INSIDE: PENNSYLVANIA PROJECT CONVERTS WASTEWATER TO ENERGY December 2007
Sourcing Straw Wyoming Companyâ€™s Composite Fencing Venture Creates New Demand for Underutilized Biomass
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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 considering how we can turn it into something © Novozymes A /S · Customer Communications · No. 2007-35469-01
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 Novozymes North America, Inc. 77 Perry Chapel Church Road Franklinton, NC 27525 Tel. +1 919-494-3000 Fax +1 919-494-3485
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..................... 18 TECHNOLOGY Fortifying Fuel Cell Technology Microbiologists and environmental engineers endeavor to maximize the efficiency of microbial fuel cells and to design a device to convert chemical energy stored in wastewater, organic debris or renewable biomass into electricity. By Jessica Ebert
22 POWER The Power of High-Strength H2O A project in Pennsylvania could potentially revolutionize the wastewater treatment industry. The goal is to create a green wastewater complex that turns high-strength influent streams into energy. By Ron Kotrba
28 FEEDSTOCK Taming the Wild Cuphea The short- and medium-chain fatty acids found in cuphea could be a good source of capric and lauric acids, which are used to make products like detergents and lubricants. Before the industrial oilseed can be used for commercial applications, however, researchers must boost crop yields. INNOVATION | PAGE 32
By Susanne Retka Schill
32 INNOVATION Biomass in a Tube
From his pilot project in El Paso, Texas, plant physiologist Glen Kertz envisions acres of algae being grown and used in fuel, pharmaceutical and other industries. By Jerry W. Kram
07 Advertiser Index 09 Industry Events
38 INDUSTRY Adding Value to Wheat Straw
11 Business Briefs
A Wyoming manufacturing company uses wheat straw and recyclable plastic to make composite fencing. The company founder says the straw adds strength and gives it
12 Industry News 51 In the Lab DayCent Computer Model Compares Biofuels’ Impact By Jerry W. Kram
53 EERC Update More Biomass Power Options for Ethanol Plants By Bruce Folkedahl
a natural, grainy look. By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy
44 RESEARCH Breaking Down Walls USDA Agricultural Research Service researchers are using the dairy cattle digestive system as an example of how to break down biomass materials. Their research could lead to a breakthrough in cellulosic ethanol production. By Erin K. Peabody
Correction from our October 2007 issue: In the Pyrolysis feature on page 44, the word “agrichar” was used inadvertently to refer to general pyrolysis char. The term “Agrichar” is in the process of being registered by Best Energies Inc. and its subsidiary Generation International LLC through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 5
letters to the
t was a great to read your very comprehensive article titled “Not So
Thus, we would be tapping into the largest potential sources of renewable
Run of the Mill” in the September issue of Biomass Magazine. It real-
biomass energy in the United States.
ly brought forward how some in the forest products industry are
Another major advantage of biocrudes is that they are fungible. They
viewing pulp and paper mills as potential locations for biorefineries,
can be shipped to the petrochemical refiners and processed as “standard”
as well as a possible new business model that may actually revitalize the
crude, thus eliminating many of the logistical issues associated with
ethanol. Biocrudes also represent a cleaner and purer source of crude oil
As discussed in the article, there are so many advantages in having a
because they contain no sulfur. As with other biofuels, biocrudes help to ful-
biorefinery collocated in a pulp and paper mill: It creates valuable new prod-
fill the federal government’s mandate of reducing our dependence on for-
ucts for the mill, reduces energy costs, uses waste streams effectively for
eign oil and greenhouse gas emissions.
power production, and enables the sharing of utilities and resources. While
In light of these benefits, we at Flambeau River Papers have expand-
your article focused largely on the potential production of cellulosic ethanol
ed our focus since your article was published. Although we have considered
in the pulp and paper mill setting, we believe that biomass gasification and
the production of cellulosic ethanol, upon much evaluation we believe that
the production of Fischer-Tropsch liquids, or biocrudes, may offer a more
the risk-reward ratio relating to biocrude production is indeed favorable in
compelling business case for the industry than does cellulosic ethanol.
some cases. In fact, we are now looking at biomass gasification technolo-
While cellulosic ethanol technologies are still at the experimental level,
gies to produce biocrude, while becoming the first pulp and paper mill in
biocrudes from biomass use proven technologies. The process doesn’t
North America to be free of fossil fuels.
depend on feedstock type and has the potential to utilize a wide range of Bill Johnson Flambeau River Biofuels LLC
biomass streams, including what we believe is an untapped resource— namely byproduct or “waste” flows from forest and agricultural sources.
enjoyed your article on agrichar (“Agrichar Rejuvenates Tired Soils”
sium, sodium, iron, manganese, copper, zinc and boron, depending on the
in the October issue). I believe we will find that soil regeneration will
source. We are still studying the impact of this process on agricultural slash
be the most significant key to sustainable, consumable crop gener-
and are optimistic that we can reduce reliance on petrochemical fertilizer.
ation and healthy forest management. This will not only apply to any
bioenergy-related feedstock, but also to human consumption crops. We have just developed a process for local communities to take vegetative material like forest slash and convert it into 0.2- to 2-millimeter par-
I would hazard a guess that the study of soil regeneration will have a higher impact on global rural economies for becoming self-sustaining than any other area of study. Keep up the good work on keeping us all informed on what's going on in our world.
ticles that have been tested to show they have great value in soil regeneration due to quick soil absorption qualities. Our processed end-product not only restores carbon back into the soil, but also recharges the soil with nitrogen, ammonia, nitrates, phosphorus, potash, potassium, calcium, magne-
6 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007
Chris Casson Principle FG Enterprises LLC
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Energy & Environmental Research Center www.ethanol-jobs.com
Ethanol Producer Magazine
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12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 7
industryevents Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit
Power-Gen: Renewable Energy & Fuels
December 2-4, 2007
February 19-21, 2008
Quebec City Convention Center Quebec City, Quebec The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association’s fourth annual event is themed “Building on the Promise.” Among various topics, next-generation biofuels will be discussed. Canada: (519) 576-4500 www.crfs2007.com U.S.: (719) 539-0300
Rio Casino & Resort Las Vegas, Nevada Registration is open for this fifth annual event, which will cover the most important trends and issues impacting the renewable energy industry. Various speakers will discuss biomass and alternative fuels from technical, strategic, regulatory, structural and economic angles. More information will be available as the event approaches. www.power-gengreen.com
Agricultural Outlook Forum
13th Annual National Ethanol Conference
February 21-22, 2008
February 25-27, 2008
Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel Arlington, Virginia This 84th annual event, themed “Energizing Rural America in the Global Marketplace,” will address several issues facing today’s agriculture sector. Besides general ag and foreign trade outlooks, the agenda is broken down into five concurrent session tracks. The Energy & Technology track will discuss biofuels (specifically ethanol) and biomass for energy. www.usda.gov/oce/forum
JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes Orlando, Florida Registration for this event, themed “Changing the Climate,” is open. The Renewable Fuels Association, which hosts the conference, promises opportunities for industry interaction, networking, and education on public policy and marketing issues affecting the U.S. ethanol industry. As the industry expands ethanol availability throughout the country and pursues production from both grain and cellulosic feedstocks, attendees will gather to discuss how ethanol is changing the climate. (719) 539-0300 www.nationalethanolconference.com
World Biofuels Markets Congress
International Biomass Conference & Trade Show
March 12-14, 2008
April 15-17, 2008
Brussels Expo Brussels, Belgium This event will address several topics including global markets, finance and investment, feedstocks, biogas markets, next-generation biofuels, and government regulation and policy. More than 200 speakers and 100 exhibitors have been confirmed. An agenda will be posted online as the event approaches. +44 20 7801 6333 www.worldbiofuelsmarkets.com
Minneapolis, Minnesota This inaugural event, which stemmed from the Energy and Environmental Research Center’s biomass conference last year in Grand Forks, N.D., aims to facilitate the advancement of near-term and commercial-scale manufacturing of biomass-based power, fuels and chemicals. Topics include biorefining technologies for the production and advancement of biopower, bioproducts, biochemicals, biofuels, intermediate products and coproducts, which will be presented through general sessions, technical workshops and an industry trade show. (719) 539-0300 www.biomassconference.com
World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing
24th Annual International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo
April 27-30, 2008
June 16-19, 2008
Hilton Chicago Chicago, Illinois Organizers of this fifth annual event are calling for proposals for three-person panels and individual papers, due Dec. 12. Additional details will be available as the event approaches. (202) 962-6630 www.bio.org/worldcongress2008
Opryland Hotel & Convention Center Nashville, Tennessee This conference will follow the record-breaking 2007 event, in which more than 500 exhibitors were on display and more than 5,300 people attended. More information will be available as this event approaches. (719) 539-0300 www.fuelethanolworkshop.com
12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 9
BRIEFS Verenium appoints Eves as Florida VP of business development Cambridge, Mass.-based Verenium Corp., a leading developer of technologies for the advancement of cellulosic ethanol production, appointed Timothy Eves as vice president (VP) of business development in Florida. In this newly created position, Eves will be driving Verenium’s efforts to build commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants in partnership with Eves Florida-based landowners and agricultural interests. Previously, Eves was vice president of marketing and sales in the Tampa Bay, Fla., office of Calpine Corp., a leading independent power producer. Verenium currently owns and operates a cellulosic ethanol pilot plant in Jennings, La. The company is also in the process of constructing a 1.4 MMgy demonstration-scale ethanol plant adjacent to the pilot plant; start-up is expected in the first quarter of 2008, according to Verenium spokeswoman Kelly Lindenboom. The company will build a 20 MMgy to 25 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant once the demonstration facility is fully operational, Lindenboom said. BIO
Mascoma hires CFO In October, George Schaefer joined Mascoma Corp, a leading biotechnology company, as its chief financial officer (CFO). He will report directly to Chief Executive Officer Bruce Jamerson. “George possesses considerable experience in the ethanol and biofuels industries, making him the ideal executive for this important position,” Jamerson said. “George is well-regarded by the Wall Street community as a result of his expertise in financing projects and companies.” Previously, Schaefer was CFO for ASAlliances Biofuels LLC in Dallas. ASAlliances develops, owns and operates ethanol production facilities, as well as a nationwide product distribution system. In August, it sold its three 100 MMgy corn-based ethanol plants in Linden, Ind.; Albion, Neb.; and Bloomingburg, Ohio, to VeraSun Energy Corp. Mascoma produces biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass using proprietary microorganisms and enzymes developed in its Lebanon, N.H., laboratories. It is developing demo- and commercial-scale production facilities nationwide. BIO
Eustermann joins Stoel Rives John Eustermann has become principal attorney in the Boise, Idaho, office of Stoel Rives, a full service U.S. business law firm. He previously practiced with Holland and Hart LLC, also of Boise. Eustermann has worked in corporate transactions for 10 years, five of which were focused on the renewable energy industry. He has worked with industry leaders Eustermann in the ethanol and biodiesel industry on plant development, production, and sales and marketing transactions. At Stoel Rives, he will counsel clients on structuring and forming joint and special-purpose ventures, strategic alliances, financing, and other matters. Eustermann received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Puget Sound Law School and a Master in Business Administration degree from the University of Notre Dame. Stoel Rives expanded its renewable energy team by 30 percent recently and opened an office in Minneapolis earlier this year to serve the Midwestern renewable energy market. BIO
CRFA leadership changes Gordon Quaiattini has been appointed president of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association (CRFA) to replace Kory Teneycke, who served as executive director for four years. Teneycke joined the Conservative government in Ottawa to assume a new senior-level political position as director of the Conservative Resource Group. Quaiattini previously worked for Ottawabased government relations firm Wellington Strategy Group, where he was lead counsel for biofuels clients. He has been involved in federal and provincial politics, and he also worked for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at one time. “I am thrilled to be taking on this new responsibility within the CRFA and building on the successes that were achieved by all the members under Kory’s leadership,” Quaiattini said. BIO
12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 11
NEWS Pittsburgh, a town once plagued by coal smoke, hosted the Energy from Biomass and Waste (EBW) conference and expo Sept. 25-27, where nearly 700 people and 85 exhibitors gathered to learn new developments in alternative energies and to network with likeminded experts from across the globe. In the opening keynote speech, Dan Griffiths of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection said his state, a major coal producer, needs to “get serious” about investing in renewable energy production. “The big question is: Are we going to be able to act or just talk?” he told the crowd. “We can’t afford to fail. What inheritance would we be leaving?” Sandy Feldman, attorney with K&L Gates, spoke about the need to extend the renewable production tax credits under Section 45 of the Internal Revenue Code, which credits the producer with 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for closed-loop production and 1 cent per kilowatt-hour for open-loop biomass power generation. A plant must be producing by the end of 2008 to be eligible for the incentive, which would exist for 10 years after start-up. Penn State University Professor David Blogan presented information on advancements made in direct electrical generation from microbial fuel cells. Two issues will need to be overcome in scaling up this technology: reducing the high surface area requirements for the electrodes to stick to, and reducing the interface area for cathodes where air and water meet. Randy Wolf of Balcones Fuel Technology warned of the supply and pricing dangers with a business model built solely on crop wastes. “You let the farmer know there’s value there, and the price shoots up,” he said, adding that a “mob mentality” exists among farmers today. He talked of the advantages in partnering with commercial-scale facilities
PHOTO: RON KOTRBA, BBI INTERNATIONAL
Energy from Biomass and Waste premieres in Pittsburgh
Eighty-five exhibitors from seven countries displayed at the EBW.
to garner their industrial waste streams as energy feedstocks. For example, Wolf said pelleted diapers pack 12,000 British thermal units per pound, as determined by University of Arkansas Professor James Gaddy. He has been conducting ethanol production trials using diaper pellets in the Bioengineering Resources Inc. gasification-fermentation process for two years. Following the event’s debut success in Pittsburgh, conference organizer Freesen & Partner GmbH is holding next year’s EBW in the Iron City again. For more information on the 2007 or 2008 conferences, visit www.ebw-expo.com. -Ron Kotrba
Projects proposed for sustainable forestry The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) is seeking people who want to be involved in creating a sustainable bioenergy industry based on wood products. The EESI is beginning a two-year initiative called Developing Sustainable Bioenergy: A Tool to Revitalize Forest Ecosystems and Rural/Local Economies. The initiative will develop policies and incentives for a sustainable bioenergy industry based on forestry residues, timber slash and small-diameter, low quality trees. The EESI is starting a discussion series on wood-based energy and is seeking foresters, academics, environmental organizations, local officials and those involved in the alternative energy business to participate. The purpose of the series is to accelerate the development of the industry in a way that complements sound forestry and economic development for rural communities. The goals of the discussion will be to define research that is necessary for the production of sustainable wood-based energy, and identify the opportunities and barriers to the 12 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007
widespread adoption of wood-based energy. Those interested in participating should contact Jetta Wong at email@example.com or (202) 662-1885, or Jesse Caputo at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 662-1882. Likewise, the U.S. Forest Service recently called for proposals for projects that will increase the use of forest products under the National Woody Biomass Utilization Grant Program. In 2007, the program offered $6.2 million in grants ranging from $50,000 to $250,000 for projects to reduce forest management costs by increasing the value of biomass, create incentives and reduce business risk, and target the use of small-diameter trees and woody biomass. The maximum length of grants is three years. The pre-application deadline for the grant program was Nov. 2, and the full application deadline is Feb. 1. More information is available on this and other technical assistance programs at www.fpl.fs.fed.us/tmu. -Jerry W. Kram
NEWS Mascoma, UT partner for cellulosic ethanol plant Mascoma Corp. and the University of Tennessee (UT) have finalized their partnership to develop a 5 MMgy switchgrass-toethanol plant in Monroe County, Tenn. The partnership will include $40 million for facility development, and $27 million for research and development. The partnership is a result of the university’s Biofuels Initiative, which has a goal of reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil while benefiting the economy and environment of Tennessee. The plant will be located in the Niles Ferry Industrial Park in Vonore, about 35 miles south of Knoxville. The site was ideal because of the economic and agricultural potential of the area, in keeping with the priorities of the biofuels initiative. The plant will use about 170 tons of switchgrass per day at full capacity. Construction of the plant is expected to begin before the end of the year and be completed by 2009. This is Mascoma’s third announced project. The first is a demonstration-scale plant under construction in New York, and the second is a commercial-scale
plant planned in Michigan. The Tenessee project will be Mascoma's first to use switchgrass as a feedstock. The university’s Institute for Agriculture will participate in the project by encouraging farmers to produce switchgrass. An $8 million incentive program for farmers is being developed. The program will include direct payments to farmers until a market for switchgrass is developed. Farmers will also receive high-quality switchgrass seed and technical assistance for switchgrass production. The institute estimates that Tennessee could grow enough switchgrass to make 1 billion gallons of ethanol. The project will also be able to draw on the expertise of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was recently awarded $125 million from the U.S. DOE to create the Bioenergy Science Center to address the technological challenges of producing cellulosic ethanol. -Jerry W. Kram
Energy crop specialist Ceres Inc. has raised $75 million through a private equity offering of convertible preferred stock led by global private equity firm Warburg Pincus, an experienced private equity investor in alternative energy and renewables. Ceres intends to use the funds for research and product development activities involving several dedicated energy crops—switchgrass, miscanthus and sweet sorghum—bred to maximize yields of plant biomass in order to be the energy-rich source of next-generation biofuels. The funds will also be used for capital expenditures and general corporate purposes. In early October, Ceres and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES), part of the Texas A&M University system, entered into an exclusive, multi-year joint research and commercialization agreement for high-biomass sorghum research. To accelerate product development, Ceres and the TAES will work together to expand their “marker-assisted” breeding efforts. “This late-stage investment is a key validation of our growth plans,” said Ceres President and CEO Richard Hamilton, noting that the funds will be a key driver in accelerating the biomass-to-fuel industry. “We now have the resources we need to expand the scale of our commercialization efforts and the independence to broadly collaborate with downstream players in the transportation fuel industry.” -Bryan Sims
PHOTO: CERES INC.
Ceres seeks to broaden energy crop research scope
Hamilton walks along a partially harvested field of sorghum near College Station, Texas. New high-biomass types of sorghum being developed by Ceres and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station tower over the 6-foot6-inch executive.
12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 13
NEWS DOE’s cellulosic ethanol funding put to use
PHOTO: RANGE FUELS
Range Fuels was the first company to negoIn late February, U.S. Energy Secretary tiate a technology investment agreement with the Samuel Bodman announced that six proposed DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and cellulosic ethanol plants would receive a comRenewable Energy. The company will receive bined $385 million from the agency over the next $50 million over the next 12 months to build its four years. In October and November, four of first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, the six companies announced that either a coopaccording to company CEO Mitch Mandich. erative agreement or a technology investment “We believe this is the first commercial-scale celagreement between each company and the U.S. lulosic ethanol plant in the world,” the chief DOE had been negotiated. Project leaders are executive officer said. The company broke now drawing down on the grants to move forground on the first phase of the project—a 20 ward with the planning, construction and operaRange Fuels plans to use woody biomass as a MMgy wood-residue-to-ethanol plant—in early tion of these facilities. feedstock at its Soperton, Ga., ethanol plant. November in Soperton, Ga. Mandich expects For California-based BlueFire Ethanol Fuels Inc., the extensive negotiations came as a surprise. “[Being chosen as a construction to be complete by the end of 2008. In addition, since the recipient] was more like getting a credit card application in the mail say- plant is modular, he expects to scale up to 100 MMgy by the end of ing, ‘Hey, you’ve been preapproved for a $25,000 line of credit, but now 2009. Poet LLC and Abengoa Bioenergy have also received DOE fundyou have to qualify,’” explained Arnold Klann, CEO of BlueFire Ethanol. “Everybody has to negotiate a contract with the DOE.” ing. Poet’s project involves the expansion of the company’s corn-based However, those companies that have qualified are now reaping the ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. With the maximum $80 million rewards. Klann said BlueFire Ethanol expects to draw $9 million to $10 that the company expects to receive from the DOE, it will produce million from the grant between now and this spring. This first phase of about 31 MMgy of cellulosic ethanol from nearly 850 tons of corn the partnership will finance the licensing, permitting, design, environ- fiber, cobs and stalks per day. Abengoa’s proposed plant will produce mental engineering and other pre-construction development activities. 11.4 MMgy of cellulosic ethanol from 700 tons of corn stover, wheat Klann expects to draw the remainder of BlueFire Ethanol’s allotted $40 straw, milo stubble and switchgrass per day. The company expects to million in phase two of the project: breaking ground and bringing on build the plant in Kansas and receive up to $76 million in DOE fundline a 17 MMgy to 19 MMgy facility that would convert green waste to ing. ethanol in a landfill in Corona, Calif. The project is expected to be operational in mid-2009. “We’re moving ahead,” Klann said. -Jessica Ebert
Rentech to build biomass research center Los Angeles-based biomass energy and industrial chemicals spe- thetic fuels and specialty chemicals per day, and can be expanded to cialist Rentech Inc. received approval to acquire approximately 450 50,000 barrels per day. The facility will also capture carbon dioxide duracres in Adams County, Miss., to build its Natchez Strategic ing the production process and sell the product to Denbury Resources Inc. for enhanced oil recovery and geological Fuels and Chemicals Center, which is currently in the prefeasibility stage, according to company President and Chief sequestration. Executive Officer Hunt Ramsbottom. “We have the flexibility to do large-scale plants or small biomass plants,” Ramsbottom said. “Biomass alone isn’t By using Rentech’s patented process, the center would be designed to use petroleum coke (sludge) or coal supplegoing to solve the energy crisis in 30 years when we’re out of mented with biomass as gasification feedstocks. It was crude [oil], and that’s why [Rentech] focused a lot of its techunclear at press time how much biomass would be added to nology on biomass and coal projects.” Ramsbottom the coal because that is still being evaluated by the company, According to Ramsbottom, the center is one of three according to Julie Dawoodjee of Rentech’s investor relations biomass projects being developed by Rentech. The company department. She said the amount would be determined by the end of is also planning a biomass- and coal-to-liquids plant in West Virginia, the year. Construction is expected to be complete by 2013, and a biomass-based jet fuel facility in California. Ramsbottom said. The project will initially produce 25,000 barrels of ultra-clean syn-Bryan Sims 14 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007
NEWS Sun Grant Initiative aids biomass research The Sun Grant Initiative is currently funding $6.6 million in biomass research projects nationwide through its five regional centers. The program, which receives its funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, was enacted in 2005 to work with renewable energy, biobased and nonfood industries to meet the nation’s energy needs and revitalize rural communities. The five Sun Grant centers—Cornell University, Oklahoma State University, Oregon State University, South Dakota State University and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville—have each developed a competitive grant procedure to award funding to a wide array of projects. A sampling of grants awarded in 2007 illustrates the promising developments in biomass research through the universities’ research, education and extension programs. For example, researchers at the University of Idaho will receive $254,000 over two years to study the production of biological thermoplastics and natural fiber-plastic composites using feedlot wastes and wastewater. The University of Minnesota will receive $480,000 over four years to evaluate nitrogen-fixing Alnus (alders) and Salix species (willow) in comparison with the woody biomass crops poplar and aspen. South Dakota State University will receive $1 million over four years to work on single-step, high-solid bioconversion processes, as well as continued work on prairie cordgrass as a biomass feedstock. In the south-central region, Texas A&M is teaming up with Louisiana State University in the development of a skid-mounted gasification unit for on-site heat, fuel and power. The Texas school is also teaming up with the University of Arkansas to evaluate modules for packaging and transporting biomass crops. Several regions were also awarded smaller, shorter-term seed grants for new projects. Some of those include: Optimization work on a new downdraft gasification system for low-bulk-density biomass at Oklahoma State University Woody biomass pretreatment using microemulsion penetra-
Source: Sun Grant Initiative
Sun Grant Regional Centers 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
Cornell University Oklahoma State University Oregon State University South Dakota State University University of Tennessee-Knoxsville
tion at North Carolina State University Biological energy production from biomass by termites at Mississippi State University Evaluation of hazelnuts for oleochemicals and biodiesel at the State University of New Jersey Cofiring animal waste at Texas A&M Other projects around the nation continue work in biomass conversion processes, switchgrass, poplar and corn stover, among others. Further details on the 2007 grant awards can be found at www .sungrant.org. -Susanne Retka Schill
German biogas firm expands global presence German engineering and construction firm Biogas Nord AG is opening a new branch office in Mumbai, India, according to company CEO Gerrit Holz. The expansion will facilitate the growth of Biogas Nord’s presence in India, where the rapidly growing economy has put a strain on energy supplies, raising concerns over the booming nation’s ability to meet its energy demand. Establishing biogas plants near sugar mills to utilize “pressmud,” a solid residue byproduct of sugar milling obtained from the sugarcane juice before crystallization into sugar, is expected to mitigate adverse effects of an Indian energy crunch on the sugar mills. Biogas Nord was one of several entities that participated in IndoGerman energy talks in Mumbai in late September. The event organizers, including the Maharashtra Energy Development Agency, hoped the
outcome would lead to strengthened trade and technology relationships in the power and energy sectors. Small biogas plants have proliferated greatly in northern Germany recently, thanks in part to Biogas Nord and Germany’s aggressive mandate that requires the nation’s electricity grid operators to purchase excess energy at a fixed price in long-term contracts. Outside Germany and India, Biogas Nord is developing anaerobic digester projects in Belarus, the United States, England, Italy, Spain, Romania, Cuba and Thailand. The Biogas Nord chief executive officer said a branch office is also expected to open soon in the United States. -Ron Kotrba
12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 15
NEWS ISU builds farm for biomass development
Enzyme developer teams with CTC Danish biotechnology giant Novozymes recently signed an agreement with Brazil’s Sugarcane Center of Technology (CTC) to collaborate on ethanol production from sugarcane bagasse. Under the agreement, Novozymes will provide enzyme technology that will enable higher ethanol yields, thereby optimizing the economy and energy balance of the process. “We are really looking forward to the cooperation with CTC, being it’s an important player in the Brazilian biofuels sector,” said Novozymes Chief Executive Officer Steen Riisgaard. “The research agreement is part of our efforts to identify economically profitable processes within the development of biofuels from plant waste and other biomass, and although it will be a few years before we know the extent to which the cooperation can be commercialized, we see considerable potential.” Based in Piracicaba in the state of São Paulo, the CTC carries out research in the areas of mechanic planting and harvesting, biotechnology, biological pest control, sugar and alcohol production, and power generation, among other interests. Current CTC projects include harvesting the domestic sugarcane varieties with high productivity rates, yields and pest resistance. -Jessica Ebert
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Construction began this fall on Iowa State University’s (ISU) New Century Farm, which has been designed to serve as a laboratory for developing and testing sustainable biomass systems. DuPont, through its subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., has pledged $1 million from 2008 to 2012 to help support research at the facility. ISU anticipates raising $2.6 million annually from external grants and contracts to support scientific investigations. The first year’s infrastructure developments currently underway are budgeted at $19 million, which will cover the construction, equipment and start-up costs of the biomass processing facility. A machinery workshop is being built for planting, harvesting and transporting machinery development. An on-site laboratory and a scaleup processing facility will be used for research and demonstration of biochemical and thermochemical pretreatments, and conversion platforms. The New Century Farm will include storage buildings for feedstocks, and production and harvesting equipment. Funds will also be used to install field equipment for long-term environmental monitoring of soil and water resources. The farm will address several questions of importance for biorenewables, such as: Crop production: What are the optimal biomass production systems? This will include work on species, crop rotations, nutrient and energy inputs, and management practices. Germplasm development: Can selection and breeding improve conventional and alternative biomass crops, both herbaceous and woody? Environmental impact: How can biomass production improve environmental quality, and what practices will ensure that biomass harvest won’t compromise natural resources? Harvest, transport and storage: What new equipment and technologies will enable the collection, storage and transportation of large amounts of biomass required for biorefineries? Biomass processing: How will bio-
Source: Iowa State University
chemical, thermochemical and hybrid technologies perform in converting biomass to fuels and biobased products? To what extent can processing byproducts be recycled through the system to minimize inputs to the agroecosystem and improve soil? The New Century Farm is the first integrated and sustainable biofuel feedstock production system of its kind, according to ISU. The laboratory will be linked to molecular and traditional plant sciences, as well as advanced processing research. Basic and applied research will be conducted to achieve short-term and long-term advances in biorenewable fuels, and biobased products. The facility will also provide a venue for education and training, pulling together the research, teaching and extension functions at ISU. -Susanne Retka Schill
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PHOTO: PENN STATE UNIVERSITY
Fortifying Fuel Cell
Technology 18 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007
Scientists have known for nearly a century that certain bacteria can convert organic material into electricity. Only recently though, have microbiologists and engineers worked to exploit this phenomenon in the development of microbial fuel cells for powering environmental monitoring devices and treating wastewater. By Jessica Ebert
he concept for the first fuel cell was the brainchild of a late 19th-century Welsh judge, inventor and physicist named Sir William Grove. Since water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen by applying a jolt of electricity, Grove hypothesized that the reverse should be true as well—the electrons sloughed in the chemical reaction that joins hydrogen and oxygen to make water could be harvested to make electricity. As it turned out, Grove’s idea worked and better yet the process proceeds quietly and with no pollution. Although fuel cells come in various shapes, sizes, chemistries and operating temperatures among other things, running these devices requires a set of universal components: a fuel source, two electrodes (an anode and a cathode), an electrolyte and a catalyst. The fuel source, hydrogen for example, reacts with a catalyst resulting in the release of electrons and the formation of positivelycharged hydrogen atoms called protons. While the electrons travel through the anode to an external circuit where they are used to do useful work, the protons migrate through an electrolyte, which is a kind of permeable solid or liquid. The electrons and protons eventually meet up again at the cathode. Here, these particles react with oxygen to form water, which is drained from the fuel cell. Today, research is aimed at manipulating these components to maximize efficiency, power output and practicality. In the past few years, one branch of fuel cell research gaining attention is the work being done by microbiologists and environmental engineers to design a device that uses microbes to convert the chemical energy stored in organic fuels like wastewater, organic debris or renewable biomass into electricity. At this time, microbial fuel cells don’t produce a lot of power—some just about enough to illuminate a dozen or so 60-watt light bulbs—but efficiencies and power outputs keep improving and interest in the technology is growing.
The Right Bugs “Although we talk about it being a young field, it’s been known for 100 years that you could get electricity from microbial cultures,” says Derek Lovley, a microbiologist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “The big breakthrough occurred five or six years ago when we realized that with the right microorganisms this process could be a lot more efficient than had previously been considered.” Those “right” microbes turned out to be anaerobic electricity-generating organisms called electricigens or electrogens. In their natural environments such as marine sediments, these bacteria, for example, species of the genus Geobacter, make the energy they need to survive by breaking down organic matter and transferring the resulting electrons to other substrates like iron minerals. “To these bacteria, the solid surface of the anode looks a lot like the solid surface of iron oxide so even though there’s no evolutionary pressure on them to make electricity, it’s a fortuitous reaction,” Lovley says. “This was a big jump in fuel cell research because it made it apparent that you could be much more efficient at converting fuels,” he says. In fact, more than 90 percent of the electrons available in an organic fuel source can be converted into electricity by these bacteria. Lovley’s team of researchers mainly study the biology of the process, in other words, how the microbes do what they do. These microbiologists have discovered that when you engineer a better fuel cell to get more power, a thick, multi-layered growth of bacteria, called a biofilm, grows on the surface of the electrode. Since most of the cells in the biofilm are no longer in direct contact with the anode, Lovley discovered that the microbes transfer electrons using special hair-like structures. “It looks like electron transfer is highly dependent on appendages that appear to be electrically conductive and able to promote long-range electron transfer through the biofilm,” he explains. Lovley’s research group is currently evolv-
12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 19
technology ing strains of Geobacter that produce more power. In addition, they have practical projects and funding from Toyota Motor Corp. and the National Science Foundation to develop the technology to one day power a car or mobile electronics like cell phones. However, a more immediate application of microbial fuel cells is for powering electronic sensors. Scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., under the direction of Leonard Tender, have deployed a weather buoy in the Potomac River that exploits the electricigens that naturally reside in the river-bottom sediments. The buoy is powered by what the team calls a benthic unattended generator (BUG) or sediment fuel cell. The BUG consists of an anode, which is buried in anaerobic sediments, and a cathode, which floats in the overlying water. Electricigens attach to the anode and
convert organic material in the sediments to electrons and carbon dioxide. The electrons produce a current, which powers a device floating on the surface that measures air temperature, air pressure, relative humidity and water temperature, and transmits the information by a radio transmitter to a receiver in a nearby building.
Wastewater Treatment In addition to powering sensing gadgets, MFCs are being developed and scaledup for the treatment of wastewater and the generation of electricity as a byproduct. In this type of MFC, wastewater is flushed through an oxygen-free compartment that holds an anode. Bacteria in the water attach to the anode and strip electrons from the organic wastes in the fluid. The electrons run the circuit while the protons pass through the electrolyte to the cathode where
In a typical H-type microbial fuel cell, bacteria (represented by the orange circle) form a biofilm on the surface of the anode. Organic matter is added and the microbes break this biomass down to carbon dioxide (CO2), protons (H+) and electrons (e-). The electrons are transferred directly to the anode and flow through the circuit while the protons pass through a selective membrane to a second chamber. Here, oxygen combines with the protons and electrons at the cathode to make water.
20 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007
they meet with oxygen to form clean water. Hong Liu, an environmental engineer at Oregon State University, recently reported in the Journal of Power Sources a method for improving the power output of MFCs for this purpose. “One of the greatest challenges in the development of microbial fuel cells is that the internal resistance is really high and limits power generation,” Liu explains. “Our study reduces resistance by significantly reducing the distance between the anode and the cathode.” To do this, Liu and her team sandwiched a piece of cloth between the two electrodes, which effectively brought the anode and cathode closer together. Because 5 percent of the electricity used in the United States is consumed in water and wastewater treatment facilities, implementing MFCs in these plants would reduce the cost of operation. “If you look at wastewater treatment, this is an area where we spend money and use energy,” says Bruce Logan, a former postdoctoral advisor of Liu’s and an environmental engineer at Penn State University. “If we can install a technology that just saves money, then it’s making money. We don’t have to make it pay for itself, we just have to make it better than what people are currently using.” Liu says scaling-up these systems for use in domestic water treatment is a longterm goal, however, and the more immediate need is to develop pilot-scale reactors for industrial locations like food-processing facilities or in remote parts of the world that lack central waste treatment facilities. Another approach to improving the power output of MFCs is to develop new anodes and cathodes with greater surface area for the reactions to take place, Logan explains. “We recently published a couple of papers showing that you could use what look like bottle brushes—graphite fibers sitting in a metal core—that provide a very high surface area for bacteria to grow and transfer electrons to the electrode,” he says. Logan’s team is now working on developing tubular cathodes with a similar high surface area to volume. The big hurdle to commercializing MFCs is drumming up investors and inter-
PHOTO: PENN STATE UNIVERSITY
Logan of Penn State University sits before a bench top showcasing various microbial fuel cell designs.
Jessica Ebert is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com or (701) 746-8385.
PHOTO: OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
est in scaling-up the technology and designing demonstration-size reactors, Logan says. “Once we do those demonstrations, then it can move forward to commercialization.” A group at the University of Queensland in Australia recently received government and industry support to build a pilot-scale MFC at Foster’s brewery in Yatala, Queensland. “While most researchers make tiny reactors, we have been building larger systems and investing much time in making them work really well,” says Korneel Rabaey, a postdoctoral research fellow with the university’s Advanced Wastewater Management Center. The reactor consists of 12 modules; each one is a 3-meter-high tube with carbon brushes on the inside that serve as the anode. The wall of the tube is a membrane that facilitates the transport of electrons to the outside of the cylinder, which consists of cathode-carbon brushes clamped to a stainless steel mesh. The goal of the pilot facility is to remove at least 5 kilograms of organics per cubic meter of reactor volume per day. “Depending on this removal, we can achieve power production of up to 500 watts continuously,” Rabaey explains. “But power is always the secondary target. In this first phase we want to clean the wastewater. MFCs clean wastewater in an energy efficient way and without generating much sludge. That is where the real benefit is.” BIO Liu of Oregon State University measures the current produced by this microbial fuel cell. 12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 21
Power High-Strength The
H2O The future of wastewater treatment is being designed in Pennsylvania, where the Milton Regional Sewer Authority’s plant plans to upgrade its antiquated aerobic water treatment process. The technologies penciled into this design of tomorrow aren’t new, but the designers are billing it as the world’s first wastewater-to-energy project. By Ron Kotrba
22 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007
PHOTO: MILTON REGIONAL SEWER AUTHORITY
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cores of U.S. water treatment plants were designed decades ago in an environment of cheap and abundant energy, when regulations left uncapped the discharge of certain chemical and biological contents into the nation’s water systems. Now, energy costs are high and conventional sources of power are questionable at best; and years spent mismanaging what flows into American rivers has left our estuaries in a state of disrepair. A progressive regional water authority, an engineering firm and a food-processing giant are working on an energyindependent, responsible model with the potential to revolutionize water treatment. “The end goal for this project is to create a wastewater treatment facility where net energy consumption is zero—a truly green wastewater complex,” says Chris Graf, project engineer with Herbert, Rowland & Grubic Inc. (HRG), the engineering firm designing a 180-degree upgrade for the Milton Regional Sewer Authority’s treatment complex in Milton, Penn. The project, dubbed Ww2E, or wastewater-toenergy, will turn high-strength influent streams into energy and money. Driving the change are a major reduction in operational and maintenance costs, and the Chesapeake Bay Tributary Strategy (CBTS), a multi-state effort in partnership with the U.S. EPA to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loading in the bay. “The Chesapeake Bay Tributary Strategy puts the onus on treatment plants throughout the Susquehanna River Basin to treat for total nitrogen and phosphorus effluent, whereas before we were only required to treat for total solids and biological oxygen demand (BOD),” Graf says. BOD is a means to determine the quality of treated discharge, and measures how much oxygen the microbes need to break down organic waste being dumped into water supplies—the lower the BOD, the cleaner the discharge.
Milton’s original wastewater treatment plant was built in 1955. Initially the incoming sewage received only primary treatment or physical clarification—the use of large settling tanks in which solids were separated gravimetrically—followed by disinfection prior to its release into the west branch of the Susquehanna River. Through anaerobic digestion the remaining sludge was broken down further and was used as fertilizer. No energy was ever captured in that process. In the mid-70s, the facility was upgraded to meet more stringent codes and simultaneously handle a new industrial wastewater stream from a nearby food processing facility now owned by ConAgra Foods Inc. The improvements, done in partnership with ConAgra, allowed for secondary, or biological, treatment. The two influent streams would undergo separate primary clarifications before merging in aeration tanks, where oxygen stimulates microbial cell growth for faster degradation of the organic solids left after primary conditioning. In 1995, the plant was rerated from 2.6 million gallons per day (MMgd) to 3.42 MMgd, and organic loading from 16,762 pounds per day (lb/day) to 18,759 lb/day, Graf says. Since 1995, ConAgra has increased its production leading to organic overload in the aeration tanks, he says. The need for an upgrade was evident. Today, up to 70 percent of the Milton treatment plant’s influent comes from ConAgra, which screens its own waste including sub par noodles from its Chef Boyardee line, for example, and adjusts for pH, after which the food processor conducts its own primary treatment to the liquid waste. The water is then pumped over to the treatment plant. ConAgra’s screened solids are hauled off by whichever means is the cheapest. The Chef Boyardee liquid waste stream currently receiving treatment from the wastewater facility is nutrient deficient, so urea and monosodium phosphate must be added to spur micro-
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PHOTO: MILTON REGIONAL SEWER AUTHORITY
Pictured is a schematic of the future Milton wastewater treatment plant.
biological growth and quicken organic degradation, according to Milton Regional Sewer Authority Superintendent George Myers. “A large portion of the bugs’ cellular structure is made up of nitrogen and phosphorus, so as they eat, they split, multiply and divide, and they utilize the excess nitrogen and phosphorus that comes in from the domestic side,” he tells Biomass Magazine. “We’re still short, so we have to add nitrogen and
phosphorus to maintain a healthy biomass,” which has led to high levels of those nutrients in its effluent stream. “Right now we’re already meeting any limits we plan to receive in our discharge permit,” Myers says. Under the CBTS, wastewater treatment plants will be limited as to how much total nitrogen and phosphorus they can release into local waters. The addition of urea and monosodium phosphate comes with an annual cost of
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power $40,000 to the utility’s rate payers, and dumping all the sludge produced in the aerobic treatment process costs 10 times that much. In 2006, the Milton Regional Sewer Authority footed a $400,000 landfill bill. “We’re our local landfill’s second-largest customer in terms of tonnage, and we’d like to let somebody else take that recognition,” Myers says. If operations were to remain status quo, another projected cost increase would probably come in 2009 or 2010, when the state of Pennsylvania is expected to deregulate the power industry. These costly reasons prompted the sewer authority to begin investigating unconventional ways to conduct its business.
An Epic Upgrade The Milton Regional Sewer Authority in partnership with Bucknell University, ConAgra and technology provider the ADI Group, carried out a pilot testing program from 2002 through 2003 to evaluate a process using ConAgra’s high-strength solid waste stream for combined heat and power (CHP) generation. “We found the ConAgra Food waste extremely amendable to the low-load anaerobic treatment process,” Myers says, adding that the methane concentration in the resulting biogas ranged from 75 percent to 82 percent. “That’s pretty darn good.” This relatively pure stream of methane would require less scrubbing before use in an electrical generation system. HRG’s design calls for the addition of anaerobic digestion of the high-strength wastewater and biosolids, which would require much less energy than aerobic treatment alone. The new anaerobic design would need only 100 horsepower compared with the 800 horsepower currently required to power the process. “The bang for the buck there is that those bacteria aren’t using the strength of the wastewater to create cellular
26 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007
mass—they’re using it to strip the oxygen bonds and use a little bit of the nitrogen and phosphorus for cellular reproduction and synthesis,” Graf says. “But that’s only about a tenth of what the aerobic bugs do. So we’ll see a 90 percent reduction in sludge compared with the aerobic process.” The separated liquid wastewater will go through a nutrient removal process, followed by secondary and tertiary treatments before final discharge. Any biosolids recovered are rerouted back to the anaerobic digester. Solids remaining after exhaustive anaerobic digestion—volumes of which would be significantly reduced compared with those produced aerobically—would be dried using waste heat recovered from electrical power generation fueled by the biogas made in-house. The dried product will be considered a Class A biosolid, and could demand $5 a ton. “Hey, even if I have to give it away that’s a $400,000 a year savings,” Myers says. One of the key areas of investigation was to determine how much biogas would be produced per pound of chemical oxygen demand (COD) removed. “It was about 6 cubic feet per pound of COD we removed—that’s the methane production,” Graf says. “Right now we’re looking at burning the biogas in two 600-kilowatt internal combustion-powered gensets— Jenbacher, Caterpillar or another brand—which would give us the ability to turn down our production to about 25 percent of capacity, so we could go anywhere from 300 kilowatts to 1.2 megawatts.” HRG’s final design will in all likelihood include internal combustion CHP systems, necessitating the rigorous scrubbing of hydrogen sulfide. “That stuff will eat up an engine real quick,” Graf says. The new design includes partitioned aerobic/anaerobic treatment tanks. “Nitrogen will come in, especially out of the anaerobic process as ammonia, and we’ll add air to that ammo-
power nia to create nitrate, or NO3, and that gets recycled back to an area that has no oxygen, where the oxygen is stripped from the NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) and NO3 and is used in the respiration process of the anaerobic microbe cells,” Graf says. “Nitrogen gas is then formed and goes to the atmosphere—that’s what completes the nitrogen removal process. “ Phosphorus may be treated with ferric chemicals. The submission of HRG’s final design and the subsequent project bidding process are expected to occur in late 2008, with ground-breaking targeted for the 2009 construction season. The projected cost is $32 million. “If we can eliminate a million dollars in [operational and maintenance] costs per year, that’s a million dollars we can apply toward debt service which will buy a decent chunk of the project,” Graf says. “We’re hoping the remainder of the cost will be paid with grant funding wherever we can get it.” Through its renewable energy production, the equivalent of 12,450 tons in carbon dioxide emissions will be averted and approximately a megawatt’s worth of renewable energy credits will be generated, says HRG Vice President E. Charles Wunz. The projected financial savings of this cuttingedge design doesn’t even take into account potential revenue gained from the sale of carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange. “I heard carbon credits in New Jersey were recently trading as high as $600 each,” Wunz says. Without the collocated ConAgra facility this project probably wouldn’t have materialized in Milton. The ConAgra plant is the source of the high-strength wastewater, and thus the excess energy production capacity expected out of Ww2E. Some of that extra electricity may be sold back to ConAgra. “This treatment plant will have a 4.5 MMgd wastewater flow, but the strength coming into it will be equivalent to that of a 44.5
MMgd plant once we’re done with it,” Graf tells Biomass Magazine. “What does that mean? I think the project will demonstrate to our industry what can be done with highstrength wastewater. When considering energy efficiency we need to be looking at all processes. We as a society need to view wastewater as a beneficial resource rather than a problematic issue that has to be dealt with.” The widespread acceptance of this model could alleviate industrial facilities that are positioned near water treatment complexes from having to manage their own wastewater while simultaneously giving towns such as Milton a beneficial resource to make its own energy. The only anxiety expressed over the project has nothing to do with the implementation of this design in Milton but rather the resistance of broader incorporation by a mulish industry unwilling to change its present course. “My only concern is one of a global nature really for wastewater treatment in general,” Wunz says. “There’s a huge installed base of active sludge treatment plants—a very energy inefficient method of wastewater treatment. The wastewater treatment industry is run by a huge number of engineers experienced in this inefficient technology, so my fear is that the true value of its approach will not be recognized.” Once Ww2E’s concept is proven, its designers believe it may serve as a poster child for the future direction of wastewater, but Myers says, “We need to build the rocket ship before we figure out what we’re going to do on the moon.” BIO Ron Kotrba is a Biomass Magazine senior staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (701) 746-8385.
12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 27
PHOTO: USDA ARS
28 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007
Cuphea has been in development as an industrial crop for a number of years. Once the oilseed reaches commercial viability it could replace imported oils and petroleum as a source for capric and lauric acids used in the production of manufacturing surfactants, detergents, lubricants, personal care products and other specialty chemicals. By Susanne Retka Schill
he purple flowers of the cuphea oil plant could add a splash of color to the U.S. crop scene, but not before its wild side is tamed. Cuphea’s seed shattering trait, which is helpful in the wild to disperse seeds for propagation, makes it difficult to capture the oilseed’s full yield potential. The crop’s current yields of 500 to 800 pounds per acre limit its use in high-value oil markets. Cuphea has the potential to become a hot commodity, however, if researchers succeed in boosting yields to the 2,000 pound per acre level. “I’ve heard one company say it would use production from 300,000 acres, and another from 1 million acres,” says Russ Gesch, a research plant physiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Morris, Minn., who is among a small group of researchers trying to domesticate cuphea. Cuphea could be a domestic source for short- and medium-carbon chain fatty acids such as capric acid and lauric
acid used in manufacturing surfactants, detergents, lubricants, personal care products and other specialty chemicals. The current sources are imported palm and coconut oil and petroleum. As the price of petroleum and tropical oils increase, and the price of corn and soybeans adjust to new market conditions, a yield-enhanced cuphea has the potential to compete. Cuphea is the genus name for 260 species found in uncultivated areas from the southern United States into Central and South America. Thirty years ago, scientists looking for promising new plant materials began working with cuphea because it’s a natural source of short- and medium-chain fatty acids. The vegetable oils commonly produced in the United States from soybeans, canola, sunflowers and others are 18-carbon-chain oils used primarily in cooking. Cuphea is of particular interest to researchers because each plant species produces high proportions of different fatty acids. Current cuphea agronomic lines contain 30 percent to
12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 29
35 percent oil, of which 80 percent to 90 percent is capric acid. Other cuphea species favor lauric acid and can yield as much as 80 percent, compared with palm and coconut oils which typically yield 50 percent lauric acid.
PHOTO: USDA ARS
Researchers are challenged by several agronomic problems in their efforts to commercially produce cuphea. Besides the shattering issue, cuphea is indeterminate, meaning it continually grows and flowers, and thus ripens unevenly. The agronomic lines Gesch is developing in Minnesota, however, are steadily improving. He is working with a hybrid
Cuphea produces an oil quite different from other U.S. oilseeds that is high in low- and medium-chain fatty acids.
30 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007
developed from two cuphea species, C. viscosissima and C. lanceolata, one native to the United States and the other native to Mexico. This short-season annual performs much like soybeans, he says. It can be planted in the northern Corn Belt in early- to mid-May and harvested in late September after a killing frost. It grows quite densely and in one trial yielded a combined seed and biomass total of five tons per acre, Gesch says. The seeds are disc-shaped and small, comparable to canola seeds. The agronomic lines are well-adapted to western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, he says. The oilseeds have yielded as much as 1,200 pounds per acre under intensive management, but farmers growing small acreages have seen yields as small as zero to 800 pounds. “Timing is really important,” Gesch explains. “It’s not forgiving if you’re not on time with the herbicide or with harvest.” Illinois research determined that cuphea is beneficial in rotation with corn as it helps to break the corn rootworm cycle and boost corn yields. The occasional zero yields, however, demonstrate that the plant can’t tolerate stress. This year, Gesch began new trials at Morris with two or three agronomic lines and several wild species that have shown an ability to adapt to varying temperature and moisture conditions. In 2007, cuphea planted in central Illinois yielded an average 550 pounds per acre, according to Terry Isbell, who
PHOTO: USDA ARS
‘A lot of people are calling us and asking questions about the crops we’ve been working on for some time. The world is coming to the realization that petroleum will come to an end.’
leads the new crops and processing technology unit at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Peoria, Ill. At such low yields, he says the primary market for the crop will be the relatively small, high-value cosmetic uses where cuphea oil’s high solubility, dispersibility and oxidative stability are desirable characteristics. “When we hit 1,000 pounds per acre we can think about the [10-carbon] markets,” he says. The 10-carbon-chain fatty acids can be used in surfactants and has been utilized by one company in an environmentally friendly wood preservative. Isbell’s team in Peoria patented a chemical process combining capric acid with oleic acid, the most common fatty acid, to produce a lubricant. “It makes a
Cuphea seeds are small, comparable to canola seeds, and disc shaped.
lubricant with good low-temperature points, which is oxidatively stable so it doesn’t degrade in an engine or hydraulic system,” he says. With a pour point of minus 41 degrees Celsius (minus 41.8 Fahrenheit) and excellent lubrication characteristics, it outperforms petroleum-based motor oils even in winter in International Falls, Minn., which is considered the nation’s icebox. A start-up Montana company, Peaks to Prairies LLC, has licensed the technology and will soon be introducing a line of lubricants. The products probably won’t contain capric acid derived from cuphea oil
PHOTO: USDA ARS
PHOTO: USDA ARS
Researchers are working to boost cuphea yields over 1,000 pounds per An indeterminate plant, cuphea has to be combined after a frost or dessicant application, to dry down the later maturing seeds. Breeding efforts are acre and approaching 2,000 pounds. focused on reducing, the plants shattering problem.
until it’s commercially available. It’s those kinds of products that have prompted some companies to invest in development of the crop. Andrew Hebard leads one of the companies looking to commercialize cuphea production, Technology Crops International, with offices in WinstonSalem, N.C., Fargo, N.D., and Essex, England. “We are seeing a strong interest in this product,” he says. The company has contracted with farmers to grow the crop for its research effort and they supply a small commercial market. Hebard projects the crop is a year or two away from being commercially available for a specialized higher end-value market, but further away for wider commercialization. Technology Crops specializes in industrial crops, contracting with farmers at prices that are competitive with soybean and corn markets and providing information on best production practices to help ensure successful harvests. The company finds markets for the oil and the protein meal coproduct. Hebard describes cuphea as a new crop
with several different industrial uses. “It creates an opportunity for growers to produce something agronomically different, a value-added crop,” he says. Researchers are also exploring uses for other cuphea species. One species produces short carbon chains, C6 and C8 and has the potential to produce a biofuel with properties similar to No. 2 diesel without involving the transesterification process. There is also interest in using cuphea esters as a jet fuel source, Isbell says. He estimates it will be three to five years before the crop begins to be commercialized. “We have to get the yields up to 2,000 pounds per acre before the markets will start to establish themselves,” he says. Once that benchmark is reached, the market for surfactants and detergents will pull the crop out of the specialty arena and into the commodity realm. Gesch and Isbell agree that the process would be more efficient if they were able to dedicate a plant breeder to the crop’s development and to enlist the help of a geneticist to develop gene
markers to speed up the selection of desirable traits. “The new crop group in the United States is not a large group,” Isbell explains. “We work on several crops simultaneously with four to six crops spread across the whole United States.” The researchers are part of the Association for the Advancement of Industrial Crops, which began meeting 20 years ago to share developments on crops with the potential to replace petroleum-based chemicals. “All of us are getting intensive scrutiny now,” Isbell says. “A lot of people are calling us and asking questions about the crops we’ve been working on for some time. The world is coming to the realization that petroleum will come to an end.”BIO Susanne Retka Schill is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com or (701) 746-8385.
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B I O M A S S in a
Biomass will play an increasing role in filling the world’s demand for energy and chemicals. Producing enough biomass will take land and lots of it. As Will Rogers said when advising people to buy land, “They ain’t making more of the stuff.” Harvesting more biomass per acre for food and fuel to feed and run a growing world population is the key, and microscopic algae may be a major player. Article and Photographs by Jerry W. Kram
rowing acres of algae in tubes requires more than scientific and engineering expertise. It takes a lot of sunlight. That’s why Glen Kertz, a plant physiologist, is conducting his research in El Paso, Texas, where there are 340 days of sunshine a year. Sunshine is the fuel for an algae propagation system that Kertz calls Vertigro. On the outskirts of El Paso, Texas, Kertz’s company Valcent Products Inc. and its operating partner Global Green Solutions are developing Vertigro as a joint venture. In September, Biomass Magazine attended a briefing on the algae project for media and investors. Inside the company’s compound, a greenhouse shelters a series of racks, each of which supports a sheet of a proprietary plastic formed into a set of tubing. With the gentle hum of pumps in the background, streams of green-tinted water flows through the huge plastic bags to be collected for transport back to a holding tank. “What I am doing out here I consider to be an agricultural crop and an agricultural project,” Kertz said.
“Everything we do out here is about sustainable, renewable, intensive agriculture.” The emphasis on intensive is deliberate. His goal is to create a system that will pull carbon dioxide from the air while creating valuable products to make fuel, pharmaceuticals and other products. Kertz, who has worked with algae for more than 20 years, started thinking about using it as a biomass feedstock after hearing about a project using plants that fertilize oceans with iron to create huge algae blooms that pull carbon dioxide from the air. “Being a bit of an ocean buff, I went ‘We don’t want algae blooms like this because they will kill everything in the vicinity,’” he said. “They would create giant dead zones in the ocean. The last thing we need in the ocean right now is giant dead zones.” Kertz went to the investor group looking at the ocean fertilization project and told them there were better ways to sequester carbon dioxide. “I told them algae are the most efficient organisms in the world for converting carbon dioxide into biomass and releasing oxygen. That got their attention and then I said, ‘Oh and by the way, as a byproduct you get 50 percent of
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innovation ‘Growing a flask of algae in a laboratory is one thing, growing an acre of algae in photobioreactors in a closed-loop system is a whole different animal.’ the weight as a lipid.” They asked what a lipid was and when I said ‘oil,’ all hell broke loose.” That was about 1½ years ago when the biodiesel industry was prominent in the news. Six months later, Valcent teamed with Global Green Solutions and broke ground on the Vertigro test facility in El Paso. Global Green became the operating and engineering partner while Kertz and Valcent were the research and development team. “Global Green Solutions is another small, publicly traded company that has the expertise to build out [the Vertigro system] large scale,” Kertz said.
PHOTO: JERRY W. KRAM, BBI INTERNATIONAL
Kertz founded Valcent about three years ago and soon took the company public. The company successfully launched a skin
care product called the Nova System. That success attracted investors and in turn allowed Kertz to pursue a dream of his: large-scale algae production. “[The investors] got behind me when I told them what I wanted to do out here,” he said, gesturing toward the greenhouse. “We’ve been very well funded to do this project, obviously.” Kertz was able to build his pilot project with a fully equipped, advanced microbiological laboratory. Inside the ordinary-looking steel building is equipment that wouldn’t be out of place at a leading research university, said Kertz pointing to the granite-topped microscopy table, which has steel legs that are driven six feet into the earth to prevent vibrations. Stability is important for the micromanipulators that can pull a single cell off a slide for isolation and culturing. There is also a robotic culture chamber that can test strains of algae in hundreds of different environments in a matter of days to design the optimum conditions for biomass or lipid production. Kertz went out and found the best people he could to create and carry out his vision. “For any growing company the top thing is to find a good crew,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with a tremen-
Kertz demonstrates the microscopy station in the state-of-the-art lab he created to discover and analyze varieties of algae for biomass production.
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PHOTO: JERRY W. KRAM, BBI INTERNATIONAL
A proprietary plastic was used to make manufacturing and deploying the photobioreactors inexpensive and simple.
PHOTO: JERRY W. KRAM, BBI INTERNATIONAL
dous crew here. We’ve recruited locally and had people come in like Aga Pinowska. She’s one of the pre-eminent algae experts on the planet. If you look around, this was a patch of weeds 11 months ago. Most people look at this and say, ‘you can’t do this in
11 months.’ But we did it. We did it with a crew that just doesn’t stop. We work nights, weekends, the whole works.” The Vertigro system uses specially designed plastic bags as photobioreactors. The bags hang on racks where water containing the algae is pumped in. The water flows back and forth, allowing for ample mixing so the algae get plenty of light. At the bottom, a collection pipe carries the water to a holding tank. The holding tank is important, Kertz said, because the algae grow best when they can spend some time in the dark. Sensors monitor pH and nutrients as well as the density of the culture. One of the reasons the system works so well is its use of sophisticated sensors and probes for monitoring, Kertz said. “They weren’t even available five years ago.” While the concept is simple, the devil is in the details. The company has worked with plastic manufacturers to come up with a material that would last five years in the Texas sun without becoming brittle. The goal is to find a plastic that will last 10 years or more. In the microbiology lab, hundreds of varieties of algae were tested for their usefulness for energy or bioproduct production, and the precise blend of nutrients needed for maximum pro-
Pinowska, chief microbiologist for Valcent, exits the greenhouse containing the pilot Vertigro algae production system.
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‘We have to find some way of using nonarable land to produce energy. Whether that is wind power or solar, we have to move that further up the chain. And obviously from my perspective I think algae are one of the answers.’
duction. “Growing a flask of algae in a laboratory is one thing, growing an acre of algae in photobioreactors in a closed-loop system is a whole different animal,” Kertz said. “Understanding flow rates, a dynamic system, growing something in a large closed loop, those are things I have experience in.” When there are enough cells, the water can be filtered and the algae are collected as a thick paste. Under ideal conditions, the algae can double its numbers in 24 hours. That means if half the algae in the system are harvested, by the next day it will be ready to harvest again, Kertz said. “As we pull it off it is growing back,” he explained. “So it’s a continuous process. If we want to get to the point where we’re meeting the demand on the feedstock side of things, we have to have continuous production. It’s just critical to the system.” The algae are separated from the water with a centrifuge. Oil
can be extracted from the algae in much the same way as from oilseeds, by cold pressing or solvent extraction. The pilot system will be using supercritical carbon dioxide extraction to extract nearly 100 percent of the oil without using potentially hazardous chemicals such as hexane, Kertz said.
Fast Track Kertz wants to see his system developed on a fast track. The plan is for the demonstration plot to prove itself out over the next few months and then to build a full-scale or one-acre pilot plant in the summer of 2008. Small-scale and pilot plants for customers would come later in the year. Using a modular approach, a producer would add one-acre units, each capable of producing 100,000 gallons of algae oil a year, until reaching the desired production capacity. Each unit will contain 20,000 of the photobioreactor bags. “When you go from a fraction of an acre to an acre and then to 100 acres, there are some design challenges,” Kertz said. “But the basic engineering is complete. We don’t see anything that says the technology is going to be a barrier to us. Expanding is not an issue. Building the reactors and hanging them is not an issue. It’s just the physical nature of building up to that size. It’s just basic engineering.” Kertz thinks the system’s modular design will be a selling point to companies hungry for feedstock. As soon as one unit is
innovation completed it will be able to be put into production while other units are being built. “It allows us to do a couple of things. If a customer comes to us and wants to get to 100 acres, but they need the feedstock today, they can start with an acre,” he said. “Once that unit is completed in 30 or 40 days, it’s producing feedstock. Then we can go to the second acre, the third acre and the fourth. And since they are modular, if this acre for some reason has a failure of some type—and I don’t know of any system that won’t eventually have a crash—I can isolate that crash from the system and still provide the feedstock on a regular basis.” Many companies are pursuing research into algae production. Kertz believes his background and crew give Vertigro a distinct advantage. “A lot of that has to do with different approaches. A lot of the companies [working with algae] come from the energy sector. A lot of them are very qualified engineers, but they aren’t plant physiologists, they’re not algae experts. Their approach is a little different from ours. While it is about the end product, we approach it from the point of what do these organisms need.” Information the company presented at the briefing in September showed a tentative price for algae oil of $1.70 a gallon, compared with $2.63 for soybean oil, but Kertz hedged on those numbers. “I am very confident at this point that we can produce feedstock at a cost competitive to fossil fuels. I’m not going to put a dollar figure on it, but I will say we will be very cost competitive.
Whether we’re making five barrels an acre or 5,000 barrels an acre, as long as we’re competitive, we’re in the marketplace, and that is the name of the game.” The Vertigro team’s work has attracted the attention of the biodiesel industry, although at this point in the process Kertz couldn’t provide any names. “We’ve been approached by some of the larger companies in the world,” he said. “Some have actually been out here [to the test facility]. Some are actually in negotiations with us and we hope to see the fruits of those efforts in the next few months.” Whether the Vertigro system is the answer or not, an alternative is inevitable, Kertz said. “The writing is on the wall about what has to happen,” he said. “From my perspective, we have to get away from using food stocks as an energy source. We can’t drive our cars on corn or soybeans. We can’t use that land for energy production. We have to find some way of using nonarable land to produce energy. Whether that is wind power or solar, we have to move that further up the chain. And obviously from my perspective I think algae are one of the answers.” BIO Jerry W. Kram is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (701) 746-8385.
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A d d i n g Va l u e t o
Wheat Straw Wyoming-based Heartland BioComposites LLC makes composite fencing from wheat straw and recyclable plastic. Though the manufacturing facility is located in an arid region of the country biomass sourcing has been easy. By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy
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known for its abundance of trees, that doesn’t affect the company because it doesn’t use wood in its products. Instead, Heartland depends on recyclable plastic and the area’s abundant wheat straw to produce the composite product. Heartland opened in October 2006 following less than a year of construction and years of feasibility analyses and research. Founder and president, Heath Van Eaton, grew up on a wheat farm in Colby, Kan., where he became interested in developing a market for wheat straw. Over the years, he formed his vision, which he has commercialized. In the late 1980s, he heard of a company that produced pressed particle board from straw.
When he learned of wood composite products made of wood and plastic, he set out to see if straw could act as the organic component. He found that the cellulose in wheat straw is similar to that in wood. The straw adds strength which is missing from a straight plastic product. The straw also gives it a natural, grainy look and the smell of a clean barn. Since 1994, Van Eaton has been actively developing this product and forming a vertically integrated system that takes the raw materials to a finished, tested product in one facility. Today, his company produces the only composite product using wheat straw. Most other composites are made of sawdust, vinyl or
PHOTO: HEARTLAND BIOCOMPOSITES LLC
he first thing one might notice at the Heartland BioComposites LLC manufacturing facility is the type of fencing that’s used: a sixfoot picket fence similar to what can be seen in many backyards as opposed to a chain-link fence. A split-rail fence separates the loading area from the office area, while at the office door, a three-foot picket fence lines the walkway, and planter boxes surround the building. These products were made at the Heartland facility in an industrial park on the east side of Torrington, Wyo., just six miles from the Nebraska border. Although this region of the country isn’t
Straw gives the composite fence slats strength and a natural, grainy appearance.
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industry plastic. As the company scales up, Van Eaton anticipates using 10,000 tons each of straw and plastic per year. In comparison, Canadian-based Iogen Corp. is developing an 18 MMgy straw-to-ethanol plant in Idaho. It reports it will need approximately 700 tons of agricultural residues per day, or 255,500 tons per year, to operate at this capacity. This demand is about 25 times that of Heartland. Despite the differences in scale, it is still useful for the biomass industry to understand how different companies are addressing biomass sourcing and handling issues, as these are some of the greatest challenges in building the biomass industry.
The manufacturing facility can process square or round bales, thus farmers are not asked to invest in specialized machinery to handle or process straw differently.
Biomass Bonanza Van Eaton doesn’t see the biomass supply as a limiting factor for the growth of the company whatsoever. “There’s so much biomass from wheat out there, it almost upsets me to think about how tremendously underutilized it is,” he says. “We have people banging down our door to sell us straw, but once [contracts for our supply are] locked up, they’re locked up.”
Heartland sources straw from a 60mile radius of the facility, which includes southeast Wyoming, northeast Colorado and western Nebraska. “We analyzed locations to put the plant in years ahead of building one,” Van Eaton says. “The principal factor was to locate in a predominate biomass generating region. If there was one region in Wyoming that could work, it was Torrington.” In addi-
Plastic Sourcing Differs From Biomass
PHOTO: HEARTLAND BIOCOMPOSITES LLC
Heartland BioComposites LLC uses recyclable plastic and wheat straw in a 1:1 ratio in its composite wood fencing. Once the raw materials arrive at the facility, there aren’t many differences in storage and handling, says President Heath Van Eaton. But sourcing and transporting them is quite different. Heartland signs annual contracts for straw, ensuring reliable supply and price. In contrast, Van Eaton says recyclable plastic is a true commodity. “When I started doing this in the mid-1990s, plastic was about 5 cents per pound,” he says. “Now it’s 35 to 40 cents per pound. We have to spot price and follow market trends, whereas with straw we lock it in for a year.” Heartland mostly uses No. 2 plastic, which is high-density polyethylene. The company sources the plastic, which has been collected from recycling bins, from towns across the country. The company competes with numerous companies, including many in China. Van Eaton says the biggest challenge to plastic sourcing is the timing. “Timing is more variable with plastic because we’re constantly at the mercy of the recycling centers and their generation of the material to fill our orders,” he says. “It’s all about recycling habits, which vary from week to week. Sometimes we may have to wait an extra week to get a truck.” As a result, the company has been instrumental in pushing the recycling agenda in Wyoming and the surrounding region. Transportation of plastic, on the other hand, is more efficient than that of straw. “We can go out to the East Coast and still economically haul it here,” Van Eaton says. “You can weigh down a truck with plastic, but you can’t with straw. The mass to weight ratio is so much different with straw, and we look at everything on a weight basis.”
Heartland makes composite fencing from wheat straw and recyclable plastic. 12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 41
industry To provide the quality straw Heartland needs, many farmers have built pole barns to store it. Others will sell the top and bottom rows to dairies and sell the middle rows to Heartland.
tion to the available biomass supply, Van Eaton chose this particular location because he wanted to be in rural Wyoming—for personal and business reasons. “I wanted to stay in Wyoming because of the business aspects of operating here: no taxes and favorable energy costs.” Van Eaton’s passion for straw utilization and the region was part of the reason why he started Heartland—to make an impact on the regional straw market. A year after production started, it’s clear that a growing demand for the fence product directly impacted the demand for straw in the region, he says. Interestingly, it is also impacting demand in other regions. Heartland has received calls from wheat growers as far away as Kansas and northern Montana. “We’ve created a stir in the biomass market related to agrifiber,” he
says. “As we grow, I definitely see us growing out the radius we bring straw in, and also building another plant or two.” Van Eaton declined to say how big his business could grow with the biomass resources currently available in the region. Part of this analysis would certainly include the cost to expand the radius for sourcing straw. Currently, Heartland bears all the logistical costs of bringing the straw from the field to the factory. On average, the company pays trucking companies a fixed price of about $15 per ton; most trucks haul the loads during what would otherwise be an empty trip. “A good example is some of the alfalfa haulers will haul hay to Colorado, and on their way back they pick up straw and bring it here,” Van Eaton says. “They aren’t losing miles.”
PHOTO: HEARTLAND BIOCOMPOSITES LLC
Call us today at 870/367-9751 x112 to place your order.
Planter boxes welcome visitors to the Heartland BioComposites manufacturing facility. The composite product used in the fence and the boxes were manufactured at the facility.
industry Straw Market Factors Controlling transportation and other costs have allowed Heartland to set fair prices for its biomass. Wheat prices have skyrocketed this year, but Van Eaton doesn’t expect that will spill over to biomass. As farmers plant more wheat to capture the higher prices, there will be more straw, which should serve to soften the market price. Straw prices are also impacted by the hay market, especially in dry years when cattle producers use straw as a secondary ration in feed. Competitors for straw include dairies in Colorado and government roadside reclamation projects. Competitors and commodity fluctuations, while important to follow, don’t greatly impact Heartland’s business. “We follow the market so we know what direction it’s going,” Van Eaton tells Biomass Magazine. “[But] we deal with farmers individually. We enter into a 12month conditional contract. The farmers are responsible for storage of the straw until we come and source it.” The manufacturing facility can process square or round bales, thus farmers are not asked to invest in specialized machinery to handle or process straw differently. These annual contracts were lined up five years ago, based on the prevailing market price at the time. “We analyzed the historical pricing trends, highs and lows, and took a good median price, which was actually higher than market price at that time,” Van Eaton says. “We analyze this year to year. If prices drop significantly, we won’t drop with that, but we’ll be less inclined to raise prices the next year. The whole idea is to take out the volatility factor as much as possible. Farmers are sold on that aspect alone. If the market price basis jumps up, we’ll do an increase but the most we’ll increase is 5 percent to 10 percent. We’ll be here year after year. Farmers love the fact that we’re a fixed market every year and we’re paying very fair prices.” Storing biomass can be an obstacle
for any biomass business. Because straw is so light, it takes a lot of 4-foot-square bales to make up the required tonnage. This is why farmers who contract with Heartland are responsible for storing the straw at the farm for up to a year. “As soon as they get done with the harvest, they can’t unload it on us,” Van Eaton says. To provide the quality straw the company needs, many farmers have built pole barns to store it. Others will sell the top and bottom rows to dairies and the middle rows to Heartland. Fortunately, Van Eaton says straw excretes a waxy layer, making it ideal for storage for up to two years. “We have processed straw that was two years old with no difference in quality,” he says. Though Heartland is on a smaller scale than other biomass fuel and power projects, the company is confident that its
biomass sourcing and storage plans will allow it to grow and expand. Right now, the company’s greater challenge lies in its ability to scale up quickly enough to meet the growing demand for its environmentally friendly composite product. BIO Anduin Kirkbride McElroy is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com or (701) 746-8385.
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Breaking Down Walls Basic research on plant cell walls promises to boost not only dairy efficiency, but biofuels production as well. USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists may be on the edge of a breakthrough. By Erin K. Peabody
mous energy that’s tied up in plants. “It’s all about the sugars,” says Michael Casler, a geneticist based at DFRC. “To draw energy from a crop, you’ve got to get to the sugars so that they can be fermented into fuel.” However, in cows and biofuels research, lignin almost always gets in the way. Plants use three main materials to build their cell walls: the polysaccharides cellulose, hemicellulose and the phenolic polymer lignin. Cellulose is a chain of glucose (sugar) molecules strung together. As these molecules multiply, they
organize themselves in linear bundles that crisscross through the cell wall, giving the plant strength and structure. The cellulose bundles are weakly bound to an encircling matrix of hemicellulose, which is strongly linked to lignin. The gluey lignin polymer further strengthens plants and gives them flexibility. Lignin is the reason plants can pop back up after heavy rains and winds, and it’s how they made the leap from a life in the ocean to one on land eons ago. Plants have invested great energy in crafting exquisite cell wall structures that
PHOTO: STEPHEN AUSMUS, USDA-ARS
here may soon be another reason to support the local dairy farmer. In Wisconsin, where a similar message is proudly plastered on everything from bumper stickers to T-shirts to coffee-shop windows, researchers at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center (DFRC) are proving that the nation has an unlikely ally in its quest for energy independence: dairy cows. Featuring one of the most sophisticated digestive systems in nature, cows and other ruminants can convert rough, fibrous plant material into critical, lifesustaining energy and milk. Yet, while herds of these natural plant processors are scattered across the country’s vast bucolic landscape, there’s not a single commercial facility in the United States capable of a similar feat: converting the Earth’s most abundant renewable resource—plant cellulose— into fuel.
Lignin Locks Up Energy Even though dairy cows are impressive plant-to-energy converters, they can’t digest especially fibrous feed portions toughened up by lignin, the cementing agent that holds plant cell walls together. For bioenergy researchers, lignin and other cell wall components are significant stumbling blocks to unlocking the enor-
Weimer, center, discusses tests of a new biobased glue with chemist Chuck Frihart, left, and technician Brice Dally of the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory.
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).
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research resist degradation and loss of their precious sugars. Over the course of millions of years, they’ve had to fend off an insatiable crowd of energy-hungry fungi, bacteria, herbivores—and now, people.
John Ralph, a DFRC chemist, is one of a handful of scientists in the world who are probing lignin’s structural details. With the help of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), a technology that takes advantage of the magnetic fields surrounding atoms, Ralph and colleagues have been able to chip away at lignin’s mysteries, including how plants make it through a process known as “lignification.” Many of Ralph’s insights have come from years of scrutinizing the lignin structures in transgenic plants. He says there’s much to be learned about a gene by watching what happens when it’s altered. For example, almost 10 years ago, Ralph and colleagues published a paper describing what happens to loblolly pine trees when they’re deprived of the gene that codes for cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase—an enzyme that helps make vital lignin building blocks. Ralph says that even with extremely low levels of the important lignin-building enzyme, the trees compensated by incorporating novel monomers—small molecules that can bind with others to form polymers— to ensure that they had the necessary lignin-like glue to perform basic functions. After using NMR and other methods to analyze many other genetically transformed plants—including tobacco, aspen, alfalfa, corn and the model plant Arabidopsis—Ralph and his colleagues and collaborators have laid a foundation of basic knowledge about how lignin production is orchestrated in plants. Ralph belongs to a major camp of scientists who maintain that the formation of the lignin polymer is pretty much
PHOTO: STEPHEN AUSMUS, USDA-ARS
A Sticky Plasticity
To find breeding lines of switchgrass with traits that improve its conversion to bioenergy, Casler, left, and technician Christine Budd scan switchgrass plant samples using a near-infrared spectrophotometer.
a random affair and isn’t strictly controlled by proteins and enzymes like many other plant polymers. Another group argues that lignification is just like protein building, a process that’s predictable and leaves few surprises. But Ralph contends that there is a wider number of building blocks the plant has at its disposal for assembling lignified cell walls. He says the plant can put these components together in a virtually infinite number of ways, as did the pine trees and many other transgenic plants. Ralph calls it “metabolic plasticity.” Lignification is “a remarkably evolved solution that allows plants considerable flexibility in dealing with various environmental stresses,” he says. Even if some don’t appreciate lignin’s evolutionary role in helping plants adapt, that’s OK, Ralph says. “A greater awareness of these plant processes will increase our opportunities to modify lignin composition and content,” he says.
Zooming In on Lignin Another of DFRC’s many lignin-
related discoveries has been especially well received in scientific circles. Fachuang Lu, a research associate in Ralph’s group, was the first to find a way to study the highly detailed chemical structure of the entire plant cell wall. In the past, the job of extracting the various polymers from cell walls for detailed analysis required the deftness of a brain surgeon. There was always a tradeoff between the integrity of the material extracted and the speed with which it could be done. Now, entire cell walls can be dissolved in a special solution in which all their contents—cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin—are dissolved in a matter of hours instead of weeks, as with traditional methods. Once all the polymers are in the solution, NMR can provide a structural picture of them. “Traditionally, we could only get a portion of the cell wall into solution,” Ralph says. “By using this new solution and NMR method, we can get a chemical fingerprint of the major and minor structures of the entire cell wall. The amount of detail is striking.”
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New Bioadhesive’s a Super Glue Unlike most bioenergy researchers, who wish plant cell walls were more pliable, ARS microbiologist Paul Weimer isn’t frustrated by their rigid structures. Instead, he’s found a way to capitalize on them through fiber-hungry microbes with a taste for the extremes. For instance, one that Weimer’s most interested in has such a high threshold for heat that it grows best at 145 degrees Fahrenheit. The name of this heat-loving bacterium is Clostridium thermocellum. That it also likes environments devoid of oxygen makes it especially attractive for use in commercial ethanol production. “The conventional system for making ethanol from plant fiber relies on two reactors,” Weimer says. “One’s dedicated to growing the fungi that produce cellulosedegrading enzymes. It has to be aerobic, since the fungi need oxygen to multiply. The fungal enzymes are then dropped into a second vat, an anaerobic one, which contains the yeast and the cellulosic plant material.” However, the two-part system is inefficient and ratchets up the cost of ethanol production. That’s why the Madison, Wis.-based researcher has seized upon a more streamlined system, known as “consolidated bioprocessing,” in which bacteria and plant fiber are processed in just one vat. Using this energy-tidy platform, he’s found a way to produce ethanol and an all-natural wood glue. The Clostridium strains he’s studying—like some bacteria in the cow rumen—can’t process every scrap of plant fiber they’re unleashed to feast on. Whatever they don’t degrade while making ethanol, they latch onto with such fierceness that the only way to break the bond is to destroy the microbes, Weimer says. This bond—which Weimer has found to be especially powerful between Clostridium and alfalfa—is what motivated him to pursue his bioadhesive technology. “Unconverted plant material is usually sold as distillers grains, a livestock feed that only fetches about 4 cents a pound,” Weimer says. He believes his all-natural glue has much more money-making potential. Studies he’s done with collaborators at the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison show that the bioadhesive is tough enough to replace up to 70 percent of the petroleum-based phenol-formaldehyde (PF) currently used to manufacture plywood and other wood products. With an estimated 1 billion pounds of PF produced each year, there must be a market for an eco-friendly substitute.
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Researchers interested in running cell wall samples from either conventionally bred or genetically modified energy crops can use the tool to get a zoomed-in view of what their plants’ modified cell walls look like. With such powerful capabilities, the method can serve as an important gauge of progress.
Low-Input Plants for Energy In addition to probing minute cell-wall structures, DFRC scientists are also breeding plants that possess energy-friendly qualities. Casler is hanging his hopes on grasses—the perennials that cover an estimated one-third of the nation’s acreage. Aside from switchgrass, on which he’s built an entire breeding program, Casler is also eyeing the promise of other low-input grasses, such as smooth bromegrass, orchardgrass and reed canarygrass. He thinks they have the potential to feed both cows and the country’s enormous energy appetite. Casler and colleague Hans Jung, a DFRC dairy scientist based in St. Paul, Minn., have been selecting grasses that possess either less lignin or fewer ferulates, which are chemicals that help bind lignin to hemicellulose in the cell wall, impeding access to the sugars. “When we started these studies, we wondered ‘Is it lignin that’s most responsible for binding up the carbohydrates, or is it the way ferulates link the lignin to hemicellulose?’” Casler says. After running studies in several grass species, Casler, Jung and collaborators have proved that either approach works when it comes to breaking down tough cell walls. Hoping to breed plants whose cell walls are more easily degraded, Casler and Jung will soon begin crossing promising grass lines.
Focusing on Alfalfa Other DFRC researchers are focused on alfalfa—a crop that, unlike corn and other grasses, fixes its own nitrogen and therefore requires less fertilizer. Plant physiologist Ronald Hatfield and molecular geneticist Michael Sullivan are working to boost alfalfa’s biomass by altering genes that affect its development. “We’re looking at alfalfa’s developmental structure, how it branches,” Hatfield says. “We’re also trying to reduce leaf abscission, or leaf drop.” Because alfalfa plants are grown close togeth-
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er, many of their understory leaves fall off from lack of sunlight. Hatfield and Sullivan would like to minimize loss of this valuable plant material. Hatfield, Sullivan and Ralph are collaborating with the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., to build the ideal alfalfa plant. “The Noble Foundation usually engineers the plants with reduced lignin,” Hatfield says. “Then we use NMR and other analytical techniques to see what the modified cell walls look like and how easily they can be processed either by the cow or for biomass conversion to energy.” The alfalfa research team has already discovered that when they transform plants by down-regulating enzymes called “methyl transferases,” they can reduce lignin content, boost cellulose content and enhance cell wall digestibility.
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Part of the Big Picture In the end, DFRC researchers believe that agriculture’s role in supplying renewable energy to the country is crucial. However, Hatfield cautions that the bioenergy movement mustn’t miss the forest for the trees. “We need to consider the whole agricultural picture,” he says. “You can’t convert everything into bioenergy.” There are other biobased products and niche industries to consider. Take alfalfa, for instance. DFRC researchers have found that, in addition to providing great grist for the ethanol mill, alfalfa is a source of quality protein and health-promoting nutraceuticals. Plus, its fiber fractions have value as a water-filtering agent, and it’s an ideal substrate for making an all-natural glue. “We also have to think in terms of sustainability for the sake of local agricultural economies and our natural resources,” Hatfield says. BIO Erin K. Peabody is a member of the USDAARS’ information staff. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (301) 5041624. This article was published in the April 2007 issue of Agricultural Research.
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LAB DayCent Computer Model Compares Biofuels’ Impacts
eople have many reasons for wanting to switch from fuels and products made from petroleum and coal to those made from biomass. Some are concerned with the inevitable decline of fossil fuel resources and their growing cost. Others worry about greenhouse gases and climate change. For the latter, there is a thorny question: Do alternative fuels actually reduce the likelihood of global warming? While that question is still somewhat controversial, researchers are generating new data that is starting to fill in the blanks and lead toward a definitive answer. One tool in the search for an answer is a computer simulation of how agricultural crops, such as corn used for ethanol production, affect the release of greenhouse gases from the soil. The program is called DayCent, and one of its developers is Stephen Del Grosso of the USDA Agricultural Research Service. The program simulates the production of greenhouse gases from the soil and also simulates the growth of crops, Del Grosso says. That gives scientists the data they need to compare the impact of different biofuels feedstocks. “It gives you your soil emissions and your crop yields,” he explains. “If you have your crop yield, you know how much fossil fuel you are displacing. Then there are some other models that come into play.” In order for the model’s estimates to be accurate, a large amount of background data must be gathered, analyzed and incorporated into the program. “We don’t feel comfortable running the model with any arbitrary crop that we haven’t compared with data,” Del Grosso says. “So that is the first thing we want to establish—that the model does perform reasonably well.” One of the model’s recent tests was a comparison of biofuel feedstocks in Pennsylvania. The state was chosen because data was available for yields of potential biofuel crops, such as switchgrass, along with comprehensive data on soil types and conditions. “We could do what we called ‘model validation,’ comparing the model to the data and tuning the model for different crops,” Del Grosso says. “[For example,] were pretty satisfied with how the model predicted [nitrogen dioxide]. That’s not to imply it’s anywhere close to perfect, but compared to other models of similar sophistication, it does pretty well.” Other research groups are testing the model in locales from Canada to New Zealand. Nitrous oxides, such as nitrogen dioxide, are potent greenhouse gases. “In these types of systems, [nitrogen dioxide] is by far the biggest source because it has a global warming potential of 300
Source: USDA Agricultural Research Service
DayCent uses readily available data to estimate potential greenhouse gas emissions from different crops. Researcher Stephen Del Grosso says it is a good compromise between computer models that require vast amounts of data and simpler models that make sweeping assumptions.
[times the same amount of carbon dioxide],” Del Grosso says. “Even though the actual fluxes of [carbon dioxide] might be higher, once you account for the global warming potential of [nitrogen dioxide], it totally swamps things out.” So far, DayCent has matched or beaten other models when its predictions are compared with actual data. The Pennsylvania study indicated that all the examined biofuel feedstocks reduced net greenhouse gas emissions when compared with fossil fuels. The next stage of the project is to validate the model for different areas of the United States. “There are switchgrass plots in the Midwest, [particularly] Iowa and the Dakotas,” Del Grosso says. “We are in the process of running the model in those areas to make sure we get reasonable results. So I think in a year or two we will have [verified the model] that can produce switchgrass yields in a couple areas of the United States. The next big goal will be to run DayCent countrywide in areas where these biofuels are feasible and try to come up with a rough estimate on a national scale of how much fuel we could reasonably create.” BIO —Jerry W. Kram
12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 51
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ast month, I discussed the search for opportune biomass fuels. Once an ethanol plant has located a source of biomass fuel, including its own distillers dried grains with solubles upon market saturation, the conversion technology must be considered. The four basic ways to use biomass for heat and power are 1) direct combustion of the biomass as a sole fuel source, 2) cofiring biomass with fossil fuels, 3) gasification of biomass to produce a synthetic natural gas, or syngas, and 4) fast pyrolysis to produce a syngas and combustible liquid. All of these technologies have been commercialized, but fast pyrolysis is the only one not being used at ethanol facilities. Direct combustion with biomass as the sole fuel source is fairly straightforward and has been practiced for years. Traditionally, stoker boilers have been this technology’s workhorse. However, fluid-bed combustors (FBCs) have begun to supplant stokers because of the increased emission control inherent in FBC systems, which are more fuel flexible and have slightly higher overall efficiencies. The steam generated by both systems Folkedahl can be used in the ethanol process and for electrical production. Cofiring biomass with coal or other fossil fuels allows one to get around the typical seasonal shortages that plague biomass fuel sources. In some situations, biomass cofiring has reduced overall emission levels compared to straight fossil fuel firing. The combustor configuration and fuel types need to be evaluated before this can be quantified. Gasification may soon be the technology of choice for biomass utilization at ethanol facilities. Gasification systems can be robust enough to handle multiple fuel types and produce a combustible gas of comparable value for different fuels. Several companies have installed systems to deliver syngas that can be combusted to generate a plant’s heat and power. Lignin from the lignocellulosic ethanol process can be gasified when implementing this technology at fuel ethanol plants. The syngas produced can be used in catalytic Fischer-Tropsch-type reactions to produce fuels and chemicals providing more value than simply combusting the gas. Several applications of this technology are being demonstrated under programs funded by the U.S. DOE. In fast pyrolysis systems, the fuel is quickly heated in excess of 400 degrees Celsius (752 degrees Fahrenheit) in low-oxygen environments. Fast pyrolysis of biomass produces a char, an organic gas stream and pyrolysis gases that are condensed to a liquid. The char and gas are typically recycled to produce the heat required to drive pyrolysis. The condensed pyrolysis gases, or bio-oil, are generally 70 percent of the feedstock weight. The bio-oil can be fired in boilers or used in other ways. Unlike syngas, which must be used immediately, bio-oil can be easily transported and stored. It’s recommended that test burns of a selected fuel using the mentioned technologies be performed to ensure satisfactory compatibility between fuel, conversion technology and plant needs. Whatever the fuel or technology, biomass is one of the keys to self-sustaining biorefineries that reduce our carbon. BIO Bruce Folkedahl is a senior research manager at the EERC in Grand Forks, N.D. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (701) 777-5243. 12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 53
Explore the Opportunities, Experience the Technology!
April 15 â€“ 17, 2008 Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
SAVE THE DATE Biomass is the largest and most promising sustainable and renewable resource with unlimited global applications.
The first International Biomass Conference & Trade Show aims to facilitate the advancement of near-term and commercial-scale manufacturing of biomass-based power, fuels, and chemicals. Plan to learn and share information on biorefining technologies for the production and advancement of biopower, bioproducts, biochemicals, biofuels, intermediate products, and coproducts â€“through general sessions, technical workshops, and an industry trade show.
TECHNICAL STREAMS WILL INCLUDE:
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Basic R&D/Fundamental Process Development Biochemicals Biofuels Biopower Bioproducts Biorefining Concepts
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Cellulosic Ethanol Commerical Applications Economics and Finance Feedstocks Fibers Pilot Demonstrations Project Feasibility
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56 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007
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Published on Dec 1, 2007