develops ‘green crude’

Sapphire Energy debuted its “green crude” in early June, a gasoline equivalent refined from algae that comes in light and heavy fractions. The company has been developing the biofuel since 2006.

into the category of ‘green crude,’ and we invite other people to meet this standard,” Pyle said. Sapphire has raised $50 million in venture capital from Arch Venture Partners, Venrock and the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust. Sapphire’s research partners include the U.S. DOE’s Joint Genome Project; the University of California, San Diego; The Scripps Research Institute; and the University of Tulsa (Okla.).

Sapphire’s renewable gasoline refined from green biocrude uses a nonfood feedstock, and doesn’t require the use of agricultural land or water, yet it delivers 10 to 100 times more energy per acre than biofuels originating from croplands, according to Pyle. He said the company is currently deploying a three-year pilot process with the goal of opening a 153 MMgy (10,000-barrel-per-day) production facility by 2011 at a site yet to be determined. In addition, Pyle said Sapphire’s green crude product would be completely fungible within the current oil and gas infrastructure, an advantage that would leverage the company’s product in a noninvasive manner. “The standard we hold ourselves to is that the green crude has to be refined using an existing refining process,” he said. “We want to be able to inject it into the crude pipelines, have it come out the other end and treat it like other crude products.” -Bryan Sims

Europe to embrace biomass As energy demands continue to rise in Europe, researchers at Frost & Sullivan have released a new analysis titled the “Strategic Assessment for European Biomass Energy Markets,” which revealed that the European Union may achieve its goal of using 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 through the use of biomass as a significant source. Currently, biomass is already the largest renewable resource in use in Europe. Researchers concluded that producing power locally would be most efficient in meeting energy demands, along with reducing carbon dioxide emissions and ensuring a sustainable energy source. “Biomass is essential for a healthy energy market in Europe,” the report stated. Currently, bio-

mass accounts for approximately 5 percent of energy consumption in Europe. To help meet Europe’s renewable energy goals, on June 16, the U.K. government announced that Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks had granted permission to Helius Energy PLC to construct a 65-megawatt biomass power station near the city of Stallingborough in Lincolnshire. Helius specializes in the installation and operation of biomass power plants. This particular plant, expected to power approximately 100,000 homes, will initially use wood waste as a feedstock. This includes leftovers from timber processing activities in the U.K. and throughout Europe, and specially grown crops—approximately 450 tons yearly. Ac-

cording to Helius, the plant will save nearly 500 tons of carbon dioxide per year compared with a similarly sized coal-fired power station. Wicks said construction of the new power plant is a stepping stone toward a cleaner U.K. “Not only does it help tackle climate change and increase secure supplies of energy, but the building and running of this biomass plant will also provide jobs in Lincolnshire,” he said. The facility will create an estimated 267 full-time jobs and 75 permanent jobs when the plant is on line. Construction is expected to begin later this year with a tentative completion date of 2011. -Anna Austin



Cleansing and Reforming Syngas Four research alliances received grants from the U.S. DOE to optimize thermochemical biofuels production. Biomass Magazine offers an overview of those projects. By Ron Kotrba








here are parallel challenges with both biochemical and thermochemical processes to convert biomass into fuels. Biochemically, engineers and scientists have been capable of hydrolyzing lignocellulosics with cellulase enzymes for years and yet, much-needed work drudges forward to make those cocktails more effective on cellulose and hemicellulose hydrolysis. Also required is a major cost reduction in enzymes and commercially viable, more robust pentosefermenting yeast, to utilize the five-carbon sugars resident in the hemicellulose. “Just as the biochem needs better enzymes, thermochem needs better catalysts,” says Steve Kelley, professor and department head of wood and paper science at North Carolina State University. A research and development partnership among NCSU, the University of Utah and Research Triangle Institute, a nonprofit research organization in North Carolina, was one of four alliances that received grants from a U.S. DOE solicitation to improve thermochemical processes. “The catalysts developed so far work well on natural gas reforming, but with natural gas there aren’t the tars, ammonia and chlorine there is with the biomass,” Kelley says. According to Brian Kneale of Albemarle Corp., catalysis of syngas from coal or natural gas is rather simple. What’s much more difficult is producing a catalyst system capable of “thermal and mechanical stability,” with the greatest challenge being engineering a reactor system to “maximize thermal efficiency in a compact design.” And just as the need for better enzymes and C-5 ethanologens is sometimes seen as a “package deal” for the biochem guys, Kelley says, the same can be said about synthesis gas cleanup and selecting optimal gas-to-liquid catalysts in thermochemical reforming. “They go handin-glove,” he says. “If you’ve got a more robust gas-to-liquid catalyst then you don’t need the same high-quality gas cleanup catalyst. But if you’ve got a really outstanding high-quality gas cleanup [catalyst], then

Inside the Energy Lab at the Research Triangle Institute, northwest of Raleigh, N.C., where syngas cleanup and catalyst selection work in partnership with North Carolina State University and University of Utah, is underway.

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you can really take anything off the shelf for a gas-to-liquid catalyst— but to test them they need to be run together.” That’s the trick. Despite the parallel challenges in both routes to cellulosic ethanol, thermochemical holds at least one big advantage over and above its yield and conversion efficiencies—feedstock quality and consistency is of little concern. “I don’t care if there’s a little bit of bark residue or treated wood going into my thermochem process because there are sorbents and other ways of handling that,” Kelley explains. “It’s a much more robust process.” Sorbents are material substrates used to absorb and contain other substances. In some fluidized bed boiler operations, for example, calcium stone is used to trap sulfur. The thermochemical process may be robust but the life of some cleansing and reforming catalysts is fragile: Killing the catalyst in hours due to the presence of contaminants has been a shared experience for researchers in this field, experts say. Syngas from wood has been known to foul up catalysts in less than 24 hours, and corn stover, rich in minerals and ash, can nullify a catalyst system in minutes. Kelley says RTI has intellectual property on sorbent-based and fluid cracking catalysts for the tars gained from gasifying biomass, but the NCSU, UU and RTI project will also use other available sorbent technologies to get rid of chlorine, nitrogen and sulfur. “It will be a combination,” he says. Tars, ammonia, chlorine, heavy metals and sometimes sulfur are the major contaminants in untreated biomass syngas, which, if left untreated before entering the gas-to-liquid reformer, would mean certain catalyst death by poisoning. Experience in tar and ammonia destruction gained at Southern Research Institute, a not-for-profit organization that conducts scientific research at facilities in Alabama, Maryland and North Carolina, include high-temperature cracking at 1,650 to 1,750 degrees Fahrenheit with nickel-based catalysts, in addition to lower temperature tar cracking at 800 degrees F using modified fluid cracking catalysts. Southern Research is also working on another ammonia destruction process that



Sorbents, like this calcium-based powder used for desulfurization in fluidized bed boilers, can help treat syngas before gas-to-liquid catalysis.


process uses reverse selective catalytic reduction at relatively low temperatures: between 700 and 800 degrees F. “In [reverse SCR (selective catalytic reduction)], nitrogen oxides are injected or generated in situ to react with the ammonia and convert it to nitrogen,” according to Southern Research. “There are a lot of claims out there about magic sorbents, guard columns or pretreatments that work,” Kelley says. Guard columns help trap contaminants from the syngas prior to entering the main reactor columns, and are dispensable whereas main columns are not. “But no one’s got published data out there,” he says. “The real data will come out of our work and that of the other award recipients and DOE will be able to use it.”

Expanded Efforts In addition to the NCSU, UU and RTI consortium to improve syngas cleanup and catalyst selection, DOE funded three more projects with similar interests. ConocoPhillips Co. and Iowa State University are partnering to test an integrated biomass-to-liquids system whose process, as described by the energy department, uses “gas cooling through oil scrubbing rather than water scrubbing in order to minimize wastewater treatment.” The intended biomass for gasification is switchgrass. The DOE’s description of the ConocoPhilips and Iowa State University process continues: “The gas-oil scrubbing liquid will then be sent to a coker in existing petroleum refining operations to be used as a feedstock.” The team was awarded $2 million toward the $3.1 million project. The energy department also awarded $1.7 million to a project run by Emery Energy Co., Ceramatec Inc. and Western Research Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Laramie, Wyo., which plans to demonstrate new, low-cost means to mitigate tars and oils in biomass syngas including high-impact corn stover. “In the case of conventional biomass syngas cleaning, it is done using either quench methods or tar crackers, and additional downstream equipment,” says Ben Phillips, president of Emery Energy. “We’re not disclosing our process, but novel methods will focus on the conversion and reforming of tars and oils that won’t use the processes I just mentioned. Also we use additional subsequent unit operations in the gas flow line to condition the syngas in order to get to the purity levels required for Fischer Tropsch catalysis and ethanol catalysis. We have a very holistic and integrated view between the gasifier and synthesis gas cleaning steps, and that integration will give us a technological advantage over other processes to produce the high-purity syngas necessary for downstream applications.” WRI and Cerametic are both subcontractors for Emery Energy: Ceramatec is contributing technology and doing some co-engineering work with Emery Energy; and WRI is hosting the gasifier and syngas cleaning facility, also providing technology and operational services, personnel and resources to execute the project, Phillips says. Emery Energy is making modifications to its existing pilot gasifier system in Salt Lake City, and will relocate to WRI along with the synthesis gas cleaning train. Emery Energy is adding $1.2 million to DOE’s grant for a project total of nearly $3 million. “For the sake of this DOE pro26 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 8|2008

gram, we are going to be modifying and mitigating tar and oil species, i.e., converting those to additional syngas downstream of the gasifier,” he says. Another syngas cleansing project receiving DOE grant funding includes Southern Research in partnership with Pall Corp., Thermochem Recovery International Inc. and Rentech Inc. The project will test a 1 megawatt gasifier for syngas generation with ceramic filter technology and a proven sorbent/catalyst system for syngas decontamination. Stephen Piccot, director of advanced energy and transportation technologies with Southern Research, says its project is just beginning as the last round of required paperwork is finalized. “So far we’ve assembled the team and completed a group design for a syngas cleanup system, which is part of Phase I,” Piccot says. In its entirety, Phase I consists of design, fabrication and testing of the gas cleanup system on Thermochem Recovery International’s biomass gasifier, installation of which is underway at Southern Research as part of a separate contract. This is a three-year project. By the end of 2008, fabrication of the syngas cleanup system is expected to have begun, with test runs and optimizing strategies to start sometime in 2009, along with Phase II. “Phase II will be linking up all that stuff with a Fischer-Tropsch line and converting the clean syngas into FT wax,” Piccot tells Biomass Magazine. “Our proposal added on a refinery pilot step where we take the FT wax and convert it into clean diesel, and the final step for us is to evaluate the performance of the clean diesel in a passenger truck.” Due to secrecy agreements, Piccot says he couldn’t discuss specifics about the catalysts, scrubbers or sorbent injection systems to be used in the design, but he did reveal what he sees as challenges ahead. “The technology to convert clean syngas into liquid products is catalyst based, and the requirements of the cleanliness of the syngas is rather fixed and we know what those are, but getting those proper technologies matched to meet those targets—that’s the challenge,” Piccot says. “The gas needs to be pretty clean to avoid poisoning those FT catalysts. I think technically it’s not as big a challenge as [figuring out] how to do it cost-effectively. That’s where the challenge is.” In a technical paper, Kneale writes: “There is much to be gained by tailoring the catalysis to maximize yield in the product state of choice and this continues to be a major subject of research by Albemarle and others.” Assuming the engineers pulling all these pieces together find no mechanical issues getting everything to heat up at the same time without blowing a pump or burning out a heater, Kelley says the real test is demonstrating successful interaction between the operation of the gasifier, the amount of tars captured in the first catalyst and the productivity of the second catalytic bed. Thus, the ultimate value of these four research projects—and others out there that may not have received DOE grants—is real time spent on-stream with these systems working simultaneously; gaining actual data on yield from biomass synthesis gas along with productivity, efficiency and lifetime of the catalysts. BIO Ron Kotrba is a Biomass Magazine senior writer. Reach him at or (701) 738-4942.







Energy Source A few years ago, American Crystal Sugar Co. began supplying the University of Florida with sugar beet waste for a research project that, if realized, could change the way the company does business by turning some of its waste into energy. While the project is still in the pilot-plant phase, all signs point toward a successful turnaround from waste product to green energy. Story and Photos by Kris Bevill


he idea was fairly simple. Use the organic material left over from processing an agricultural product, such as potatoes or sugar beets, to produce methane. The methane can then be used as a heat source for the processing facility, or turned into electricity and sold back to the power grid. A team of researchers in the University of Florida’s biological engineering department thought it would be an environmentally friendly way for processors to use waste material and to add another source of revenue. The researchers contacted

American Crystal Sugar Co., a sugar beet processing cooperative headquartered in Moorhead, Minn., to provide them with the feedstock and set to work so they could prove their theory.

From the Lab to the Plant According to Jeff Moritz, facility services superintendent of technical services at American Crystal, the partnership started when the sugar processing plant began sending samples of sugar beet tailings to the university’s lab. The “tailings” consist of all of the organic material that remains after the sugar is processed from



As soon as processing season begins in the fall, sugar beet tailings will be piled behind the plant and loaded onto trucks to be hauled a few hundred feet to the pilot methane-production plant.

The large stainless steel tanks used by American Crystal for producing methane are located on the fifth floor of the building, which prompted the company and its collaborators at the University of Florida to devise a way to convey feedstock vertically.

the beet—plant skins, greens from the tops that weren’t cut off during the harvesting, stray weeds, etc. Initial university lab results were positive, as expected. “It’s a simple process,” Moritz explains. “It’s basically the same thing that would happen eventually in nature, in a compost bin or something.” The process uses anaerobic digesters to break down the tailings at an accelerated rate, resulting in the production of methane gas. Methane fermentation occurs naturally when groups of microorganisms in the plant go through a series of metabolic interactions. The university’s process just speeds things up by supplying the microorganisms needed to “eat” the food and the ideal environment for them to work in. Even though tests showed the process was feasible, the lab was too small an environment for researchers to accurately predict what might happen in a commercial-scale facility. A larger test site was needed to prove it could be done on the scale needed for a processing company to commit to such a project. And for that to happen, an injection of money was needed. 30 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 8|2008

The partners applied for a grant from Xcel Energy, a regional electricity and natural gas provider that services American Crystal’s sugar beet processing facilities. Xcel has funded various renewable energy projects since 2001 through a program called the Renewable Development Fund. Money for the program is provided by Xcel ratepayers and used to establish renewable energy sources in the company’s service area. Through that fund, the sugar beet tailing project was awarded $1 million for further research and to operate a pilot methane-producing plant. It was decided that the pilot facility would be located at American Crystal’s Moorhead processing plant because the site already contained stainless steel tanks from an abandoned fiber project that could be reincarnated for the methane project. Having those tanks in place was a money saver for the project. “Although $1 million dollars sounds like a lot, when you’ve got a two-year research project, most of it goes to the lab and salaries for people working in it,” says Dave Malmskog, business development and economic analysis director for American Crystal. The old tanks were the perfect solution, except for one problem. Three of them, ranging in size from 1,500 to 11,000 gallons, are located on the fifth floor of the building that houses the facility, while the collection tank and feedstock storage bins are on the ground floor. With a little ingenuity and lab work, however, that problem was solved. The solution was to create slurry from the tailings that could be pumped up to the tanks on the fifth floor to continue the methane fermentation process in the digesters. The university researchers oversaw the setup of the equipment from Florida, with Moritz acting as their eyes and ears at American Crystal. He remains the point person for the project, although the researchers regularly visit Moorhead for testing and continued equipment work. American Crystal provides its technical expertise in processing organic material, the building and equipment and, of course, the feedstock. “It’s a learn as you go project,” Malmskog says, adding that a project like this has never been done at the scale they are attempting.

innovation When the plant starts processing sugar beets in mid-September, the pilot facility will begin testing its tailings-to-methane process. Moritz says they plan to process 1.5 tons of tailings per day at the facility. Tailings will be trucked a few hundred yards from the processing facility to the pilot facility before being transferred into the feed pumping bin to begin the methane fermentation process. The methane produced at the pilot plant is a small amount,— about 2,000 cubic feet per day—which Moritz calls “Bunsen burnertype stuff.” That small an amount isn’t worth sending to one of the plant’s burners, so the methane will simply be released into the atmosphere in safe doses. However, if the process is proven effective, a larger facility would produce enough gas to be used for several options. Malmskog says that sugar beet processing is energy intensive, and that American Crystal has four options for methane use. The gas can be used to heat boilers, pulp dryers and lime kilns, or it could be cleaned and sold back to the company’s energy provider as green gas. This could open up an additional revenue stream and allow the company to profit from carbon credits. Malmskog says he’s already received several calls from people interested in obtaining green gas for that very purpose. There is some hesitation on the part of Malmskog and Moritz. They are both quick to point out that the process has not even begun yet, and results won’t be known until late this year. The grant money will be exhausted after the university runs the facility for 10 consecutive days in the early fall, and then it will be up to American Crystal to continue funding the project. Malmskog says they are curious whether the process will work in the dead of winter when the sugar beet tailings are frozen, or in the spring when the fermentation process has already begun naturally. There is a distinct possibility that the company will provide more money to keep the tests going. But the question will be for how long? “We might find out that it’s just too expensive to build [a demonstration plant],” Malmskog says. “We just don’t know yet. It’s tough for a company even American Crystal’s size,

Moritz, facility services superintendent at American Crystal’s Technical Services Center in Moorhead, Minn., displays one of the simple mesh bags that will be used in the plant’s digester to house microbes.

innovation which is pretty big, to invest in a demo plant that may never be used.” Malmskog hopes the company can come up with more grant money to alleviate some of those expenses and is looking at potential funding opportunities from the recently passed Farm Bill.

The ‘Tail’ of the Story There’s no doubt that the use of sugar beet tailings for energy would be a money-saving venture for American Crystal. As the largest sugar beet processor in the country, the company currently operates five processing facilities throughout the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota. Hundreds of thousands of tons of tailings are left after processing sugar. The company’s largest plant, located in East Grand Forks, Minn., produces 400 tons of tailings daily when the plant is in operation from September through May. The only use, until now, for the tailings has been as animal feed or fertilizer for the sugar beet fields. Some of the plant locations have been giving the tailings away to nearby ranchers, but not all the plants have that option. The East Grand Forks location, for instance, isn’t located near any ranchers who are interested in the free feed. The plant has to pay to truck the tailings out to be dumped on fields for fertilizer, which isn’t cheap. Malmskog says it costs the company nearly $1 million per year to dispose of the tailings. “That’s why this project was especially interesting to us,” he says. Not only would methane production offer a potential low- or no-cost heat source for the plant, but it would also save money by making a “waste” product useful. Another potential byproduct of the

tailings would be to use the ash left over after methane is produced as a garden fertilizer or compost material, which would also have value. Aside from the many benefits, there are a few drawbacks to consider when producing methane using the university’s method. Safety is always a concern and the possibility of an explosion exists anytime methane is being produced in a contained atmosphere. American Crystal modified its ventilation system and installed a fan on the top floor of the building to disperse any gas leaks that could occur. “Let’s just say the university was comfortable with what we had, and we added to it,” Moritz says. “We feel its [potential for explosion] is manageable, but we go a little farther than we have to.” Another downfall is the labor intensiveness of the process and the relatively slow turnaround time. Methane has been produced in the lab in six days—down from an initial 15 days, but those numbers aren’t likely to hold up in a larger pilot plant. Malmskog says they’ll be happy if they can produce methane in 10 days. At that, they still expect the process to take approximately two people 10 eight-hour work days to produce the gas. But, as Malmskog says, you just never know. That’s the whole reason for this facility—to test the technology and see where it leads. BIO Kris Bevill is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at kbevill or (701) 373-8044.

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BIOMASS CONVEYANCE The biomass gasifier at Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. is fuel-flexible by design. This requires a handling system engineered to move feedstocks of varying volumes and densities. Biomass Magazine speaks with Rapat Corp., the engineer of the bulk conveyance system, and equipment vendor Robert White Industries Inc., about the project. By Ron Kotrba





iomass handling systems are only as successful as the reliability of the feedstock provided, says Justin Koenig, industrial sales representative for Rapat Corp., the company with which Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. contracted to engineer and fabricate its bulk conveyance system. “Consistency is key,” Koenig stresses. “You can’t have a good receiving system if you have inconsistent material and, furthermore, you can’t gasify it efficiently if it’s changing in density.” The Benson, Minn.-based ethanol plant is now in full-on gasification mode and is using wood chips as fuel for energy. The wood vendor is contracted to supply wood chips that meet certain moisture and size specifications. The feedstock vendor is told exactly what the plant needs, and it is the contractual responsibility of the supplier to deliver the feedstock within the specifications. “It throws it on the vendor to size it, dry it, do whatever needs to be done before it comes to the ethanol plant,” says Bob White, owner of Robert White Industries Inc.—the integrator for CVEC’s handling system from receiving to storage. “Having said that, the ethanol plant doesn’t always get what they bar-


handling ‘We tried to give them the best of both worlds— heavy enough equipment and horsepower to do the high-density materials but a large enough system to handle the higher volume materials.’

gained for. They might say we want all our material to be smaller than 3 inches in length, but sometimes vendors will put material in the middle or bottom of the truck that is 10 or 12 inches long. That can cause problems downstream.” White says the unfortunate occurrence of receiving out-of-spec wood on occasion is why his company provided disc screens on the front end of CVEC’s biomass handling system, to prevent improperly sized material from reaching the storage silo. Industrial conveyance specialists Rapat contracted with one company, Robert White Industries, for the receiving system on the front end, and another, Pessco, for the handling system from the storage silo to the plant. Koenig says two different companies were used because each one specialized in different areas. Robert White Industries specializes in mechanical handling systems while Pessco is experienced in pneumatic, or air-driven, material movement. The rate of unloading in the wood receiving area at CVEC is much faster than the rate at which the woody biomass is fed from the silo to the plant, which is why mechanical means were employed on the front end and pneumatic conveyance in the backend. To truckers hauling in 20 to 25 tons of material in a load, time is money, and therefore haste is necessary in receiving. “Most of the wood comes in on live floor trailers, which are expensive, so the people who own them think that the time spent loading and unloading them is costing them money—they see it as downtime,” White tells Biomass Magazine. “The trailers have the ability to unload themselves in 10 minutes, so if we want to unload a trailer in 15 minutes we have to move the material at the rate of about 100 tons an hour.” Moving material pneumatically at that rate is simply not practical, which is why CVEC and Rapat chose mechanical conveyers to move the material from receiving to storage.

Receiving and Storage In addition to wood, CVEC anticipates using corn stover, cobs and other ag residues for gasifier fuel, and as one can imagine there are great material differences between corncobs and stover. Because the system was engineered to gasify various materials, which is facilitated by multi-fuel burners, the biomass handling system was also required to be designed with built-in flexibility. The ability to remain versatile with feedstocks will be important as time goes on, as supplies of one variety or another become scarcer and fluctuate in price. “We designed the capacity for low-density material because there’s a lot of volume but not a lot of weight, but designed the horsepower and mechanical capability for highdensity material because that’s going to demand more power,” White says. “So we tried to give them the best of both worlds—


Woodchips for CVEC’s gasifier are delivered to the plant by the supplier and are supposed to meet certain size and moisture specifications set by the Benson, Minn.-based ethanol plant.

heavy enough equipment and horsepower to do the high-density materials but a large enough system to handle the higher volume materials.” White says the mechanical system his company designed can move up to 100 tons of biomass an hour, however, Bill Lee, general manager of CVEC, says the company hasn’t had to unload material at quite that high a rate yet. An alternative to unloading the incoming material straight from the trucks in the receiving area to storage would be to employ what’s called a surge bin to receive most or all of a whole semi load, after which the biomass could be metered out slowly over time. “But the price of that would be almost as much, or maybe more, than to just unload and convey straight to the storage silo,” White says. Storage silo capacity on-site is 375 tons, and when that much biomass is being stored there is always the risk for spontaneous combustion, explosion and fire. In fact, not too far from Benson, Minn., where CVEC is located, Central MN Ethanol Coop experienced an unfortunate incident with its wood storage facility in Little Falls, Minn. When massive amounts of biomass are stored the moisture levels must be kept below or above a certain percentage in or-



der to prevent the conditions conducive for spontaneous combustion. “The primary way we’re managing that risk with our feedstock is through moisture control—we have a spec of 20 percent moisture max,” Lee says. “Above and beyond that, we monitor the temperature in the silo and we have provisions to re-circulate the silo to kind of turn the pile, if you will. We’ve even installed some fire suppression in the silo so we’ve got a pretty good handle on that.” The safety measures engineered into the storage and handling design to help prevent or contain explosion include explosion-proof electrical devices, explosion panels on enclosed conveying, and explosion-suppression systems such as chemicalcharged canisters. “If there’s an explosion, that sets off the canisters, which dampens the explosion or fire,” Koenig says. The silos are equipped with “burst panels” designed to burst and help contain fire when pressure inside the silo exceeds a set limit.

Enclosed Conveyance The handling capacity from the silo to the gasifier is considerably less than that needed in receiving. The mechanical receiving system leading to the silo is designed to handle up to 100 tons an hour whereas the




Rapat Corp. was one of the innovators in enclosed conveyer technology, which reduces fugitive dust and promotes a safer environment for workers inside the plant. The enclosed bulk conveyance system Rapat engineered for CVEC includes self-cleaning belts.

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pneumatic or air-driven system moving the material from the silo to the plant only needs to move a little more than that in an entire day—approximately 115 tons per day currently, according to Lee. By press time Biomass Magazine was unable to reach anyone from Pessco, the company that provided the handling equipment for taking material from the silo to the plant, but Koenig describes some of the unique and important features Rapat incorporates in its engineering design. “Rapat was one of the first companies to develop enclosed conveyers,” he says, which reduces fugitive dust emissions inside the plant. “What that relates to is a safer work environment and less housekeeping issues. There’s still a requirement for dust collection on an enclosed conveyer, but the difference is on open conveyers there’s lots more fugitive dust in the atmosphere and it accumulates on equipment, which would have to be dealt with in maintenance procedures.” Enclosed conveyers consist of a conveyer belt trapped inside a four-sided enclosure. “The fugitive dust is dealt with using a reloading and self-cleaning system on the bottom where the belt rides on the bottom cover,” Koenig says. “The bottom cover has an anti-static liner, and that liner blows the belt with a special rubber wiper that’s attached to the leading edge of the splice allowing the belt to ride back on that anti-static bottom. It pulls the material back toward the inlet end of the conveyer and with special devices in the tail section it reloads the material centrifugally to the topside of the belt, so any of the fines or dust will be dealt with by re-circulating them at the tail section of the process.” Lee says the biomass gasification system, including the gasifier, handling and storage equipment, is passed the commissioning period and in routine operation. “Everything is going good,” Lee says. “If I had the chance to do it all over again, I can’t think of anything I would do differently.” BIO Ron Kotrba is a Biomass Magazine senior writer. Reach him at rkotrba@ or (701) 738-4942.

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Building Better Biofuels 40 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 8|2008

fuel If you were going to create the perfect biofuel, what would you make? When the founders of San Carlos, Calif.-based LS9 asked the question, their answer was quite simple, says Gregory Pal, senior director for corporate development. “You would make petroleum.” By Diane Greer

ike ethanol, the bio-petroleum would be produced from renewable feedstocks using a fermentation process. But LS9’s renewable petroleum would overcome many of ethanol’s shortcomings. The fuel would contain more energy than ethanol, be supported by the existing infrastructure of pipelines, refineries and fueling stations and run in a wide range of engines. “You would make a fuel that was dropiin compatible with existing fuel systems,” Pal says. The question wasn’t spurred by fanciful musing but by new techniques enabling scientists to customize an organism’s biological processes to produce novel substances. LS9’s founders saw an opportunity to leverage this emerging technology, called synthetic biology, to create “designer” microbes producing biofuels that are chemically equivalent to petroleum and diesel. LS9 is not the only company developing renewable fuel using synthetic biology. Gevo, in Pasadena, Calif., is manipulating organisms to make butanol, Emeryville, Calif.-based Amyris Biotechnology is turning microbes into miniature factories generating diesel and jet fuel substitutes and Synthetic Genomics, in La Jolla, Calif., is developing genomes from scratch, tailored to biofuel production.


Beyond Genetic Engineering Synthetic biology aims to modify existing biological systems or build new systems to perform novel tasks. The technology extends well beyond genetic engineering, which typically attempts to alter a few characteristics of an organism by inserting genes from other organisms. “Synthetic biology applies more of a systems or engineering approach,” Pal explains. Working from the bottom up, scientists define the biological processes they wish to build and identify the genes or sets of genes needed to produce the intermediate chemicals and control the biochemical reactions within an organism to execute the process. They then rewire the organism’s genetic coding, by inserting, removing and disabling genes, to meet the design specification. New gene synthesis technology facilitates the process, allowing scientists to decipher natural DNA sequences and then replicate and modify the genes in the lab. These artificial genes are then inserted into existing organisms. Advances in our understanding of how genes interact and simple organisms function are making the science more targeted and effective, allowing practitioners to reengineer an organism’s genetic map so that it works like a fine-tuned machine, says Kinkead Reiling, senior vice president at Amyris.

Retooling Microbes LS9 is using synthetic biology to rewire the metabolic processes of yeast and e.coli to make its biofuels. When microbes break down (metabolize) food into energy, excess energy produced by the process is stored. Many organisms, including humans, store excess energy by converting fatty acids produced during metabolism into lipids (i.e. fats), what we humans know as the love handles around our abdomens. LS9 is tapping into this storage mechanism by modifying the organism’s metabolic process to divert fatty acids into biofuel production, Pal explains. Fatty acids are molecularly similar to hydrocarbons, which are the building blocks of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, Pal says. By reengineering the genetic coding of e.coli and yeast, LS9 creates a miniature assembly line (metabolic pathway) to synthesize the biofuel. Genes missing from the microbes and required to produce intermediate substances and enzymes (which produce biochemical reactions) are inserted into the organisms. Genes producing unwanted substances or diverting energy from the biofuel production process are silenced. To make diesel LS9’s microbes ferment (metabolize) sugars into fatty acids. But instead of converting the fatty acids into lipids, the cell’s modified metabolic process produces enzymes that combine the fatty acids with alcohol (also produced by the cell) to generate diesel, which the cell excretes. The process consumes 65 percent less energy than ethanol production since the energy-intensive distillation process is eliminated. Unlike ethanol, diesel is not water-soluble and floats to the surface of the fermentation mixture, facilitating its removal. LS9’s goal is to create fuel that is cost competitive with oil at $40 to $50 per barrel, Pal says. A small-scale pilot facility, planned for this year, will generate the performance and economic data to support investment in a large-scale commercial facility. Pal expects to have a product to market in three to four years.

Building Better Bugs Modifying an organism’s genetic circuitry is only the first step in the process. The next major challenge is re-engineering the microbe to produce fuels more efficiently and in commercial quantities. Gevo, founded in 2005, initially focused on redesigning the metabolic processes of microbes to convert waste methane gas into methanol. This work led to technology to re-engineer an organism’s metabolic pathways to increase its tolerance to toxic environments, explains Pat Gruber, company chief executive officer. BIOMASS MAGAZINE 8|2008 41

fuel Fuel produced by microbes during fermentation accumulates and eventually attains concentrations that are toxic to the organisms. Constant intervention is required to remove the fuel, which adds costs to the process. Increasing an organism’s tolerances improves process efficiency and facilitates scaling. Discussions in the company soon turned to the best means to employ the new technology. “Butanol is a more interesting fuel than methanol, both economically and from a performance standpoint, so we shifted directions,” Gruber explains. Butanol contains more energy than methanol or ethanol, it can be blended with gasoline without retrofitting engines and it can be distributed in existing pipelines. It is also used as a chemical intermediate, creating numerous market opportunities, Gruber says. Most efforts to ferment sugars into butanol rely upon bacteria, Clostridium acetobutylicum. But even with genetic modification, the bacterium doesn’t produce enough butanol to be economically viable. Gevo’s approach is to concentrate on organisms, such as e.coli and yeasts, that serve as outstanding platforms for biofuel production, explains Matthew Peters, Gevo vice president and chief scientific officer. The company recently licensed technology from James Liao, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Los Angeles, which re-engineers e.coli to make butanol. Liao rewired e.coli’s genetic circuitry by adding genes to convert keto acids, produced during metabolism, into butanol. Once the new genetic machinery is in the cell, the next step is optimizing the organism’s metabolic processes to increase biofuel yields and throughput rates, Gruber explains. During metabolism some operations are essential to producing fuel molecules, others are not. The goal is to enhance those processes making fuel while eliminating processes that generate undesired coproducts. Liao removed genes producing nonessential substances and en-

hanced the productivity of others. These modifications increased keto acid production, boosting butanol production. Gruber, who previously worked at Cargill developing large-scale fermentation technologies, expects Gevo’s technology will continue to evolve. “I’ve seen plants double an organism’s productivity after they have been built,” Gruber says. “It is a different paradigm than what people are used to thinking about in the chemical world.” Gevo’s goal is to produce fuel at an unsubsidized price that is less than gasoline, says Tom Dries, vice president of business development. To keep costs down, the company will retrofit existing ethanol plants to run its processes, at a cost of about $20 million per facility. Dries expects to produce its first product sometime in 2009.

Scaling Up John Melo, chief executive officer at Amyris Biotechnologies is also focused on scale. His goal is to produce 338 million gallons of diesel from his synthetically modified microbes by 2011. Amyris originally started to commercialize an inexpensive version of Artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug, created using synthetic biology techniques. Work on the project was bolstered by a $42-million grant from the Gates Foundation. Using some of the technology developed for synthesizing Artemisinin, the company is now producing diesel, jet fuel and gasoline substitutes. “The Artemisinin project taught us a good bit about how a microbe would tolerate the type of chemicals we were trying to put into it and we learned how to take a plant enzyme and move it into a microbe effectively,” Reiling explains. The Amyris team is using computation tools to identify the suites of genes to assemble within an organism to produce its biofuels, along with tools to optimize the genes for use in the system. “Dozens of genes are affected, inserted and changed in the process,” Reiling says. continued on page 44



Synthetic Biology: Safety and Bioethical Considerations Synthetic biology is enabling scientists to design and construct new biological processes by rewiring the genetic circuitry of microorganisms. New techniques for automating the synthesis and assembly of man-made genes are facilitating the science. The technology promises to re-engineer organisms to produce chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals, breakdown pollutants, destroy cancer cells and solve a myriad of other problems. But with the promise comes potential risks. In 2002, a team at the State University of New York at Stony Brook employed synthetic biology to recreate the poliovirus. The work raised fears of terrorists exploiting the science to produce bioweapons and “DNA hackers” constructing organisms for malicious or destructive purposes. Beyond malicious intent, some are concerned that our incomplete understanding of genetics could lead to modified organisms with properties that are harmful inadvertently, explains Arthur Caplan, bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Engineered microbes might cause havoc or worse if accidentally released into the environment. Caplan points to previous cases where species released to reduce pests, such as mongooses in the Virgin Islands, cause unanticipated problems. There are also ethical issues. The J. Craig Venter Institute recently tried to patent a synthetic bacterium genome, causing a firestorm of criticism. “The concern is synthetic biology techniques could be patented and controlled by people who are just in it to make money,” Caplan explains. So is it possible to develop, safeguard and regulate the technology to achieve its promise while avoiding its potential dangers? “There are a lot of incredibly interesting research and application opportunities we can do here but we need to do it responsibly,” says Drew Endy, assistant professor of biological engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pioneer in the field.

Questions about safeguarding against accidental environmental releases go back 30-years when scientists first started genetically engineering organisms, Endy says. Containment options range from physical containment to genetic containment, where developers hobble the organism so that it can’t compete in the wild. Jim Thomas, program manager for the Canadian-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, is skeptical that safeguards built into the system will prevent releases. “This is all very theoretical.” Assessing the safety of synthetically modified organisms is difficult, Thomas says. Researchers are introducing multiple genes to modify metabolic pathways. In some cases the genes have been significantly altered or invented in the lab, he explains. “So there is no body of practice whatsoever to work out how to assess their safety,” he says. “Given a sensible precautionary approach, there should be no environmental release of synthetic organisms at this point since there is no way of testing their safety.” Caplan is not convinced that the risks mean we should not move forward with the technology. “It probably argues for prudence, not making huge jumps in genetic engineering and going slowly with products,” he says. “You should not release something into the environment unless you have studied it thoroughly.” Safety issues lead to questions of who is regulating the technology. “I am not sure the regulation is adequate right now,” Caplan says. “There are a lot of agencies that get into this and it is not always clear who is in charge.” Thomas is concerned that development of synthetic biology applications is progressing without societal debate and regulatory oversight. “You need an international process and in the meantime a moratorium.” Almost everyone agrees that broad-based discussions, including the scientific community, the government and the public, are required. “We need to lay out clear guidelines for international agreements to hit standards of safety and what constitutes adequate testing before you can release something,” Caplan says. “That is what is missing here. It does not have an ethical infrastructure right now.”


fuel continued from page 42

The company is initially focusing its efforts on commercializing its diesel product. “Diesel is growing at two to three times the rate of gasoline,” Melo says. “There is not a scaleable renewable fuel today servicing the diesel market.” Melo breaks the challenge of scaling his process into three components: cost, feedstock and infrastructure. On the cost side, the company is working on increasing the productivity of its process to reach parity with oil at $55 to $60 per barrel. To achieve scales in feedstock and infrastructure, Amyris is forming partnerships.

In April, Amyris announced a joint venture with Crystalsev, one of Brazil’s largest ethanol producers, to commercialize its diesel technology in Brazil. Crystalsev will provide 2 million tons of sugarcane crushing capacity and will convert two of its ethanol plants to produce Amyris’ renewable diesel from cane juice, Melo explains. Production is slated to begin by 2010. Melo expects to sign a second major deal in Brazil in the July to October timeframe. “By the end of the year we will have geographic expansion beyond Brazil.”

Producing Genomes from Scratch Most companies employing synthetic biology to produce biofuels are modifying small segments of an organism’s genetic materials using existing and man-made genes. At Synthetic Genomics, research efforts are also focused on creating all the genetic material for an organism (its genome) from scratch (de novo), tailored to biofuel production. “Most of these organisms have other priorities in life producing substances for their own particular needs,” explains Ari Patrinos, the company’s president. “There is a limit to how much you can tweak them to do what you want.” “If you can design the genome de novo, you only include those processes and activities of interest to you,” Patrinos says. As a result, the biological processes will be more efficient and productive and include built in tolerances. To date no one has produced a functioning genome from scratch. In January Synthetic Genomics progressed toward that goal when it announced the successful assembly of the entire genome of the bacteria Mycoplasma genitalium, the largest man-made DNA structure ever produced. The next step is to insert the synthetic genome into an existing cell, essentially “booting it up”, to produce a functioning organism, Patrinos says. “Once you have demonstrated that you can do the genome, you can add the appropriate promoters that turn on and off genes,” Patrinos says. He envisions inserting sets of genes into the genome, observing the outcomes and then optimizing the final combination of genes that produces the best product at the highest efficiencies. Patrinos believes Synthetic Genomes will begin producing biofuels in the next few years. “I think we have a leg up on scaling up because the organisms can be tailored for the scaling process.” BIO Diane Greer is a New York-based writer and researcher specializing in renewable energy, clean technologies and sustainable business.


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Sprucing Up


Wood chips are commonly used as a feedstock in the biomass industry—but what processes must waste wood undergo before it is suitable for use? How is contaminated wood treated to meet standards and obey regulations? Biomass Magazine investigates the old and new processes some companies are using to clean and recycle waste wood. By Anna Austin Photos by Elizabeth Slavens






aving realized it or not, Germany made a colossal discovery when the country first attempted to convert wood into ethanol more than 100 years ago. As it turned out, the production of 18 gallons of ethanol per ton of wood was a stepping stone toward greater things. As Germany strove to develop a more efficient industrial method of wood-to-ethanol production, the process found its way to the United States during World War I. Although a lull in lumber production hindered the development of the technology, a small but significant amount of research continued. What was acceptable decades ago, though, is no longer. Concerns have risen regarding the use of wood for fuel—primarily over the environmental effects of removing too many trees—and more pertaining to this day and age, the releasing of toxins from burning or processing contaminated wood. These types of treated wood often contain plastics, nails and other metals that are problematic for landfills because of low density, large volumes and extremely slow decomposition rates. As massive landfills are being filled up and closed, interest has developed in how more of this waste can be utilized. Although most are aware of the benefits and the ways plastic, aluminum and paper are recycled, little is known about the less commonly considered recyclable—waste wood.

Recycling Wood 101 The benefits of recycling wood are numerous, including preserving trees, protecting habitat, prolonging the lifespan of landfills, reducing the need for new landfills, maintaining air quality, providing cleaner energy and fuel, and reducing soil erosion. According to the U.S. EPA, there are now more than 500 wood processing facilities throughout the United States. Fortunately, that number is increasing as the number of landfills available for waste disposal has gone down from 8,000 in 1988 to less than 1,800 in 2006—a year in which nearly 14 million tons of wood waste was generated prior to recycling. The process by which wood waste could go through to be


Railroad ties are treated with creosote, a hazardous wood preservative that is difficult to remove.

reutilized varies depending on the intended use. Refurbishing is a common process for recycling wood. Rather than creating something new, this is simply the act of repairing and cleaning a broken wood product such as a crate or pallet. Mueller Pallets LLC in Sioux Falls, S.D., repairs, cleans and manufactures thousands of wood pallets each day. The company accepts unwanted wood from landfills, contractors, construction companies, waste disposal companies, and tree service providers and turns it into a variety of recycled wood products. Processing, which entails the cleaning and grinding of waste wood, requires first that foreign materials piled with the wood are removed. This may be done manually or with machinery. A common method of removing these objects that many facilities use involves water and a conveying system. The waste wood is dumped into tanks containing water; the nonwood materials do not contain buoyant properties and will sink to the bottom of the tanks. This not only separates the two, but cleans existing dirt from the wood. After being removed from the tank, the wood is moved onto a conveyer belt to be inspected and separated into painted or treated and

nontreated wood piles, since some company’s permits do not allow them to process treated wood. The wood they are permitted to treat is exposed to large magnets to extract nails and metal pieces, and then transferred to a mill to be ground into wood chips. In the last step, the wood chip material is re-exposed to to magnets to remove any remaining metal. Manufacturing takes the recycling process one step further by creating a new product with the cleaned and processed wood chips. A majority of the time, the wood will be ground into particle board or a similar product. If the wood chips are going to be used as compost, they are put through another grinding process to reduce particle size. Cleaned wood chip particles may also be used for incineration to generate energy. Mueller Pallets has a contract to supply up to 350 tons of wood chips per day to fuel the boiler in Poet LLC’s ethanol plant in Chancellor, S.D. Though these processes utilize a large amount of wood, a great quantity of treated or contaminated wood remains—mainly because of chemicals such as creosote that many companies do not have the technology or permits to process.

feedstock The Creosote Controversy Creosote is a complex mixture of a hazardous nature that may serve as a fungicide, insecticide and sporicide in wood protection treatments. Despite being classified as a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. EPA, creosote remains the second most widely used wood preservative in the United States—primarily for treatment of industrial products such as railroad ties and utility poles. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, there are more than 300 identifiable chemicals in creosote, but as many as 10,000 more may be in the mixture. There is strong evidence of harm resulting from improper safety precautions, disposal and use. Because creosote is a restricted-use pesticide that can only be applied by certified applicators or someone under their direct supervision, it is not available for sale to or use by homeowners. However, the EPA has acknowledged in reports that some creosote treated wood such as in railroad ties are used outdoors in home landscaping, and that creosote does, in fact, have the capabilities of having negative health effects on animals, humans and the environment. On the contrary, a definite plus to creosote is that the chemical significantly prolongs the lifespan of wood, thus reducing the need to harvest new wood. Since more companies than ever before are gaining permits to accept creosoted wood to recycle for biomass, opponents and environmentalists want to know what is being done to ensure the toxins are being properly removed—and if it is really environmentally safe. Enerkem, a leading producer of cellulosic biofuels, has developed a new technology to remove contaminates such as creosote from wood using a gasification and catalysis process.

poles and creosote treated wood—that most corporations cannot, because of permit limitations preserving air quality and the environment. Enerkem has recently partnered with GreenField Ethanol, Canada’s leading ethanol producer, and is in the midst of constructing the company’s first commercial-scale plant in Westbury, Québec, along with a series of other projects in Canada. Enerkem is colocated with a saw mill that recycles the middle part of the decommissioned power poles into construction wood, such as 2x4s. The remaining treated portions

containing impurities cannot be recycled into construction wood. These pole residues are transformed into wood chips by the saw mill and transferred to Enerkem to be converted into ethanol. In the first step, the wood chips or other feedstocks are dried, sorted and shredded to be stored in a container that is connected to the gasifier by a front-end feeding system capable of handling fluffy material, without the need to pelletize. Slurries or liquids may also be fed into the gasifier through appropriately designed injectors. The carbonaceous materi-

Enerkem Emerges Enerkem, founded in 2000, is headquartered in Montreal. The company has operated a pilot plant in Sherbrooke, Québec, since 2003—testing a new gasification and catalytic synthesis technology. The unique factor Enerkem possesses is the ability to process certain types of demolition wood—such as decommissioned power



Enerkem recycles waste wood from decommissioned power poles.

als, such as biomass treated with creosote, are converted into a synthetic gas—consisting mostly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen—through a chemical gasification process. The gasification process is carried out using air as a partial oxidation agent or using oxygen-enriched air, with the oxygen level tailored to the desired composition of the synthetic gas. The presence of steam at a specific partial pressure is also necessary. The gasifier operates at low severities, temperatures of approximately 700 degrees Celsius (1,292 degrees Fahrenheit) and below 10 units of atmospheric pressure. During the gasification process, part of the creosote is broken down, forming a portion of the product syngas. Other traces of impurities are captured as residues in the form of a neutralized ash, or through a wastewater treatment system for effective disposal through the syngas cleaning system. At this stage, the gas is effectively cleaned and conditioned for use with existing catalysts. This is accomplished through a sequential conditioning system, which in-

cludes cyclonic removal of inerts, secondary carbon and tar conversion, heat recovery units, and reinjection of tar/fines into the reactor. The gas that is produced at the end of the cleaning process is ready for conversion into liquid fuel and end products which Enerkem says meet all requirements as either industrial grade products or fuel additives. The Westbury plant is scheduled to begin production in the fall of 2008, and will have the capacity to produce more than 1.3 MMgy. The company is currently negotiating with other facilities to take their treated wood, Enerkem tells Biomass Magazine. The number of companies that are striving to develop new technologies to utilize less commonly used but accumulating wastes, such as creosote treated wood, is on the rise. As the renewable fuels race continues—so does the recycling race. BIO

Anna Austin is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at aaustin or (701) 738-4968.


1.800.615.9296 50 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 8|2008


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Breaking Through to the Other Side of Biofuels With unwavering mettle, John Rivera of Sustainable Power Corp. intends to introduce a biocrude oil product, called Vertroleum, into the global fuel supply chain. Despite its detractors, the company continues to refine what it refers to as the “Rivera Process” at its Texas demonstration facility. Biomass Magazine traveled there to see how the production process works. Story and Photos By Bryan Sims

Sustainable Power Corp. founder and Chairman John Rivera holds a handful of crushed soybeans at the company’s production facility near Baytown, Texas.




ost of us know that crude oil is formed from the fossilized remains of dead plants and animals by hundreds of millions of years of exposure to intense heat and pressure found in the Earth’s crust. This general theory is one that has been accepted by the scientific community for centuries and passed on from generation to generation. What if this process could be accelerated a billionfold and could be refined and marketed right here in our own backyard from renewable nonfood based biomass sources? Defying the aforementioned theory of crude oil creation, Sustainable Power Corp. has figured out a way to do just that. Established by founder and Chairman John Rivera from its Natchez, Miss.-based parent company U.S. Sustainable Energy Corp. in 2006, Sustainable Power Corp. also goes by the name Baytown Green Energy Consortium. The company uses a proprietary catalytic process technology capable of producing between 6,700 and 24,000 gallons per day of both light and heavy fractions of its branded biocrude oil—Vertroleum—from its four-reactor demonstration facility in Baytown, Texas, using any type of hydrocarbon waste biomass imaginable. “It took 20 years of research to come up with this technology,” says Rivera, a West Palm Beach, Fla., native who earned a PhD in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an honorary doctoral degree from South America. Rivera was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year in Central America. “I’m against all academia,” Rivera says. “I’ve had scientists and engineers tell me that all crude oil comes from vegetation and 50 billion years later you get oil from the ground. This isn’t a production process; this is a ‘time machine.” Before establishing Sustainable Power, however, Rivera’s journey to find prominence came with inherent challenges. Previously, he had been refining and developing an innovative catalytic pyrolysis conversion process while working for GWE Systems Inc., a start-up company that explored the conversion of tire scraps into oil and gas. In July 2003, the company initially pursued a proposed joint venture with a Mexican tire recycler to convert raw materials recovered from the tires in


profile various subsidiary ventures, including a project to supply excess oil and gas to the Mexican power grid. The Rivera and GWE Systems project went defunct, but Rivera later invested more than $500,000 to build his own 40-foot reactor to serve that same purpose. Being a hydrocarbon feedstock, he knew that if he could filter the microscopic tire particles that have been processed by mechanical means he could create a black carbon, a critical ingredient used for government print ink and acrylic paint for the marine industry and the military. Rivera also offered his carbon product to the automotive industry where he sold it as an agent in spray-on truck bed liner. After not finding profit in those industries, Rivera then had a notion to process soybeans in the reactors. He took 20 pounds of soybeans and produced 2 gallons of fuel, 1½ hours worth of biogas and a solid carbon byproduct. “At the time I thought I had made biodiesel,” Rivera says. He was wrong. He sent his product to AmSpec Services LLC for further analysis. The testing company toured the Baytown demonstration facility to see how Rivera produced the peculiar organic product. For 20 years, AmSpec has independently analyzed and measured petroleum and petrochemical products at its Texas and New Jersey testing locations. “They told me I’m an idiot,” he says. “They told me that I’m making a light petroleum distillate out of vegetation. It’s not biodiesel. I guess that’s how this whole thing started. It just kind of snowballed from there.”

Inside the ‘Rivera Process’ According to Rivera, Vertroleum is created by “chemical hydrolysis with a modified pyrolysis and the use of nano bacteria,” which he dubbed the “Rivera Process.” Containing the same hydrocarbons as petroleum crude oil, Vertroleum is a mixture of hydrocarbons C-5 pentane and C-20


eicosane. When used in the same distillation process used by petroleum companies, Vertroleum can be further refined to produce a biogasoline (BG-100), a substitute for gasoline E85 in flexible-fuel vehicles, biokerosene (jet fuel), a diesel blendstock (OD-66), naptha (an octane enhancer), heating fuel, refined diesel, pharmaceutical grade glycerin, tars and plastics. The company’s biocrude oil can be refined into 69 other renewable fuels or chemical materials as certified by AmSpec. In addition, AmSpec verified that most of the biocrude “cuts” meet or exceed ASTM standards whereby the product doesn’t need tier testing. Sustainable Power can use a variety of cellulosic biomass feedstocks including palm waste, jatropha, milo, rapeseed, chopped soybeans, sunflowers, distillers dried grains and other raw agricultural waste materials. Before feedstocks enter its 60-foot reactor, Sustainable Power tests the feasibility of the feedstock by putting it through a mini reactor, enabling the firm to document data such as input volume versus yield, natural gas output and fertilizer output. “We’re totally self-sufficient and not dependent on any foodbased feedstock,” Rivera says. In January, Sustainable Power ran initial tests using 20 pounds of 5 percent oil-content algae with 40 percent water content, which resulted in an ignitable product. The algae was supplied by Green Star Products, which is negotiating with Sustainable Power to install a series of algae bioreactors at its Baytown facility, which Rivera expects will yield encouraging results. “[Rivera] is definitely producing biocrude oil that has some idiosyncrasies to it, but every crude oil has some idiosyncrasies to it,” says Jim Ford, senior vice president of operations for AmSpec and member of Sustainable Power’s board of directors. “I think it has great potential and it could be the answer to the [energy] problems we’re having in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.” The secret of the Rivera Process is reliant on a particular nano bacterium catalyst that promotes a chemical reaction to transform

profile the biomass waste feedstocks into a syngas where it travels through the reactors’ elongated chrome alloy tubes that allow for expansion due to high heat. The process reacts in a vacuum in an ambient temperature less than 800 degrees Fahrenheit. As opposed to conventional pyrolysis methods, Sustainable Power’s BG-100 and diesel blendstocks contain less than 1 percent water content because the oxygen molecules remain intact so the finished product is naturally oxygenated. The entire process takes a little more than eight minutes, regardless of the amount of feedstock introduced largely due to Rivera’s surreptitious, yet highly effective catalyst. “I can give you or anyone the blueprints of my reactors and my building structure, but it means nothing without my catalyst,” he says. “The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the research arm of the U.S. DOE, and the site where the atomic bomb was developed, has been trying to break my catalyst now for the last 10 years.” With the help of its on-site contractor Blue Harbor Energy, Sustainable Power’s Baytown facility is rapidly becoming energy independent. The company is expanding its production capacity from 2.4 MMgy to 8.7 MMgy, including the addition of a 90,000-foot rail loop to export the finished product and import feedstock and supplies. In addition to producing marketable biocrude oil, Sustainable Power produces other salable byproducts such as an effective 7-3-7 fertilizer, mineral water used in the production process, internal use and production of electricity and a clean-burning renewable natural gas. The company intends to construct a 500 megawatt power plant on-site and plans to sell electricity and renewable natural gas to local utility grids, which will enable it to buy and sell carbon credits. In August 2007, AmSpec put 20 pounds of crushed soybeans into Sustainable Power’s reactor and it yielded 10.69 pounds of liquid oil, 3.77 pounds of gas and 5.54 pounds of 7-3-7 fertilizer. Because the soybeans were in 60-pound bags, AmSpec multiplied the results three times, and produced 43.38 pounds of fuel and 16.62 pounds



of fertilizer. With an average fuel weight of 7.5 pounds per gallon, Sustainable Power’s process yields about 5.7 gallons per bushel. “In any refinery there is going to have to be a lot more research done on [biocrude oil], but it’s also going to have to be treated as a crude oil, I think,. in order to get the full yield of everything,” Ford says.

Looking Ahead On the domestic front, Sustainable Power is involved in a joint venture project with Farmers Sustainable Energy International to utilize its proprietary technology in Quincy, Ill., to convert cellulosic and noncellulosic feedstocks into biocrude oil, BG-100 and organic fertilizer. “We’ve got a mini reactor from [Rivera] that we can take and test various feedstocks based on different locations,” says Scott Hoerr, president of FSEI and member of Sustainable Power’s board of directors. Hoerr is also a founding member of Missouri’s first farmer-owned ethanol plant, Northeast Missouri Grain Processors. “There are a lot of ways to approach and attack this and there’s more that we still don’t know about this process, but what we do know is pretty exciting.” In April, to promote business growth internationally, Sustainable Power established a Central American subsidiary, Sustainable Power Corp. Central America Guatemala S.A. Because Sustainable Power’s reactors are modular and transportable, the company is initiating a campaign to deploy similar biomass reactor projects in Central America to displace imported oil. In May, the company qualified for approximately €4 billion ($6.4 billion) from the World Bank to build 400 bioreactors on 6,250 acres of land in Guatemala, where it will have the capacity to produce 30 million gallons of biocrude oil per day and seven gigawatts of electricity, which will be used by the seven-country Central American Parliament or Parlacen. In May, Sustainable Power formed a strategic alliance with L.Solé, a Spanish-

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profile based engineering, procurement and contracting firm, to assist in its Guatemalan venture and aid in the expansion of its Baytown facility. Parlacen President Julio Gonzalez Gamarra endorsed Sustainable Power’s proprietary technology when he attended a public demonstration held in Baytown in April. Gamarra also became a member of the company’s board of directors in March to help facilitate the company’s Central American endeavors. Sustainable Power is also involved in projects in Malaysia and Haiti. Sustainable Power Corp. has finalized a strategic alliance with Pemco Energy AS, a Norwegian-based trading and industrial group that manufactures, distributes and sells oil and chemical-based products. Teaming up with Pemco, Sustainable Power (shares are traded under the symbol SSTP) has created a European subsidiary, SSTP Europe, which will be the exclusive representative for Sustainable Power throughout Europe. The joint venture intends to install, own and operate facilities, produce and market green biofuels, including the use of biofuel for power generation, and generate green certificates. Pemco will be responsible for the organization and set up, enabling SSTP Europe to operate all the plants across Europe and establish long-term power purchase contracts with energy companies in the region. Pemco, in close cooperation with Sustainable Power, will secure long-term agreements with low-cost sustainable feedstock producers from major land areas in Eastern Europe, with intentions of networking to South America, Australia and Africa.


Additionally, Pemco has entered into a stock subscription agreement for 50 million restricted shares of Sustainable Power stock for $2 million. Pemco has agreed to contribute $6 million to the buildup of SSTP Europe. “The key personnel of Pemco have a long history of establishing successful international transactions,” Rivera says. “Collaborating with Pemco is a major milestone for SSTP. Pemco has the experience, personnel, financial resources and ‘green’ background to bring about the successful commercialization of SSTP across Europe.” Because Sustainable Power’s biocrude oil can be readily distributed into the existing U.S. fuel supply network, the company has attracted interest from U.S.-based oil refiners such as Kinder Morgan and George E. Warren. Rivera hasn’t set a price for his biocrude oil, but he estimates that it could be sold in the U.S. market at a minimum of $42 per barrel. He is also willing to partner with U.S. and international ethanol and biodiesel companies looking to offset their operating costs and add another revenue stream. “You’re seeing history in the making,” Rivera says. “We’re changing the face of energy. I’m not out to hurt the biodiesel or ethanol industry. I’m interested in wastes. I’m not interested in taking a mouthful of food away from anybody or any animal.” BIO Bryan Sims is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 746-4950.

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A Multi-Prong Approach to Carbon Neutrality By Stephen Paley

everal charges have recently been leveled at the biofuels industry. Misinformed critics have cited indirect land use issues, the food-versus-fuel debate, and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest as reasons to halt or eliminate the production of fuel ethanol. It’s become clear the issues aren’t going away anytime soon. However, the industry can head in a direction that would leave the accusations baseless. This article depicts an avenue of growth that greatly increases industry profit while eliminating negative connotations permanently. Many promised future technologies may not materialize, or else may cause unexpected harm. Plug-in hybrids would save a large amount of crude oil but only by dramatically increasing the use of coal to make electricity. Any oil saved in one country is likely to be used elsewhere, so the world would end up burning the same amount of oil and a huge additional amount of coal—a scenario for catastrophic climate change. Although solar cells will have important local application, electricity generated for the nation by solar cell arrays in the desert Southwest is unlikely. Most of the energy is lost when transforming low-voltage direct current put out by solar cells to high-voltage alternating current for long distance transmission. If done properly, ethanol can pick up much of the slack in a way that’s sustainable, largely through a better match between suitable local biomass and a specific type of cellulosic ethanol production.


Cellulosic Ethanol, Limited Agricultural Acreage The United States needs a cellulosic production process that uses little energy per unit of ethanol produced (i.e., high energy gain). Infinite Renewable Energy has developed a microorganismbased, low-temperature, low-pressure process with an energy gain of 11:1 that generates almost no pollution per unit of ethanol produced. The cost of producing ethanol using this process is 70 The claims and statements made in this article belong exclusively to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Biomass Magazine or its advertisers. All questions pertaining to this article should be directed to the author(s).


cents per gallon. Such processes tend to be low cost and require low energy inputs, but they must also have a short cycle time to be commercialized, which takes some doing. Some microorganism-based cellulosic processes can use mixtures of all types of biomass or cellulose including old newspapers and the organic portion of garbage, which is the third-largest source of the greenhouse gas methane in the atmosphere. Using forage sorghum, which grows across much of the nation, less than 10 percent of U.S. farm acreage would produce enough biomass to replace all U.S. imported oil with cellulosic ethanol. Other high-yielding ethanol crops that can be grown in the southern United States include sugarcane and a less water-intensive miscanthus/sugarcane hybrid developed at Texas A&M that yields an estimated 10,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per acre annually, assuming 90 percent conversion of cellulose. Cellulosic ethanol requires processing of so much biomass per unit of ethanol that it should be grown and transported no further than 20 miles from the distillery, or transportation (and energy) costs become excessive. This, in turn, dictates a distillery size between 20 MMgy and 50 MMgy. Economics therefore encourage local production by smaller distilleries and local, or nearly local, consumption of ethanol.

Achieving Carbon Neutrality Ethanol can be produced in a carbon negative manner (“Coupling Carbon Sequestration with Novel Cellulosic Ethanol Technology,” December 2006 Ethanol Producer Magazine), but even without that ethanol made by a low energy process with suitable biomass grown within 20 miles of the distillery will be almost carbon neutral. The only reason ethanol is not carbon neutral is the fuel and energy-intensive materials used to cultivate and harvest biomass, and the energy used to transport the biomass and convert it into ethanol. Biofuel crops requiring little cultivation, which also reduces production costs, are thus desired. Weeds grow without any cultivation and some are prime candidates for cellulosic ethanol.




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The cellulosic process can be made even closer to carbon neutral. Lignin, another easily separated component of biomass, if burned as fuel to power the ethanol-making process, introduces no fossil fuel carbon to increase the carbon positive nature of ethanol production, according to Argonne National Laboratories’ “Well-to-Wheel Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emission of Advanced Fuel/Vehicle Systems” report released in June 2001. The microorganism-based process needs so little energy that it can be powered by the lignin in the same biomass used to make a particular batch of ethanol. The minerals left over after making ethanol can be returned to the local fields from which they came. A crop rotation cycle of food crop, biomass and fallow would enable sustainable production of both biomass and food, provided climate change does not become pronounced. The result of the described cost and energy optimizations would produce ethanol that is almost carbon neutral.

Expanding Feedstock Sources Maralfalfa, a crop also known as elephant grass that requires little or no cultivation and is used as a cattle feed in Colombia, can produce sufficient biomass to produce an estimated 10,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per acre per year. One must be careful, however, deploying a process for cellulosic ethanol in South America that can use mixtures of all kinds of biomass. It could provide another reason for clearing rainforests since the cleared vegetation itself could be used to make ethanol. Colombia can become the Saudi Arabia of cellulosic ethanol production, but must prevent unregulated expansion of maralfalfa at the expense of grasslands and rainforest. Another place to greatly expand production of low-cost ethanol without expanding biofuel crop acreage is Brazil, which uses 3 percent of its acreage to grow sugarcane for ethanol production. If Brazil switched to an efficient microorganism-based cellulosic process it would

outlook increase its ethanol production by 30 percent and reduce its cost to about 54 cents per gallon. One can grow many times the biomass per acre per unit of time by growing microalgae instead of rooted, land-based plants. Microalgae also require considerably fewer resources and much less energy to grow and harvest. We propose to grow and harvest microalgae in shallow desert freshwater pools. Using desert or arid, sparsely vegetated grassland for this purpose would not put net greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Water for this process could be provided by a low-cost, low-energy process of large-scale desalination. The microalgae would need to have high cellulose content (approximately 40 percent), be hardy enough to withstand extremes of daytime to nighttime temperatures, and outgrow stray, undesired stains that enter the pool. Many candidates of microalgae have these properties that can be adapted to local conditions. There may be merit to growing microalgae (phytoplankton) on the surface of the ocean for use as biomass. Stimulated growth of ocean algae has been demonstrated and could be carried out over a large (but, by choice, not continuous) area of ocean using a “fertilizing agent” in concentrations of parts per billion sprayed onto the ocean from an aircraft. Enough microalgae could be grown in this manner to supply sufficient biomass for the entire world to abandon most energy applications of oil. If phytoplankton is grown at sea for biomass, it would make sense to manufacture carbon-negative ethanol aboard large ships. The energy needed to power the process might be provided by easily separated lignin-like compounds in microalgae. Thus, fuel might not have to be brought to the ship to manufacture ethanol. Similarly, freshwater for ethanol manufacturing could be obtained from the ocean by reverse osmosis desalination. Finally, another kind of microalgae could be used in a “bubbler” device to capture the carbon dioxide released dur-

ing the biofuel-making process, rendering the ethanol carbon negative. These algae are to be disposed of in the deep ocean to sequester the carbon they capture. Since the ship is already at sea, disposal would be simplified. When its tanks are full the ship can come close to shore and offload its ethanol through buoy-supported lines.

The Need for Innovation Many forms of cellulosic ethanol technology exist and there are various ways to implement them. Not all are equivalent in terms of sustainability and environmental friendliness. The motivation to follow a different path—to replace oil with a sustainable carbon-neutral process of fuel production and use—is evident as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise and crude oil prices continue to soar. Change is made attractive, or at least palatable, by the large profit increase for growers and producers that the new path enables. Two-thirds of all pioneering inventions during the first 70 years of the 20th century came from individuals and small companies, according to Thomas W. Harvey in “Technical Ventures—Catalysts for Economic Growth.” Today such companies have difficulty gaining credibility and their innovations often go unrecognized. It is also risky for small companies to apply for a patent that threatens a multinational because changes in patent law enable the innovation to be stolen. Without patents, publishing in peer-reviewed journals— another source of credibility—is denied. Consequently, innovations needed for industry development may go unrecognized if they come from small companies. This daunting obstacle must be overcome to achieve sustainable, carbon-neutral fuel production. BIO Stephen Paley is the principal scientist at Agricultural Management Systems Inc. in Oklahoma City, Okla. Reach him at or (405) 721-0064. The late George K. Oister contributed invaluable discussions and insights to this article.

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aking a buck in the ethanol industry has been getting tougher over the past year with high feedstock and energy costs. Some ethanol producers have sought to boost their bottom lines by increasing the value of their coproducts, reducing their energy consumption or using coproducts to offset fossil fuel usage. David Rein, a process engineer with Rein and Associates in Moorhead, Minn., has created a process that does all three. Rein has been working with Otter Tail Ag Enterprises LLC and the Fergus Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant in Fergus Falls, Minn., to produce methane from thin stillage through anaerobic digestion in a study sponsored in part by Minnesota’s Agricultural Utilization Research Institute. Thin stillage is what remains after ethanol and distillers grains have been removed after fermentation. The liquid is so rich in organic compounds that the stillage from Otter Tail Ag Enterprises, a 55 MMgy ethanol plant, can produce 3 million cubic feet of methane per day—worth nearly $9 million per year. One problem with using stillage for anaerobic digestion is that it carries a large amount of inorganic material, such as am-

monia, magnesium and phosphates. These three chemicals combine in a neutral or alkaline environment to create a mineral called struvite. The struvite builds up scale deposits on the sides of the bioreactor and in pipes. It can foul heat exchangers, choke pumps and pipes, and reduce digester volume. “It is especially a problem at (pipe) elbows, where the velocity increases or there is a lot of turbulence in the water,” Rein says. “It is a historic problem with anaerobic digestion if you have all the components there.” Rein figures that the struvite problem could be avoided by removing the components of the mineral from the thin stillage before it’s digested. He created a skid-mounted system that removes the ammonia, phosphates and magnesium from the stillage before it goes into the digester. The system then precipitates the struvite into small nodules or crystals. “It is a patented process that we have brought in,” Rein says. “It’s an upflow device. You get the right pH and you form the (struvite) crystals.” While struvite is a pain in the digestor, it’s also a valuable slow-release fertilizer that is 8 percent nitrogen and 21 percent phosphorus. “What makes struvite valuable is the method you use to get it out,” Rein says. “When it comes out naturally, it’s in thin layers and doesn’t have much more value than

a normal fertilizer. If you get it out as crystals, it is a slow-release organic fertilizer.” The magnesium in struvite is another important plant nutrient as it is a central component of chlorophyll. “It’s what gives plants a deep blue-green color,” Rein says. “I’ve actually put it on my lawn to see if it works, and it’s true. So it is really good stuff, and it’s organic.” In 2006, struvite was selling for $1,500 per ton as a fertilizer and is primarily used in the turf industry. Rein says fertilizer prices have shot up since 2006, so it’s probably more valuable now. A plant the size of Otter Tail Ag Enterprises could potentially produce 10 tons of struvite per day. The value of the struvite could equal or exceed that of gas that comes out of the anaerobic digester. Rein says the struvite removal system is ready for commercial production. Black & Veatch, a consulting company in Kansas City, Mo., is evaluating the system for its value to ethanol producers. BIO —Jerry W. Kram

Anaerobic digesters that convert thin stillage from ethanol plants into methane can be fouled by a mineral called struvite. Research funded by Minnesota’s Agriculturual Utilization Research Institute has led to a process that extracts the struvite from the stillage for use as a valuable slow-release fertilizer, shown here. PHOTO: AURI / ROLF HAGBERG




UPDATE Green Acres is the Place to Be


s I vacationed in Wisconsin—God’s country and my home state—I realized once again how important it is to develop cellulosic biomass technologies for energy and fuels. Driving along any highway in those parts revealed field after field of crops drowning in water. Many of my relatives were dairy farmers, so I understand that standing water in cornfields in June is not a good thing. True energy security cannot be met using commodity crops such as corn and soybeans for fuel. A diverse cellulosic biomass resource is more sustainable and, generally, more resistant to nature’s surprises. Two conferences sponsored by the Energy & Environmental Research Center and BBI International held in the past few months are helping to stimulate the cellulose biomass industry. The inaugural International Biomass ’08 Conference and Trade Show was held April 15–17 in Minneapolis and the Biomass ’08 Technical Workshop was held July 15–16 in Grand Forks, N.D. The Minneapolis event consisted of 63 speakers, more than 100 exhibitors, close to 1,000 attendees, and numerous side meetings, hospitality suite events and networking opportunities. An opportunity to tour the District Energy St. Paul combined heat and power plant was offered prior to the conference. The future of U.S. renewable energy electricity lies partly in smaller, distributed biomass systems. Europe is Zygarlicke heading toward 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. As a result, a large amount of baseload renewable electricity is being installed, similar to the 25- to 50-megawatt biomass power system installed at the District Energy St. Paul plant. This biomass-based combined heat and power plant serves more than 400 businesses, or 80 percent of St. Paul’s central business district, providing steam for heat and chilled water for air-conditioning. EERC Director Gerald Groenewold opened the conference, emphasizing a common theme throughout the entire event: the United States needs renewable energy such as biomass-based fuels and electricity, but it has to be done right. Sustainable feedstocks and efficient and economic conversion technologies must be developed. Biomass feedstocks must be developed in such a way as not to compete with food on arable lands and to be resilient in adverse climates and soils. Agriculture and forest residues are the first choices, with algae and newer short-season, dry-climate energy crops showing great promise for the future. The Biomass ’08 Technical Workshop in Grand Forks provided a much more technical focus, with more than 40 experts from around the world presenting on policies and incentives for renewable energy, a large session on biomass feedstocks, the latest technologies for ethanol and biodiesel production, and biomass for heat and electricity. A popular addition was the pre-workshop tutorial on gasification. The tutorial was geared to those interested in the fundamentals of gasification for producing electricity, ethanol, green diesel and other products. One of the highlights of the workshop was the international panel of experts in biomass feedstocks for energy and fuels. From the dry, shorter-season prairie grass of North Dakota and camelina of Montana, to the arid, marginal-soil jatropha (which produces poisonous seeds rich in oil ideal for biofuel production) of central Africa, various feedstocks were tackled by several key presenters. Both of these successful events are evidence of the great potential for sustainable biomass technologies that have roots in the “Green Acres” of the northern Great Plains and ethanol-producing regions of the United States. BIO

Chris Zygarlicke is a deputy associate director for research at the EERC in Grand Forks, N.D. Reach him at or (701) 777-5123.




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Profile for BBI International

Biomass Magazine - August 2008  

August 2008 Biomass Magazine

Biomass Magazine - August 2008  

August 2008 Biomass Magazine