Biomass Magazine - November 2007

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Powerful Pellets Florida Plant Will Produce 550,000 Tons of Wood Pellets Per Year

US $24.95 year :

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

with customers across a broad array of industries we create tomorrow’s industrial biosolutions, improving our customers’ business and the use of our planet’s resources. Read more at


November 2007




..................... 18 RESEARCH From Concept to Commercialization Several avenues are available, from analytical services agreements to cooperative research and development agreements, to employ the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s biomass expertise. To keep up with the growing industry, the federal lab is doubling the size of its pilot plant and enlarging its thermochemical biomass conversion facility. By Jerry W. Kram

24 POWER Closing the Energy Circle Florida will soon be home to the world’s largest wood pellet plant. Green Circle Bio Energy Inc. will produce 550,000 tons of wood pellets a year from regionally sourced pine trees. The pellets will be shipped to Europe for use in power plants. By Ron Kotrba

30 INNOVATION The Fischer-Tropsch/Fat Connection After successfully transforming natural gas into JP8 jet fuel for the U.S. Air Force, Syntroleum Corp. is tweaking its technology to use a new feedstock: RESEARCH | PAGE 18

low-grade animal fats, greases and vegetable oils. The company entered into a joint venture with Tyson Foods Inc. to commercialize its process and build multiple facilities. By Susanne Retka Schill



36 COPRODUCT Renewed Interest in Bovine Biomass Researchers are reviving a form of chemistry called “chemurgy” to develop

07 Advertiser Index 09 Industry Events

industrial uses for animal-processed fiber (APF), a coproduct of the anaerobic digestion process. APF has been used in a variety of wood-based products, including fiberboard and particleboard. By Bryan Sims

11 Business Briefs 12 Industry News 51 In the Lab Progress to a Pathway: PNNL Process Holds Promise for Biobased Chemicals By Jerry W. Kram

42 POLICY High-Voltage Debate Over Renewable Electricity Mandate Congress has yet to pass a renewable electricity mandate, despite the fact that 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed their own form of a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Supporters, however, believe an RPS may actually get to the president’s desk this year. By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy

53 EERC Update Biomass Power Options for Existing Ethanol Plants By Bruce Folkedahl

46 PROFILE Neutralizing Landfill Leachate GEI Development and its subsidiary Liquid Solutions LLC have found a way to dispose of the unsavory liquid that oozes from municipal waste sites. The E-VAP system evaporates leachate and can be powered by landfill gas. By Nicholas Zeman


letters to the



t was a great to read your very comprehensive article titled “Not So

Another major advantage of biocrudes is that they are fungible and

Run of the Mill” in the September issue of Biomass Magazine. It real-

can be shipped to the petrochemical refiners and processed as “standard”

ly brought forward how some in the forest products industry are

crude, thus eliminating many of the logistical issues associated with

viewing pulp and paper mills as potential locations for biorefineries,

ethanol. Biocrudes also represent a cleaner and purer source of crude oil

as well as a possible new business model that may actually revitalize the

because they contain no sulfur. As with other biofuels, biocrudes help to ful-


fill the federal government’s mandate of reducing our dependence on for-

As discussed in the article, there are so many advantages in having a

eign oil and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

biorefinery collocated in a pulp and paper mill: It creates valuable new prod-

In light of these benefits, we at Flambeau River Papers have expand-

ucts for the mill, reduces energy costs, uses waste streams effectively for

ed our focus since your article was published. Although we have considered

power production, and enables the sharing of utilities and resources. While

the production of cellulosic ethanol, upon much evaluation we believe that

your article focused largely on the potential production of cellulosic ethanol

the risk-reward of biocrude production is indeed favorable in some cases.

in the pulp and paper mill setting, we believe that biomass gasification and

In fact, we are now looking at biomass gasification technologies to produce

the production of Fischer-Tropsch liquids, or biocrudes, may offer a more

biocrude, while becoming the first pulp and paper mill in North America to

compelling business case for the industry than does cellulosic ethanol.

be fossil-fuel-free.

While cellulosic ethanol technologies are still at the experimental level, Bill Johnson Flambeau River Biofuels LLC

biocrudes from biomass use proven technologies. The process doesn’t depend on feedstock type and has the potential for utilizing a wide range of biomass streams, including what we believe is an untapped resource— namely byproduct or “waste” flows from forest and agricultural sources. Thus, we would be tapping into the largest potential sources of renewable biomass energy in the United States.


enjoyed your article on agrichar (“Agrichar Rejuvenates Tired Soils”

sodium, iron, manganese, copper, zinc and boron, depending on the

in the October issue). I believe that we are going to find out that soil

source. We are still studying the impact of this process on agricultural slash

regeneration will be the most significant key to sustainable consum-

and are optimistic that we can reduce reliance on petrochemical fertilizer.

able crop generation and healthy forest management. This will not

I would hazard a guess to say that the study of soil regeneration will

only apply to any bioenergy-related feedstock, but also for human con-

have a higher impact on global rural economies for becoming self-sustain-

sumption crops.

ing than any other area of study. Keep up the good work on keeping us all

We have just developed a process for local communities to take veg-

informed on what's going on in our world.

etative material like forest slash and convert it into a 0.2 to 2 millimeter particle that has been tested to show it has great value in soil regeneration due to its 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, magnesium,


Chris Casson Principle FG Enterprises LLC

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Ethanol Producer Magazine

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International Biomass ‘08 Conference & Trade Show




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Supreme International Limited






Jaci Satterlund ART DIRECTOR








Michael Shirek ONLINE EDITOR


Jan Tellmann COPY EDITOR




Nicholas Zeman STAFF WRITER


Anduin Kirkbride McElroy STAFF WRITER




Susanne Retka Schill STAFF WRITER




Jessica Ebert STAFF WRITER


Elizabeth Slavens GRAPHIC DESIGNER


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industryevents Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy

AgSTAR National Conference

November 14-16, 2007

November 27-28, 2007

Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa Honolulu, Hawaii This event will detail the latest developments in industrial biotechnology, including all forms of bioenergy production, biobased products and chemicals. One particular session will explain new approaches to bioethanol production, while another will look at advancing biorefineries for fuels and chemicals production. Several breakout sessions will focus on biofuels from biomass. (202) 962-9204

Sacramento Convention Center Sacramento, California This conference is geared toward livestock producers, project developers, energy professionals, financiers, and others interested in manure digester and energy projects. The agenda will feature technical, policy and financial presentations, poster sessions, networking opportunities, exhibits of the latest technologies and services, and a tour of local farms to view operational digesters. The keynote address by the commissioner of the California Energy Commission will discuss the role of biogas from livestock manure in the BioEnergy Action Plan for California.

Biofuels Workshop & Trade Show-Eastern Region

Canadian Renewable Fuels Summit

November 27-30, 2007

December 2-4, 2007

Sheraton Philadelphia City Center Hotel Philadelphia, Pennsylvania This year’s event, themed “Building a Biofuels Industry,” will address the current status and future challenges of the biofuels industry in the eastern United States. The agenda includes two technical breakout workshops that address ethanol and biodiesel, along with additional tracks for biomass utilization and cellulose to ethanol. There will also be a discussion on sustainability. (719) 539-0300

Quebec City Convention Center Quebec City, Quebec Registration is open for the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association’s fourth annual event, themed “Building on the Promise.” Confirmed speakers include Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada; Phillip Schwab of Biotech Canada; Ray Foot of Canadian Pacific Railway; and Rick Tolman of the National Corn Growers Association, among many others. Canada: (519) 576-4500 U.S.: (719) 539-0300

Power-Gen: Renewable Energy & Fuels

13th Annual National Ethanol Conference

February 19-21, 2008

February 25-27, 2008

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.

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

International Biomass Conference & Trade Show

24th Annual International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo

April 15-17, 2008

June 16-19, 2008

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

Opryland Hotel & Convention Center Nashville, Tennessee This conference will follow the record-breaking 2007 event, in which more than 500 exhibitors participated and more than 5,300 people attended. More information will be available as this event approaches. (719) 539-0300



BRIEFS Laidig Systems expands headquarters Laidig Systems Inc. is adding a second story to the company’s office building in Mishawaka, Wis. The addition was spurred by the expansion of Laidig’s engineering department, and it will house the company’s growing Laidig is adding a second story to its project management, office building in Mishawaka, Wis. customer service and construction teams. The expansion will allow Laidig to incorporate the engineering of larger silo reclaimers, European Potentially Explosive Atmosphere standards and electrical control systems. Laidig Systems designs, markets, builds, and services bulk storage and reclaim systems. BIO

Diversified Energy,XL Renewables partner in algae production Gilbert, Ariz.-based alternative energy company Diversified Energy and XL Renewables Inc. have partnered to develop an algae production system that will be incorporated into XL Renewables’ integrated biorefinery operation in Vicksburg, Ariz. Developed by XL Renewables, the new technology, coined “Simgae” (for simple algae), will be commercialized by Diversified Energy. In addition, Diversified Energy will demonstrate the technology at Withrow Dairy in Casa Grande, Ariz. According to Diversified Energy President Phillip Brown, the technology is expected to provide 100 to 200 dry tons of algae per acre starting in December. BIO

Tembec acquires cogeneration assets Codon, Agrivida collaborate to develop enzyme-engineered corn Codon Devices Inc. and Agrivida Inc. have signed an agreement to utilize Codon’s trademarked BioLogic engineering platform to develop enzymes optimized for use in Agrivida’s corn varieties engineered for ethanol production. Central to Agrivida’s ethanol-optimized corn technology are engineered enzymes that are incorporated into the corn plants themselves for cellulosic ethanol production. Codon’s engineering platform speeds up the process of developing enzymes in a typically oneto two-year project to a six- to nine-month time frame. BIO

Tembec, a forest products company based in Quebec, recently acquired the assets of Chapleau Cogeneration Ltd., a cogeneration plant and sawmill in Ontario. The assets, valued at approximately $1 million, include a biomass-fired boiler and steam turbine with an installed capacity of 7.2 megawatts. With this addition, Tembec’s total captive generating capacity at its facilities in Canada and France now exceeds 150 megawatts. Twenty-six of those megawatts are located in Ontario, and are based on either hydropower or biomassfired generation. BIO

Jamerson leaves VeraSun board Woodland Biofuels receives cellulosic ethanol funding The government of Canada, through its nonprofit corporation Sustainable Development Technology Canada, awarded Ontariobased Woodland Biofuels Inc. with $9.8 million for the construction of a cellulosic ethanol plant in one of the country’s Atlantic coast provinces. The small-scale, modular plant will showcase the company’s patented technology for the conversion of wood and agricultural waste to ethanol and energy through three major steps: gasification, catalysis and distillation. A more specific location hadn’t been disclosed by press time. BIO

Through a Form 8-K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), VeraSun Energy Corp. announced that Bruce Jamerson resigned his duties as a board member to devote his full attention to Cambridge, Mass.-based Mascoma Corp. Initially, Jamerson vacated his position as Jamerson president of VeraSun to join Mascoma in March, but continued to hold a board spot with the Aurora, S.D.-based company. Publicly traded companies are required to notify the SEC upon the “departure of directors or certain officers” with the submission of a form 8-K. BIO



NEWS Florida Crystals, UF to build cellulosic ethanol pilot plant In an effort to jump-start Florida’s dormant ethanol sector, the University of Florida (UF) and Florida Crystals Corp. have partnered to build and operate a 1 MMgy cellulosic ethanol research and development demonstration plant to be collocated at Florida Crystals’ sugar facility in Okeelanta, Fla. According to Joe Joyce, associate vice president of agricultural and natural resources for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) department at UF, the Florida state legislature appropriated $20 million to UF last year to build and operate the cellulosic ethanol demonstration facility. The university received six site proposals in response to its invitation to negotiate, with the Florida Crystals sugar milling site being considered as one of the prime sites. “It’s an ideal site,” Joyce said. “There are very few places in the state that could meet the requirements that we have.” The technology developed by UF professors will be used to convert sugarcane bagasse and urban wood waste into cellulosic ethanol. UF is currently negotiating with design/builders for the project. A construction time frame wasn’t disclosed at press time, but both parties anticipated full production beginning by February 2009. “Our mindset has always been finding a way to become fuel independent without becoming food dependent on foreign countries,” said Gaston Cantens, vice president of cooperative relations for Florida Crystals. The Florida Crystals site was appealing to UF because in addition to its sugar refinery, the company also uses an electrical steam generation plant that takes in bagasse and urban wood

A proposed 1 MMgy cellulosic ethanol facility, jointly owned and operated by Florida Crystals and UF, would obtain its steam and electricity from Florida Crystals’ on-site electrical steam generation plant shown above.

waste collected from local recycling companies to power the facility. When the steam generation plant isn’t powering the sugar mill, it is the nation’s largest supplier of supplemental bioenergy, putting 142 megawatts of electricity back on the public grid, enough to power 60,000 homes. -Bryan Sims

Forest thinnings could provide resources for power, fuels Firefighting costs, combined with habitat losses, are some of the dangerous consequences associated with forest density, and many U.S. woodlands are unhealthy from being overstocked. If the clearing of problematic stands occurred more frequently, however, major volumes of biomass would be available for various applications. The U.S. Forest Service is touting ethanol as the best solution for the utilization of cleared biomass like small-diameter trees and underbrush, and U.S. Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell recently proposed replacing 15 percent of the nation’s gasoline with ethanol derived from such feedstocks. Kimbell, who 12 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007

assumed the lead position in February, formerly worked as associate deputy chief for the National Forest System in Washington, a state with 9.2 million acres of public forestland and one of the leading lumber producers in the United States. Bruce Lippke, a University of Washington professor in the College of Forest Resources, told Biomass Magazine that Kimbell’s goal will be difficult to meet, however. “It’s certainly not going to happen in the short term, and considering the history of federal management, it’s pretty doubtful,” he said. “The infrastructure has imploded as the harvest has decreased, so paying to remove this material once it’s cleared is not economical.”

In addition, the best methods of collecting and converting forest thinnings to fuel or power is still being developed. “Is ethanol the best route?” Lippke rhetorically asked. “This issue is still in the research realm. … Some cruder form of gasification might be the most efficient.” Lippke said wooded areas in Washington are currently twice as dense as before Europeans first inhabited North America, and efforts to clear these areas are considerably lacking at the present time. “We aren’t even close to doing enough,” he said. -Nicholas Zeman


NEWS MSU Biorefinery Training Facility opens Displaced Michigan autoworkers, college students or even union laborers will have a place to learn new biobased skills at a Webberville brewery, where the Michigan State University (MSU) Biorefinery Training Facility was slated to open in late September. The new training facility will also give MSU researchers the opportunity to study advanced biofuels production techniques for various projects, such as one concurrently looking at biofuels and engine advancements to optimize combustion. A three-year, $15 million U.S. Department of Labor grant under the Workforce Innovation and Regional Economic Development program is funding the brewery partnership, including equipment, on-site spatial modifications and training. The project originated with MSU chemical engineering professor Kris Berglund, who sought to put underutilized capabilities at Michigan Brewing Co., only 15 miles from MSU’s East Lansing campus, to good use by teaching fermentation and early-phase biofuels production technologies to, among others, unemployed auto workers. The end result: a training program for those who were interested in entering Michigan’s growing renewable fuels industry.

When Marysville Ethanol LLC joins the state's four ethanol producers, Michigan will have a total capacity of 250 MMgy. David Hollister, CEO and president of the Prima Civitas Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in part by MSU to act as a broker in the technology transfer of university research and development, said the state has to “import” skilled workers to build and operate these plants. “This effort coincides with [university President LouAnna] Simon’s vision of MSU leading the post-petroleum economy,” he said. Hollister told Biomass Magazine that cohorts of up to 25 attended trained at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center in Edwardsville, Ill., on several occasions while the Webberville brewery was installing new equipment from Europe. In addition to housing the MSU biofuels training and research facility, the brewery also uses renewables. It makes its own biodiesel and fires its boiler with methyl esters to power its beer-making process, cutting the natural gas bill in half. -Ron Kotrba

Mobile pyrolysis plant converts poultry litter to energy A mobile pyrolysis unit that would provide an economical disposal system for poultry litter and produce alternative sources of energy is under development at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., led by Foster Agblevor, associate professor of biological systems engineering. A test unit is expected to begin operation in November on a poultry farm near Dayton, Va., processing five tons of poultry litter per day into bio-oil, biogas and char. Poultry litter is a mixture of bedding, manure, feathers and spilled feed. According to Agblevor, current poultry litter uses, such as land fertilizer, are under pressure because of concerns about water pollution from leaching and runoff, and diseases such as avian influenza and mad cow disease. Virginia Tech’s self-contained, transportable pyrolysis unit will allow poultry producers to process the litter on-site, rather than hauling it to other locations, Agblevor said. Plus, the thermochemical process destroys microorganisms. The biogas generated by the portable

Poultry litter is a mixture of bedding, manure, features and spilled feed.

pyrolysis unit will be used to power the system, Agblevor said, and the bio-oil will be used to heat poultry houses. The char will be used as a low-release fertilizer. The pilot plant will evaluate the reactor design and address other issues that may affect the commercial operation of the mobile unit. How the portable units will be used by poultry growers is being discussed. “There are several proposals from the growers about installation of the units, but that will wait until we have the pilot plant results,” he said.

The fast-pyrolysis, fluidized-bed reactor yielded bio-oil at a rate of 30 percent to 50 percent by weight, depending on the litter content. Bedding material consisting mostly of hardwood shavings yielded bio-oil as high as 62 percent by weight. The bio-oil had a relatively high nitrogen content ranging from 4 percent to 7 percent by weight, very low sulfur content (below 1 percent) and was very viscous. The char yield ranged from 30 percent to 50 percent by weight, depending on the source, age and composition of the poultry litter. The char also had a high ash content, ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent by weight, depending on the age and source. The research is part of an effort to support the agricultural community while managing excess nutrients in the Shenandoah Valley. It is being funded by a $1 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chesapeake Bay Target Watershed program. - Susanne Retka Schill



NEWS Collaboration to re-engineer common fermentative yeast A team of scientists at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) has joined with CODA Genomics, an Orange Countybased company that provides genetic engineering solutions, to improve the efficiency of a commonly used strain of yeast for the production of ethanol. CODA stands for computationally optimized DNA assembly. The $1.6 million collaboration, sponsored by CODA with a matching grant from UCI, aims to engineer a strain of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae that can quickly and efficiently ferment glucose, as well as fivecarbon sugars like xylose and arabinose, which the yeast doesn’t utilize naturally. Although there are commercially available strains that have been engineered to ferment pentose sugars, the process isn’t very efficient, said G. Wesley Hatfield, a UCI molecular biologist and cofounder of CODA. “One of the problems with the current production strains that are being used

Saccharomyces cerevisiae

commercially is that the enzymes that have been engineered into the yeast are not catalytically effective,” he said. “They don’t work as fast and are not expressed as well as they could.” To improve on this, Hatfield’s team applies its patented CODA technology to the problem. Its computationally optimized DNA assembly technology employs a supercomputer that uses thermodynamic

principles and sophisticated algorithms to predict DNA sequences that self-assemble into genes that produce enzymes with greater activities that are expressed at higher levels. Those genes can be synthesized in the laboratory and inserted into the yeast. The activities of the enzymes are monitored, and the structure of the proteins is modeled. Using these models, Hatfield’s team can predict changes that need to be made to improve the activities of these enzymes. “We believe that we can use this technology to overcome the past obstacles to metabolically engineering yeast, so they will be able to process the hexose sugars better and for the first time efficiently process pentose sugars,” Hatfield said. “We expect to increase the production of ethanol by four- to fivefold.” -Jessica Ebert

UK uses biomass to meet EU, Kyoto targets Earlier this year, the British government published its plan for increasing the use of biomass for energy production to reduce the country’s emission of greenhouse gases. The United Kingdom is seeking to reduce its carbon footprint to meet its obligations under both the European Union (EU) and the Kyoto Protocol. The EU has set a goal of reducing energy consumption in its member states by 20 percent. It also intends to have biofuels make up 10 percent of all transportation fuels by 2020. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the country has agreed to reduce its 1990 carbon emissions by 12.5 percent by 2012, and it is on track to meet that goal. To help the UK meet these obliga-

tions, its Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is implementing a policy to increase the amount of biomass available for energy production. Steps to implement this policy include recovering an additional 1 million metric tons of wood from currently unmanaged woodlands, expanding the cultivation of energy crops to 1 million hectares (about 17 percent of the UK’s arable land), and increasing the use of organic waste such as manure and municipal solid waste for energy production. Imports will continue to be an important part of the strategy, especially for transport fuels and biomass cofired with coal for electricity production. Currently, the UK imports the equivalent of 54 ter-

awatt-hours of biomass for energy production. This is more than half of the country’s potential biomass production under the biomass strategy. Imports of biomass and biofuels are expected to increase. Another part of the strategy focuses on innovation. A new joint venture between the government and energy industry, the Energy Technologies Institute, will have a budget of up to £1 billion ($2 billion) over the next 10 years for the research and development of low-carbon energy technology and demand management. An Environmental Transformation Fund is also being established to invest in the demonstration and deployment of low-carbon energy projects. - Jerry W. Kram




DOE offers fourth cellulosic ethanol research funding opportunity The U.S. DOE announced in late August that another round of funding totaling $33.8 million will be made available for cellulosic ethanol research and development. These grants are intended to support the development and commercialization of enzyme systems for the hydrolysis and saccharification of lignocellulose. This step in cellulosic ethanol production is essential for releasing the sugars trapped in agricultural waste such as corn stover, other grain straws, bagasse, soybean matter and wood residue— sugars that are subsequently fermented to ethanol. However, the enzymatic treatment of cellulosic biomass is costly and time consuming, preventing the cost-competitive production of this biofuel. The latest DOE funding opportunity is designed to finance the development of effective enzyme systems that are stable and affordable. “These enzyme projects will serve as catalysts to the commercial-scale viability of cellulosic ethanol,” said DOE Assistant Secretary Andy Karsner. “Ethanol from new feedstocks will not only give America more efficient fuel options to help transform our transportation sector, but increasing its use will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” The awards will provide funding for projects expected to begin in fiscal year 2008, and continue through fiscal year 2011. Applications were due Oct. 30, and recipients of the awards are expected to be announced in the late spring of 2008. -Jessica Ebert

The NewPage Corp. pulp and paper mill in Escanaba, Mich., will integrate Chemrec's unique BLG technology into its paper pulping process to create syngas that can be converted into various types of biofuels.

Chemrec, NewPage form biomass-to-biofuels venture Sweden-based Chemrec AB and Ohiobased NewPage Corp. have formed a partnership to explore the feasibility of developing a facility that would produce renewable biomass-based fuels at NewPage’s paper mill in Escanaba, Mich. According to NewPage spokesman Kel Smyth, both parties are currently in the “prefeasibility” stage of the project that would employ Chemrec’s black liquor gasification (BLG) technology, which converts the black liquor waste stream from the paper pulping process into synthesis gas, or syngas. The syngas could then be processed into a variety of fuels such as dimethyl ether and methanol. Fuels such as Fischer-Tropsch diesel, synthetic natural gas and hydrogen are also being considered. Once the feasibility stage identifies standards set by both companies, the project would begin an approximately twoyear construction phase at NewPage’s mill site. Smyth noted that both parties would know whether the project would officially be moving forward by late next year. “Part of what we’re doing is figuring out both what we

can make and what we can market [using Chemrec’s BLG technology],” he said. The basic Chemrec approach is to replace (or supplement in small installations) a pulp mill recovery boiler with a high-temperature gasifier. The syngas can be used for power generation or, with additional processing units, be converted to biofuels. The new project is expected to produce about 13 MMgy of liquid biofuels, according to Smyth. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced the Chemrec/NewPage partnership in Sweden in August, following a reception with company and government leaders celebrating the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two companies. Earlier this year, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and NextEnergy, Michigan’s alternative energy accelerator in Detroit, established a cellulosic biofuels working group dedicated to crafting a strategy for the development of the industry in the state. -Bryan Sims




Center looks at prairie grass for fuel

Tennesse Switchgrass Potential


Switchgrass production (measured in dry tons, assuming yields of six dry tons per acre) in each region of Tennessee will increase greatly between 2012 and 2025, assuming the balance of crops in the agricultural sector is not disrupted.

UT Bioenergy Initiative selects refinery site “Grassoline” has been trademarked as the name for the fuel to be produced by the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Biofuels Initiative. The name was chosen as a way to publicize the project and link it to switchgrass, one of the proposed feedstocks, according to Kelly Tiller, director of external operations for the UT Office of Bioenergy Programs. “It resonates with the public,” she said. A public hearing was held in September to discuss Niles Ferry Industrial Park in Vonore, Tenn., as the site of the 5 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant. The permitting process has begun, and Tiller said if all goes well, the project should break ground in early 2008 with the first gallon of Grassoline targeted for production by mid-2009. Full production would be slated for a year later. The time line projects that a commercial-scale facility will be on line by early 2012. UT will invest $40.7 million toward the capital costs of the facility, which Tiller said is intended to be researchoriented with built-in flexibility to study nextgeneration technologies as they emerge. Other partners include the state of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory 16 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007

and private companies. At press time, details for the involvement of cellulosic ethanol developer Mascoma Corp. were being finalized. Tiller said other private companies may participate as other pieces of the project progress. Tiller described the UT initiative as a comprehensive project that will not only optimize the conversion process, but develop the whole system from the farm up. “This is a brand-new crop, and energy markets are not something farmers are familiar with,” she said. The state of Tennessee is contributing $8 million as an incentive for farmers to plant switchgrass, aiming for 8,000 acres in the program by mid-2008. UT is working on educational materials for farmers on establishing switchgrass, and recommendations for transport and storage. The project’s next step includes the development of switchgrass varieties that would produce high yields and high sugars, the introduction of new pretreatment technology tailored to regional feedstocks, and the development of value-added markets for integrated coproducts.

The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa wants to produce electricity from an unusual source: prairie grasses. The center, along with Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU), obtained $300,000 in funding from Iowa’s Power Fund to study the use of mixed prairie grasses as a fuel for the utility’s power plants. The center will study production methods on sandy, marginal soil on 100 acres at the Cedar River Wildlife Area, said Dave Williams, special project coordinator for the center. Building on research that showed mixed prairie grasses are more productive than stands of single species, the center will plant several different mixes of plants and compare the productivity of the different blends. Using a monoculture of switchgrass as a control plot, the study will compare blends of five, 16 and 32 different native prairie species. “All of these species will be native to Iowa,” he said. The amount of land included in this study will be much larger than previous studies. Williams said the project will more closely reflect conditions that farmers growing these grasses as energy crops will face. The study is funded for one year, Williams said, but it is scheduled to be a five-year study, so researchers will be returning to the Power Fund for additional money. Besides measuring the productivity of the plots, Williams said the project would measure the amount of carbon that the plants sequester in the soil, and how harvesting timing and techniques affect wildlife. CFU has two coal-fired power plants, one of which has been converted to run on 100 percent biomass fuel. The utility will experiment with converting mixed prairie plants into pellets and cubes that can be burned in the power plants. Based on the utility’s previous work with switchgrass, it is estimated that the 100-acre plot will produce enough biomass for an eight-hour test burn in the power plant. -Jerry W. Kram

-Susanne Retka Schill

C e n t e r s f o r

Renewable E



r g


& Biomass utilization

Where Sound Science Evolves into True Innovation

Backed by more than 60 years of experience in gasification technologies and more than a decade in biomass energy, the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) is leading North Dakota and the nation in renewable energy technologies.

With more than 300 employees, the EERC is a worldwide leader in developing cleaner, more efficient energy technologies as well as environmental technologies to protect and clean our air, water, and soil. At the EERC, sound science evolves into true innovation. Find out more about how EERC innovatation can work for you. EERC Technology … Putting Research into Practice

University of North Dakota Grand Forks



research Figuring out how to make fuel and chemicals from biomass is only the first step, making those processes economically viable is the ultimate goal. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado work with large and small businesses to turn their discoveries into commercial successes. By Jerry W. Kram


he National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is situated near the base of a rise on the west side of Golden, Colo., with a view of the Denver skyline. In its labs, scientists and engineers grapple with the challenge of turning promising concepts into commercial energy sources to increase America’s energy independence while easing our impact on the environment. NREL is operated by the U.S. DOE. The lab has been working on biomass for nearly 30 years along with wind, solar, geothermal and other alternative energy resources. The DOE reorganized its alternative energy programs in 2001 to coordinate research on the different alternative energy sources. NREL became the lead lab in the National Biomass Initiative, which coordinates the biomass work of five national energy labs. A tremendous amount of research is conducted at NREL and the other national labs. That research wouldn’t be worth much if the labs didn’t have a strong relationship with the private sector. John Ashworth is acting director of the National Biomass Initiative and head of partnership and business development for the biomass program at NREL. He is responsible for bringing businesses and entrepreneurs together with researchers and engineers with the expertise to make their ideas a reality.

Partnering There are many ways to form a business partnership with NREL. “We get associated with companies three different ways,” Ashworth says. “A company comes to us with an idea for a process or an idea for a piece of equipment and asks if we can help them by testing the equipment or replicating the process or giving them technical advice.” Sometimes NREL is the customer, looking for some obscure bit of expertise for a project or client. “No. 2, which isn’t as common, is that we have a research need,” Ashworth says. “We need to find a way to do something better than anyone can do it today. We may go out and look for someone who can help us with that either by buying their equipment or by having them build something that nobody has ever built before. A lot of the pieces in the pilot plant are custom, nobody had ever built them before.”


research Finally, some companies approach NREL to do joint projects. off. This is the proof that all the stuff we have done over the past This has been a growing source of work for the lab as the DOE has 3½ years actually works at scale.” put more emphasis on funding corporate research There are not many places in the United States projects. “The last one, which has been the big driver where companies can do pilot-scale research, short of over the past six years, is that the DOE has decided building their own facilities. That’s what makes the that one way to get private companies involved in comAFUF so attractive to corporations looking to create a mercializing technology is to put out matching money. new process without wiping out their own bottom So starting in about 1999, NREL has had big solicitalines. Ashworth says the lab has successfully worked tions, where they put $20 million to $30 million or with most of the major companies in the ethanol busirecently $200 million on the table and tell companies to ness including Poet LLC, Archer Daniels Midland Co. put together a team that can do the work. In a lot of and Abengoa Bioenergy. cases, people come to us and ask, ‘Would you partner with us if we win [the bid]?’” Contract Talks Ashworth As this Biomass Magazine staff writer was visiting The lab has designed several different levels of the lab, one of these partnered projects was coming to fruition. contractual agreements to work with companies and meet the Although Ashworth couldn’t share details because of confidentiali- requirements of different kinds of projects. “I will give the DOE ty agreements, he did say that the lab’s pilot plant, the Alternative some credit, they have tried to streamline the process,” Ashworth Fuels User Facility (AFUF), was being fitted for some equipment says. Years ago, people told the DOE that the process was cumberdeveloped by NREL and DuPont. “We’ve been working with some. “It was particularly cumbersome if you wanted to do someDuPont for 3½ years,” he says. “We’re doing the proof-of-concept thing that was very simple,” he says. “What we have tried to do is pilot plant run for their process using our facilities and our people. create an instrument that allows people to make use of our people It’s an $8.5 million cooperative research program and this is the pay- and facilities very quickly.”

The Alternative Fuels User Facility is devoted to researching new fuels made by biological fermentation. Another lab is focused on thermochemical biomass conversion. 20 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007


‘One of our strengths is that we have this whole spectrum of scales so some company doesn’t have to over-invest because they have only one certain scale of equipment for a limited amount of time.‘ NREL’s other strength is that few other institutions can match the level of experience it has working with biomass. The simplest agreements are with companies that want a particular analysis or research question answered. This is handled under an analytical services agreement. “It just says you have something you want us to analyze or just look at,” Ashworth says. “In the biomass case, it could be a feedstock that you want us to tell you what’s inside. It’s a one-page piece of paper that says ‘We’ll do this, you pay us X, and we’ll give you the data and everyone goes home.’ There is no intellectual property, no discovery, just the information.” An agreement of this type can be negotiated in a week or less. More in-depth analysis is handled through a technical services agreement. These analytical projects can last up to a year. For example, the lab tested a feedstock for fermentation every three months to see how the feedstock changed with the seasons, or in storage, Ashworth says. The more typical relationship between a company and NREL is negotiated in a cooperative research and development agreement or CRADA. “[In a CRADA] that’s where we are actually doing research—there is intellectual property being created,” Ashworth says. “There is a lot of concern about who will wind up owning that at the end of the day. So there are terms and conditions totally open

to negotiation on who owns what. At the end of the day you work that all out and it will say something like, ‘If your scientists discover it, you own it. If our scientists discover it, we own it and will license it to you for commercial purposes.’” These contracts are important because as a government agency the lab is required to make its discoveries available to the public. “We are bound by government rules, and one of those rules is that if the lab’s equipment is used, the government retains a research license to whatever it has invented,” Ashworth says. “It doesn’t mean the government will commercialize it, but if it is something important that pushes the technology forward the government wants to be able to work on it.” The complexity of CRADAs requires a longer time period for negotiations. Ashworth says it can take from one to eight months, depending on the intricacy of the agreement. “It depends on how much intellectual property is being brought to the table,” he says. “For example, in our work with DuPont, we had a lot of background intellectual property they wanted to use. So that means you had to figure out who licenses what and what are they going to pay. They also brought their own intellectual property because they have a tremendous research program. You have the terms and conditions and then you have to have the lawyers look at the terms and conditions.” Once those terms are set, a CRADA can be approved locally so work can begin quickly, Ashworth says. “In general, if we can agree on all the background stuff, it can get going pretty quickly,” he says. “Basically we just need to know what the work is going to be, who’s going to pay what, and what are the milestones and deliverables. The local field office approves it and we move ahead.” At one time, the lab was involved in a number of what it calls work for others agreements where the company paid 100 percent of all the costs involved in the research project and retained all the intellectual property rights. These are generally limited to replicating


research or scaling up research that has already been completed by the business involved. “We don’t do a lot of those any more,” Ashworth says. “We found that when we got into these agreements, by and large there were always discoveries. People were always coming up with better processes and it just causes big issues down the line. We will still do them, but we are pretty insistent that you know what you are doing. You can’t just have an idea, but you have to have a dialed in process and you just want us to prove it on a larger scale.” Technology developed by NREL is licensed to the industry. However, research done under a CRADA generally isn’t published for five years to allow NREL’s partners the chance to commercialize it first. Ashworth’s favorite example of a widespread NRELdeveloped technology doesn’t come from biomass research, but from the lab’s work in wind power. Most of the windmills sold today use an advanced blade design developed at NREL. The lab also licenses microorganisms that it has discovered and developed such as Zymomonas. The income produced from those licenses goes back to the lab. However, Ashworth says the main purpose of the license is to make sure the technology is being used. If the technology isn’t being used, the license is revoked. “We’ve had that happen,” he says. “A company licensed something to prevent a competitor from getting it. After about 18 months we took it back.” The number of agreements in place at any one time varies, Ashworth says. With more money going into cellulosic technologies NREL’s biomass program has been busy. At any one time, the company can be working on three or four CRADAs, and a half-a-dozen analytical service agreements. Then there are a number of technical service agreements which take only a week or two to complete. As the biomass industry expands, NREL is looking to expand its facilities. “We will double the size of our pilot facility, AFUF, in the next two years,” Ashworth says. “Part of the reason we’re doing that is so we can run more industrial collaborations in parallel. Right now we have many pieces of equipment that are used quite heavily, and you can only use something 24 hours a day.” NREL is also enlarging its thermochemical biomass conversion facility.

The scale of the work Aden does depends in large part on how far the company has advanced in its own research. “Basically we work with that partner to figure out how much data they already have,” Aden says. “If we are going to the pilot scale, that means they already have some amount of bench-scale research.” NREL can also help develop bench-scale experiments if the company’s research isn’t that far along. The lab can help ensure that the companies have all the information they need to move ahead with their process. “For example, if we are doing pretreatment research we’re geared to doing dilute acid pretreatment, but there are a lot of other chemistries you can use,” Aden explains. “So we would get to the point where we feel there is sufficient background data before we feel justified in going to the larger scale. Then we would have to see if the existing equipment we have would satisfy their needs or if we’d have to purchase some equipment to fill their needs. That’s one

Working Together The nuts and bolts of molding a working relationship depend on the type and scale of the project. Once an agreement is in place between NREL and a business, it is up to process engineers like Andy Aden to implement them. “Most of the research I do is on process design and economic analysis,” he says. “I take the research in the laboratories and see what economics and designs are on the commercial scale—see what the biggest areas Aden of improvement are going to be and things of that nature. I try to make sure things are cost effective for industry to implement.” 22 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007

Aden examines some feedstock to be used for an upcoming run of NREL’s pilot ethanol facility. NREL has tested many potential cellulosic feedstocks, including corn stover, poplar and switchgrass.

research of the reasons we are expanding this facility over the next couple nascent right now,” McMillan says. “You are starting to see compayears, to anticipate the needs we have heard from industry.” nies with internal research programs and some funding in academWhile testing a new piece of equipment such as a new pretreat- ic areas. So you will have some students who have done work with ment digester would require some repiping of the this material, but the talent pool is still one of the botpilot plant, Aden says more time would be taken to tlenecks for the industry. That’s one of our roles, bringdevelop standard operating and safety procedures. ing on a lot of teachers, a lot of summer interns and in The pilot plant was designed to make swapping equipsome CRADAs we will train people in the companies. ment in and out as easy as possible. “We try to do as That’s sometimes an important part of the project.” much plug-and-play systems as possible,” he says. As the technologies for cellulosic ethanol are “Theoretically, if someone wanted to do a butanol ramped up to commercial scale the excitement is fermentation instead of an ethanol fermentation we intense. “Look out for the next five years,” Aden says. use this existing equipment, just different organisms,” “With industry’s help there are going to be significant Aden says. strides made. I can’t wait to see exactly what’s going to NREL is one of the few facilities in the country take place. The common phrase used to be ‘it’s always McMillan that can work with bioenergy processes ranging from five years out,’ well steel’s going in the ground right now. a few grams in a laboratory flask to up to a ton a day in the pilot It’s going be interesting to see how successful biomass is and who’s facility, according to Jim McMillan, principal chemical engineer for successful because there are a variety of players out there now and the National Bioenergy Center. “One of our strengths is that we it’s anybody’s ballgame.” BIO have this whole spectrum of scales so some company doesn’t have to over-invest because they have only a certain scale of equipment Jerry W. Kram is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. He can be reached at or (701) 746-8385. for a limited amount of time,” McMillan says. NREL’s other strength is that few other institutions can match the level of experience it has working with biomass. This level of experience makes NREL a source for training and teaching future researchers and industry leaders about biomass. “The industry is




Closing the

Energy Circle

Green Circle Bio Energy Inc. is building the world’s biggest wood pellet plant in the heart of the largest plantation-style pine forest in the world. Until U.S. legislation promoting biomass power catches up with directives in Europe, these pellets will be exported to a handful of European power companies. By Ron Kotrba






arlier this year in Massachusetts v. U.S. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that carbon dioxide vehicle emissions are subject to EPA regulation as a greenhouse gas (GHG). While the ruling was specific to vehicle emissions, it represents a milestone precedent from the highest court in the land, and judicial experts suggest it could lead to broader regulation of carbon emissions from power plants—the world’s worst carbon offenders. “The main greenhouse gas emitters are those in the power industry, so that is a good place to start,” says Olaf Roed, president and CEO of Green Circle Bio Energy Inc., a Florida-based company owned by JCE Group AB, of Sweden which owns the world’s largest wood pellet plant now under construction in the Florida Panhandle. According to Roed, all global transportation sources on land and sea, and in the air, contribute 14 percent of all GHG emissions, leaving much of the remainder in the hands of the power-generation industry. Fossil fuels represent a broken circle, Roed says with staunch conviction. “But biomass—biomass represents a closed circle.” Some smaller power plants in Europe run on biomass exclusively, he adds. EU countries are required to generate power from renewable production under the renewable directive derived from GHG reduction targets in the Kyoto Protocol. Widespread use of biomass in the United States to any significant degree Roed is an unlikely scenario until federal restrictions on GHG emissions and incentives


Two initial production lines at the Green Circle complex will utilize 13 Buhler pellet machines, giving this facility the single-largest wood pelleting capacity in the world at 550,000 tons of wood pellets per year.

to boost renewable energy production are in play. Congress is expected to cover new ground this session as topics such as low-carbon fuel standards and carbon cap-and-trade systems are tossed around in the House and Senate. Most environmentally conscious people think it’s about time. “It’s all one planet and it doesn’t matter whether the power plant is in China, Europe or the United States—it still goes out into the same atmosphere that we’re all concerned about,” Roed tells Biomass Magazine.

Pinpointing the Southeast Construction of the Green Circle wood pelleting plant in Cottondale, Fla., 60 miles north of Panama City, began in February and initial production is targeted for December. The $65 million plant is scaled to produce 550,000 tons of wood pellets per year from regionally sourced pulp-quality southern yellow pine roundwood, which is produced in abundance in the fiber-rich southeastern United States. According to the Forest Nutrition Cooperative, more than 32 million acres of pine are grown in the southeastern United States. “The southeast

power The southern yellow pine wood pellets will contain less than 1 percent bark, moisture content between 7 percent and 10 percent, ash content of approximately 0.5 percent, and an energy content of 4.8 megawatts per metric ton.

United States has the largest plantation-style pine forest in the world,” Roed says. With ample nearby feedstock this plant will produce enough wood pellets in a year to generate 2,400 gigawatt hours of electricity—that’s more than 2.5 trillion watt hours. “The idea for this plant has been around for about two years,” Roed says. “The concept is to supply the European power industry with our wood pellets.” Green Circle looked at a world map and gauged global fiber supplies while also considering political stability and simple logistics chains. The result was a decision to build the plant in the Florida Panhandle. In March, Jackson County received a $750,000 grant to help pay for Green Circle’s water and sewer facilities in Cottondale. "The citizens of Jackson County are excited to have Green Circle Bio Energy break ground on the world's largest biomass pellet plant,” Ted Lakey, Jackson County administrator, said at the groundbreaking ceremony. “We expect this plant to have a positive economic impact for the entire Florida Panhandle." While much of the community response is positive, Roed says there are those who don’t understand all the issues. “Like

agriculture, if it’s not cultivated it goes downhill. The virgin wood here has been gone for hundreds of years so we’re talking replanted forests here,” he says. “And when it’s not maintained and cultivated—that, of course, is not good.” The project site is near the Alabama-Georgia state line, an area of traditional roundwood surplus. According to 2005 data from the USDA Forest Service’s Southern Research Station, Alabama and Georgia respectively lead the South in total roundwood production. Booming development has led to a growing sawmill industry in the Sunshine State, but the older, larger sawmill timber is more difficult to harvest when the smaller pulpwood isn’t thinned out. “If we were not here to buy the pulpwood, which is in lesser demand than the saw timber, it would be worse for the forest situation in the United States,” he says. Even though Green Circle isn’t purchasing wood quite yet, a number of landowners and logging crews will be part of the wood-pellet production plant’s supply chain. “We’re looking at between 10 and 20 different suppliers,” Roed says.

The Plant The pulp-quality roundwood will be delivered to the Green Circle facility on trucks, and as they enter the 225-acre site, the nearly 50 percent moisture-laden roundwood will be staged in the wood yard and pre-dried by the sun. The wood will be shifted onto the conveyer line where it will encounter the plant’s de-barking system. The bark will be transported to a separate pile for eventual use as energy. The stripped round wood will move on to the chipper, after which it is piled. The bark will enter a building where it will be stored under shelter to keep dry until it is transported to its final destination in the furnace to provide the heat needed in the two, large, single-pass


power with the heart of its operation— the pellet presses. Two initial production lines at the Green Circle complex will utilize 13 Buhler pellet machines, giving this facility the single-largest wood pelleting capacity in the world at 550,000 tons of wood pellets per year. A similar 300,000ton-per-year wood pelleting plant built in Denmark, which is also owned by Green Circle’s parent company, JCE Group, holds that distinction until the Cottondale plant comes on line in December. According to Brian Williams, Buhler marketing manager, his company provided JCE Group’s Denmark plant with its pellet mills as well. “We’ve supplied similar An aerial view of Green Circle Bio Energy’s 225-acre project site in Cottondale, Fla., where the equipment to plants in Germany, Austria and Denmark,” Williams largest wood pellet factory in the world is being built. tells Biomass Magazine. “This is drying drums. The biomass-fired energy system comes by way absolutely a growing trend and we’re proud of our involvement of The Teaford Co. Inc., a Georgia-based company. As a sup- in this project.” The pellet mills employ such high pressures plementary furnace fuel to the bark, Green Circle also plans to that the wood flour becomes almost fluid for an instant as the purchase and integrate sawmill residues. Once the wood chips molecular structure of the wood is altered and it’s compacted are dried they will be conveyed into a silo for temporary stor- for extrusion through the die plate. “The lignin in the wood age. From the silo, chips will be moved to the hammermill sup- itself acts as a glue when the pellets come out,” Roed explains. plied by Switzerland-based Buhler AG, which will pulverize the “It’s hard and in pellet form, and there are no chemicals or anywood chips into powder. Buhler is also supplying Green Circle thing added to the product. No binder—no nothing—added.”


power After production, the pellets are loaded directly onto railcars serviced by Bay Line Railroad LLC, which moves from north to south, with a CSX Transportation Inc. rail line nearby, which moves from east to west. Loaded cars move directly to the Port of Panama City where they are placed onto cargo ships and exported to Europe. Roed says marketing negotiations are still underway but he expects to sell directly to a single-digit number of European power companies. The southern yellow pine wood pellets will contain less than 1 percent bark, moisture content between 7 percent and 10 percent, ash content of approximately 0.5 percent, and an energy content of 4.8 megawatts per metric ton. They are cylindrically shaped, 8 millimeters (0.3 inches) in diameter and are a maximum of 32 millimeters (1.3 inches) long. Green Circle also spent approximately $7 million in emissions equipment. Roed explains the rationale behind such a heavy investment, and what that money is purchasing. “Being a green company, it is important for us to keep a green profile,” he says. “When you burn the bark you do have air emissions so we invested in a regenerative thermal oxidizer and a wet West System. What that gives us is, despite having the world’s largest plant of its kind, we will be classified in the state of Florida as a minor emitter.” Pollution control is being provided by A.H.

Lundberg Associates Inc., based in Bellevue, Wash. Once fully operational the plant will employ 45 people, who will run the plant in four shifts a day, 24 hours for seven days a week.

Maximizing Net Energy Gain, Future Plans Considering the fossil fuels used to produce these wood pellets, Green Circle markets its pellets as possessing a net energy gain of 11 times that of the fossil fuels needed to produce them. “That’s not typical of most wood pellets,” Roed says. “What we’re talking about here is the return on fossil fuel use. You can hardly do anything in this world without fossil fuels. So if we put in one unit of fossil fuels we get out 11 times that in renewable energy.” Since typical wood pellets don’t yield an 11-fold net energy gain compared with fossil fuels used, how does Green Circle’s wood pellets achieve such good returns? “We use the bark to make the heat, which is the biggest drain on energy consumption we have in making these pellets,” Roed says. “Also, we’ve set up a logistics chain that is large scale. You get economies of scale using only rail and ship (for outbound products). Outbound we have rail directly from the plant to the port, and then ocean service directly from there to the customers.” Another aspect of the process adding to this



The Fischer-Tropsch/Fat


The Syntroleum Corp. team and its investors always knew their technology was solid. That confidence was renewed when the company signed a deal with Tyson Foods Inc. to commercialize its refining technology—turning animal fat into renewable diesel and jet fuels. With that process under its belt, Syntroleum plans to turn to biomass gasification. By Susanne Retka Schill



Ken Agee, founder and chief technology officer, explains Syntroleum’s work in refining Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) products into high-quality fuels. The small white disc on his desk is a sample of F-T wax, which is quite similar in composition to animal fats. 12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 31



en Agee was working as a chemical engineer for a pipeline company 23 years ago when he first became interested in finding a way to use surplus natural gas. He read about Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) technology during his lunch breaks and built a homemade reactor in a garden shed in his back yard. Three years later, he quit his job to work on the project full time. Agee assembled a team and formed GTG Inc., which later became Syntroleum Corp. To date, the Tulsa, Okla.-based company has amassed nearly 160 patents on its work. “In the early days, we tested 1,000 different catalyst combinations,” Agee says. In the past decade, the company has come close to seeing its technologies commercialized, particularly when oil prices were high enough to make the capital-intensive F-T process cost effective. The U.S. DOE helped fund a demonstration plant to scale up the Syntroleum process and produce 400,000 gallons of synfuels for testing in military jets and diesel applications. Syntroleum supplied 100,000 gallons of the synthetic JP8 jet fuel it produced from natural gas in the Cartoosa demonstration facility to the U. S. Air Force. It passed the tests and is now certified for use in a 50 percent blend with petroleum-based jet fuel in B52 bombers. The Air Force intends to certify all of its aircraft to fly on the blend by 2011. With that project complete, Syntroleum was in the process of mothballing the demonstration plant when management challenged its team of chemists and chemical engineers to come up with other uses for their technology. In one of those “ah-ha” moments, the group realized the chemical structure of triglycerides is similar to the FT waxes refined in the company’s patented and trademarked Synfining process. Lab testing confirmed that fats and oils could be refined into high-quality synthetic fuels, and identified the needed adaptations to create what the company has trademarked as Biofining. In making the fat connection, Syntroleum has identified an application for the simplest and cheapest part of its 32 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007

process—the refining step that follows the Fischer-Tropsch reaction. “We couldn’t do a $1 billion project,” says Agee, referring to the estimated cost to complete an F-T Synfining facility. “We can do a $150 million project.” The company’s business development group created a short list of potential partners and this summer closed a deal with Tyson Foods Inc. The joint venture promises to bring two decades of research and

development to commercialization, giving Syntroleum a positive cash flow for the first time. “It’s been the most wonderful shot in the arm for the employees and investors to be not just a technical success, but a financial success,” CEO Jack Holmes says. In June, Syntroleum and Tyson announced a joint venture to create Dynamic Fuels LLC. The deal involves building multiple, stand-alone facilities pro-

Syntroleum CEO Jack Holmes holds up vials of black rendered poultry fat and white Fischer-Tropsch wax. Both can be refined into clear synthetic diesel or jet fuel.

innovation Jet fuel is Syntroleum’s target market. The U.S. Air Force’s goal is to replace half of the 1.6 billion gallons of domestic fuel it uses per year with alternative fuels by 2016.

ducing “ultra-clean, high-quality, next generation renewable synthetic fuels using Syntroleum’s patented Biofining process, a ‘flexible feed/flexible synthetic fuels’ technology,” according to Tyson. The first facility expected to be built somewhere in the mid-South will produce about 75 MMgy of fuel from low-grade animal fats, greases and vegetable oils supplied by Tyson. The $150 million project is targeted to be on line by 2010. The price tag includes a contingency for unanticipated expenses in building the first facility. Then the work will begin to add biomass gasification capabilities to the front end of the Biofining plant. A third-party will be recruited to supply the gasification technology and Syntroleum’s technology will be added to convert the biogas into F-T products that can be refined in the same Biofining plant as the fats.

In the Spotlight Syntroleum has been riding a wave of publicity created when it inked the deal with Tyson, telling its story on television, making a presention on Wall Street and providing tours of its Tulsa facilities as the company begins the work of raising its share of funding for the joint venture. Standing beside the structure of pipes and tanks, Sid Schmoker, manager of facilities maintenance, explains how the company’s F-T technology works as he guides a tour of Syntroleum’s demonstration plant for Biomass Magazine. The $60 million plant demonstrated the company’s technology using natural gas as the feedstock to manufacture synfuels. Biomass-to-liquid or coalto-liquid will require adding a gasifier and syngas clean-up to the front end of the Syntroleum process. Jim Engman, manager of catalyst testing, continues the tour at the Syntroleum FT laboratory in another part of Tulsa, where a bank of small reactors and a room

full of monitors permit multiple test runs, while the researchers tweak process conditions to see how well they can control the outcome. Across town, at Syntroleum headquarters, researchers in another set of laboratories are running tests on dozens of fat samples from Tyson. F-T is not a new process. The Germans used the technology to produce fuel from coal during World War II to power its military. Sasol Ltd., based in South Africa, became the world leaders in F-T technology when an international embargo during the country’s apartheid regime stopped oil imports. In the rest of the world, cheap oil has discouraged the development of F-T technology, which requires oil prices above $50 per barrel to make it economical. Syntroleum targeted its F-T innovations to stranded gas reserves— the natural gas that gets flared off oil wells in areas where there’s no access to natural gas infrastructure. As the price of oil has climbed, the economics of recovering stranded gas has improved.

From Incomplete Combustion to Liquids The process starts with syngas coming from a gasifier. The incomplete combustion in the gasifier produces carbon monoxide and hydrogen, along with tars and particulates that have to be scrubbed out, Agee explains. Earlier this year, the company took two bench-scale reactors to Eastman Chemical Co.’s coal gasifier in Tennessee for a 100-day trial. Agee considers gasified coal, which contains sulfur, arsenic, mercury, iron and other metals, the ultimate test of whether syngas from multiple sources of biomass can be cleaned up enough to avoid killing the F-T catalyst. Unfortunately, there is no commercially operating biomass gasifier to test its theory. However, with the results from the coal gasifier in hand, Agee is confident that bio12|2007 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 33


Syntroleum and Tyson’s joint venture, Dynamic Fuels, will start with Step 3 where the F-T products are upgraded in the Synfining process, or animal fats in the slightly modified Biofining process, into synthetic diesel or jet fuel. Once Step 3 is operational, the plan is to add a biomass gasifier and F-T reactor.

gas from any biomass source can be cleaned adequately. “We consider coal the worst case scenario,” Agee says. Once it’s cleaned the syngas is piped to the F-T reactor. One of Agee’s breakthroughs was developing a catalyst that would not be killed by nitrogen. In the case of gas-to-liquids, the innovation permits the use of compressed air and eliminates the need for oxygen purification, thus reducing

capital costs and boosting safety. Another unique feature of the Syntroleum F-T technology is its ability to remove a stream of the catalyst to be regenerated while the plant is running. The Syntroleum process uses a slurry-phase reactor. Clean syngas is introduced at the bottom of the reactor and bubbles up through the catalyst and wax. The catalyst facilitates a chemical reaction which reorganizes the carbon and hydrogen mole-


cules into long carbon chains of paraffinic waxes along with light oils and water. After auto-thermal reforming and the F-T reactor, the liquids enter the final process which Syntroleum has patented and trademarked as Synfining. This last step uses hydrocracking and hydroisomerization to break the long chains in the waxes into the desired fuels—diesel or jet fuel. When processing synthetic diesel, the coproduct is 20

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innovation percent naptha, and if synthetic jet fuel is the end product it results in 40 percent naptha, Agee says.

Targeting the Jet Fuel Market Jet fuel is Syntroleum’s target market. The U.S. Air Force’s goal is to replace half of the 1.6 billion gallons of domestic fuel it uses per year with alternative fuels by 2016, Holmes says. “The current alternative fuels from ethanol and biodiesel can’t meet the [Department of Defense] specs,” he says. “Our technology will.” This summer, Syntroleum signed a contract to supply 500 gallons of the synthetic jet fuel made from fats to see if it performs the same as its synthetic JP8 jet fuel. “It will,” Holmes says, adding that in their lab tests, the fuels from renewable fats exactly match the fuels from natural gas (see the chart on page 34). Flying high after its success with the Air Force and its deal with Tyson, Syntroleum has raised the initial $4.25 million, matched by Tyson, to conduct site selection studies and prepare the process design package and front-end engineering. The challenge will be to raise the next $70.75 million, which is the remainder of its share of the capital required to build the first plant. In the

meantime, Syntroleum executives are pleased with the joint venture. “Tyson has turned out to be a wonderful partner,” Holmes says. One resource Tyson brings to the table is its governmental relations division which is helping with state-level negotiations as sites are considered. Government support of renewable diesel will be an important component for Syntroleum’s success. The biodiesel industry protested this summer when Tyson agreed to supply fats to Conoco-Phillips to produce renewable diesel and collect a $1-per-gallon tax credit. Biodiesel supporters are concerned that refinery-scaled projects will dominate feedstock supplies and qualify for tax credits that were intended to aid the fledgling biodiesel industry. Holmes makes a distinction between the oil companies’ plans to coprocess a small amount of fats with crude oil in the refinery and Syntroleum’s renewable diesel. “We are different,” Holmes says. “We are stand-alone, new construction. We create new jobs, and we’re making 100 percent renewable diesel.” He’s hoping the attempts to rewrite legislation to prevent oil companies from getting the federal biodiesel incentive will not rule out incen-

tives for small companies like Syntroleum developing new technologies and utilizing 100 percent renewable feedstocks. At current prices, the biodiesel tax credits are crucial, he says. “Our cash margins are about $1 per gallon, which includes the $1 tax credit,” he adds. In the company’s projections, the first plant making 75 MMgy per year should net $60 million per year to cash flow, which will be used to pay off the investment. Detailed projections for the biomass system have not yet been worked out, but initial numbers show promise. Agee estimates the biomass gasifier and F-T reactor will cost two to three times more than the $150 million needed to build the first Biofining facility. However, the higher capital investment will be offset by lower feedstock costs, he says. While fats cost about 20 cents per pound, biomass is expected to cost $20 to $60 per ton. “I think all the components are there to make biomass diesel,” he says. “But they aren’t there on a commercial scale yet.” After 23 years of working out the details in Syntroleum’s process, Agee’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned. “Part of the demonstration process is working out the bugs,” he says with quiet confidence. BIO

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Renewed Interest in

Bovine Biomass Researchers are taking another look at animal-processed fiber (APF), a coproduct of the anaerobic digestion process. APF contains an abundance of protein and fiber fractions such as cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin and can be used for a variety of biobased products.

By Bryan Sims






or years, horticulturists and agricultural researchers have exploited the valuable properties of ruminant animal waste for energy production. Today, those same researchers are reviving the science known as “chemurgy,� the development of nonfood, industrial products made from agricultural materials. Much of the energy captured from cattle manure is derived from anaerobic digestion. On dairy farms, the system is used to sequester methane and carbon dioxide to generate energy, control pathogens and reduce odors. The anaerobic digestion process also produces a coproduct called animal-processed fiber (APF) that has become a target of scientific interest. Many in the biomass industry have come to perceive APF as one of the most undervalued and underutilized forms of cellulosic material. Research in APF involves uncovering the various values and properties the material holds for a number of biobased industrial products. APFs are the undigested residual material that neither the animal nor the anaerobic digester can breakdown any further. APF can be used in animal bedding and potting soil, but agricultural scientists would like to learn more about its potential applications. Although the material does contain trace amounts of nonvaluable components, APF also contains an abundance of protein and fiber fractions such as cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and other valuable components. These fractions, along with minerals and other nutrients, represent a biologically processed feedstock suitable for a variety of purposes—as a supplement in the paper, pulp and wood industries, in wood-derived composite products such as fiberboard, floor tiling, siding and other wood-derived biocomposite products, and as a binding agent in adhesives, industrial tape and masonry patching materials.


APF can be integrated into wood production. The top board is a hard fiberboard with high APF density. The middle fiberboard has medium APF density and the bottom fiberboard sheet is medium density with an APF core and wood fiber surfaces.

This pile of APF was extruded from a GHD Inc. separator. APF are highly fiberous and contain an abundance of nutrients and other cellulosic components, which are amenable for wood, paper and pulp manufacturing. Farmers and researchers are currently exploring its marketability


‘If we can bring the value up on [APF] then it becomes a little more feasible to build more anaerobic digesters, which is good for the entire livestock industry.’

According to Steve Dvorak, president of Chilton, Wis.-based GHD Inc., a firm that designs and installs anaerobic digesters, extensive research on APF uses should take off in the next five to 10 years. “There’s a lot of potential in this and there are many people looking at it,” Dvorak says. “I think we’re going to see a lot of changes in the next year or two of where this material goes.” The key to transforming APF and manure, often perceived as low-grade waste, into value-added biorenewable products involves the development of refining operations that convert these components into commercially viable commodities.

Making Strides Since 1989, Deland Meyers, considered by many in the biomass industry to be a pioneer in APF and ruminant manure-related biobased products research, has been successfully converting APF into potentially marketable biobased composite products such as fiberboard, particleboard and various types of fiber-based plastics. Shortly after Meyers joined Iowa State University’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, he began to explore the idea of creating nonfood products from plant proteins for the Center for Crops Utilization Research. The same functional properties of protein are applied to both food and nonfood products, he says. “[The research] was trying to find a new use for a

biobased material that has been produced in the state [of Iowa],” says Meyers, now director of a newly created department at North Dakota State University in Fargo that will be called the School of Food Systems and is currently the Department of Cereal and Food Sciences. “We were able to take that fiber and add a little processing and essentially came up with fiberboards that look very similar to wood or other types of agriculture-[based] fiber products.” Farmers traditionally use manure to fertilize their fields. As farms have grown and animals are densely concentrated in single locations, farmers have more manure than land to spread it on, especially in the livestock-heavy states of Wisconsin and Texas. Finding new uses for APF and the raw manure could provide a solution to disposing of the more than 2 trillion pounds of manure produced annually in the United States. It would also help to allay environmentalists concerns about contamination of streams and underground water sources from manure runoff. “In some regions of the country there’s a shortage of [the nutrients found in manure] and in many regions there’s an excess because of large livestock concentrations,” says Tom Richard, associate professor of agriculture and bioenergy at Pennsylvania State University. Richard has research ties with Meyers on manure-based applications. “In the regions where there’s an excess of manure this looks like a potential winwin solution,” he says There are concerns about odors and pathogens when APF products are produced in tandem in the pulp, paper and wood mill industries. However, noxious odors and microbes that manifest disease are killed off by the manufacturing process, according to Richard. Once the final product is dry enough it doesn’t serve as a substrate for microbial growth, unless it gets wet, which is something researchers are looking at

very closely, he says. So far, fiberboard made with APF seems to match or beat the quality of wood-based products. “The downside is that the fiber is weakening throughout that process,” Richard says. “I expect that for structural applications where strength is imporRichard tant it may be necessary to blend in some additional wood fiber in order to strengthen that material.” Another possible APF-related application that is currently being researched is potting soil. Tim Zauche, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, is in the process of developing a soilless potting mix for orchids from APF. Creating a marketable soil for the floral industry could be commercially viable because orchid sales in the United States have increased and the cost of peat moss, which is mostly imported from Canada, has risen. “Greenhouses would like this material because it’s so consistent,” Zauche says. “APFs are consistent over three to four months, whereas composted material depends on whether the pile was warm here or there or not, greenhouse growers don’t always like it.” Zauche has also worked with the USDA Forest Products Laboratory to develop APF-derived fibrous material that can act as a substitute for sawdust in the making of fiberboard.

Tackling the Obstacles One of the biggest challenges in APF research is successfully marketing the biobased products and convincing industrial product retailers like Menards, The Home Depot or Lowe’s stores to sell the products. In an attempt to promote his products, Meyers and his team


coproduct wood milling. In countries without a sufficient fiber source, however, APF could potentially be a valuable commodity. “I think [APF] would be more applicable in APF as a Feedstock for Cellulosic Ethanol? more fiber-hungry countries like China,” Kuo says. Although the technology is As corn prices continue to fluctuate and concern over available, it’s a matter of getting the most whether corn-based ethanol production is straining the food and out of the research and time allocated feed industries, producing cellulosic ethanol from feedstocks for that research to find new uses for such as switchgrass, corn stover and sweet sorghum is being APF-derived biobased composite prodheavily researched. Could animal processed fiber (APF) conucts and gain consumer acceptance Kuo tribute to that mix? says. “I think one of the questions that is going to be important is Dvorak has observed that more livewhat are the trade-offs and best feedstocks for the different purstock farmers are changing their percepposes?” says Tom Richard, associate professor of agriculture tions of APF and/or manure. Once and bioenergy at Pennsylvania State University. “We’re in a viewed as a low-value, recycled material period now where energy has got a lot of value and there’s a lot that’s expensive to dispose of, APF of interest and excitement about cellulosic ethanol. A significant could be transformed into a valued compart of APF is cellulose so that’s something that certainly needs modity with the potential for significant to be explored.” profit if a solid market can be estabAlthough the notion hasn’t been thoroughly explored, lished. As a result, GHD sales have risen. Deland Meyers purports that with continued refinement of “If we can bring the value up on [APF] research and technological advancements, APF could complethen it becomes a little more feasible to ment conventional cellulosic feedstocks for ethanol production. build more anaerobic digesters, which is “That’s something that we hadn’t thought about, but theoreticalgood for the entire livestock industry,” ly [APF] probably could,” says Meyers, who recently joined Dvorak says. North Dakota State University as the director of its newly creatAccording to Richard, it may only be ed School of Food Systems. “I think it definitely has merit and I a matter time before we see more think it’s something that could be seriously looked at.” manure-based materials integrated into According to Monlin Kuo, associate professor of natural conventional wood-derived products. resources and ecology management at Iowa State University, The end result could be so transparent the biggest hurdle that would prevent APF from becoming a that consumers don’t even realize it’s viable feedstock for cellulosic production would be the location happening. “I think over time, exciteof farms that operate anaerobic digesters relative to cellulosic ment about biobased energy is going to ethanol plants because transportation costs would be expenneed to be coupled with excitement sive. “The logistical issues are very important factors to considabout biobased materials,” Richard says. er,” he adds. “There are many livestock operators who would love to find something different to do with their manure and this looks like one of the choices to evalucreated biobased composite novelties ecology management at ISU and a for- ate.” BIO such as “cow pie Frisbees” and demon- mer colleague of Meyers during their strated the products’ unique qualities at joint research efforts on biobased com- Bryan Sims is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach him at bsims@bbibiofuels Iowa fairgrounds, expos and other pub- posite products, other major hindrances .com or (701) 746-8385. lic events. But still the products “never for advancing APF-derived products really took off commercially,” he says, include the cost of research and compewhich is impeding widespread market tition from the existing wood mill production. This is especially true in the acceptance. According to Monlin Kuo, an asso- United States, which has sufficient supciate professor of natural resources and plies of wood from forestry sources for



Members of the Biocomposite Research Group at Iowa State University, include, left to right, Douglas Stokke, senior lecturer, Yilin Bian, a research associate, Kuo and John Schmitz, a doctoral student.




igh-Voltage Debate Over Renewable Electricity Mandate

The U.S. Congress is getting closer to passing a renewable electricity mandate, which could mean dramatic growth for the biomass industry. Ironically, the Southeastern states—the region most likely to benefit from the development of the biomass industry—are resisting such a mandate. By Anduin Kirkbride McElroy


llinois and North Carolina recently enacted renewable electricity standards, which mandate that a certain percentage of the state’s electricity must come from renewable sources. With those additions, 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed some form of this policy, most commonly referred to as a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). With this kind of support, one would think that a federal RPS would be just around the corner. And indeed, it has been—since 2001. The Senate has passed a version of an RPS in three different Congresses, but each time it was struck down by House Republicans, according to Leon Lowery, professional staff for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Now that the Democrats are in control of Congress, an RPS might be closer to reality. This summer, both houses of Congress passed major bills meant to promote efficiency and wean the country from fossil fuels. Though the Senate bill didn’t include an RPS, the House did approve a measure that would require 15 percent renewable energy by 2020. This is the first time the House has ever passed an RPS.


If an RPS becomes law, the biomass industry could see significant growth, as it follows in the footsteps of other renewable mandates. The policy can be compared with the renewable fuel standard (RFS) passed by Congress in the 2005 Energy Bill. The RFS mandated that an increasing percentage of the motor fuel pool must be renewable fuel. This mandate spurred incredible growth in the ethanol and biodiesel industries by guaranteeing a market for the product. Many Washington policy experts agree that a national RPS has the potential to do the same thing for various renewable industries, including biomass. “According to the [Energy Information Administration (EIA)], our portfolio standard would result in a 50 percent increase in wind generation and a 300 percent increase in biomass generation,” Lowery says. “There's already twice as much biomass generation in the country as there is wind generation.” The Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) is an avid supporter of the RPS. “I think [the biomass industry is] going to enjoy the benefits of a new and unexplored market that’s going to develop as a result of this legislation,” says Marchant Wentworth, legislative representative for clean energy for the



policy UCS. “Whether it would achieve the stratospheric growth of the ethanol industry, it’s hard to say. But it would furnish a stable, long-term market, and that’s the point of the legislation.” The legislation would spur various renewable industries within regional markets, according to George Sterzinger, executive director of the Renewable Energy Policy Project, a renewable energy policy think tank. “If it passed, I think people feel that, in terms of biomass, the impact will open potential markets, especially in the Southeast where biomass is the greatest potential resource,” he says. “In the Southwest it’s solar, in the West it’s wind and the Southeast it’s biomass.” An RPS also has the potential to save electric consumers money. A 2005

‘Renewable energy is more equitably distributed than fossil fuel energy. That is such a crucial point in this debate. Every state has renewable energy potential. Some states coud meet well more than 20 percent simply from one source. Why we are so in favor of an RPS is because it levels the playing field.’ EIA study determined that the price of natural gas would go down with a 10 percent RPS. “Think about it, you just reduced the demand for natural gas by substituting something else for generation,” Lowery says. He cited a 2005 study by Ryan Weiser of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, where 15 separate modeling exercises of different portfolio standards each came to the same conclusion that the price of natural gas goes down. A UCS study on a 20 percent RPS con44 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 12|2007

firmed these findings, Wentworth says. “During the life of the program, we compute that it would save $49 billion, although less under a 15 percent RPS,” he says. Not only would an RPS save money, but it would also generate jobs. “When you create a requirement/standard for renewable energy, you generate jobs,” Wentworth says. “In the case of biomass, it would be the jobs building the equipment to handle the biomass to sell it to market. All of this is about furnishing a reliable, long-term market for renewable energy.”

It’s All Politics Even though political support for all-things “green” is at an all-time high, the RPS has trailed behind other such policies. “Many elected officials who supported the RFS object to the RPS,” Wentworth observes. “There is an essential contradiction. Why do you support the mandate in one area and oppose the mandate in another?” Wentworth credits this contradiction to the big political powerhouses on Capitol Hill, and Lowry agrees. “There’s real strong opposition on the part of a lot of electric utilities to having a requirement,” he says. “There’s real strong support from a lot of farmers for having a fuel requirement. The politics are different, that’s all. Both are mandates.” This opposition is a reason previous Congresses haven’t passed the measure. Some argue an RPS would favor regions of the country that have more abundant renewable resources. This argument comes primarily from the Southeastern states. Sterzinger says there is some validity to the claim. “It’s extremely likely that a national RPS would have a provision to allow trading,” he says. “Hypothetically, the example that everyone throws out is that a state like North Dakota with enormous wind resources would develop in excess of their requirements. The electricity wouldn’t necessarily go to the South, but they could sell over-compliance credits to someone

who needs them.” “The biggest political opposition and the loudest arguments come from southerners who claim that they don’t have any renewables—that the portfolio standard is all about wind,” Lowery says. “They say there aren’t good resources in the Southeast and it would cost to transport the electricity. The truth is, according to the EIA, the big winner from the portfolio standard is biomass. The report says that wind would increase by 50 percent and biomass would increase by 300 percent. When you understand that there’s twice as much biomass as there is wind, you do the arithmetic: there is four times as much biomass generation as wind. There’s enormous biomass potential in the Southeast.” The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) has found that the Southeast, as a region, can meet a 20 percent RPS, according to John Bonitz, who does farm outreach and policy advocacy for the SACE. “Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia are rich in biomass. North Carolina and South Carolina have considerable off-shore wind resources. Florida has excellent solar power resources and possibly wind. And all of the Southeast can do tremendous amounts with energy efficiency.” Arguments that an RPS is inequitable are flawed, according to Jennifer Rennicks, federal coordinator for the SACE. “Renewable energy is more equitably distributed than fossil fuel energy,” she says. “That is such a crucial point in this debate. Every state has renewable energy potential. Some states could meet well more than 20 percent simply from one source. Why we are so in favor of an RPS is because it levels the playing field.” Nevertheless, Sterzinger says it’s important to ensure that the RPS is written so it benefits all regions of the country and doesn’t end up being a drain on certain parts of the country to the benefit of others. Additionally, he says it’s important that the policy support the manufacturing industries that supply the

policy parts and technology for the renewable projects. Finally, he says a good RPS policy must also include the ability to stabilize carbon emissions. Good policy, however, is just part of the answer. The regional playing field can only be leveled if the biomass industry can develop to meet the demand. If an RPS is enacted, it will be important for the biomass industry to quickly develop so it can compete with other renewables. Depending on how aggressively biomass energy technology is developed, Sterzinger says the biomass industry can prevent regional disparity with an RPS. “The trick would be if it were cheaper to buy credits than to buy local biomass power in the South,” he says. “If biomass could get to where a kilowatt is under 5 cents, and the price of new generation is 4.5 cents, that would be a good scenario for the biomass market. That would leave only one-half a cent for the extra credit, which would probably not support development in other regions.” Unfortunately, Sterzinger says the biomass industry is far behind the wind and solar industries that have seen great technological advances. “There’s been work on the feedstock side, but generation technology, there really hasn’t been any change, he says. “That’s the great challenge going forward for the industry, to get out of the 1940s generation technology to much more advanced generation and conversion techniques.” Though rationale seems sound and political support is probably the strongest it’s ever been, it will be an uphill journey to get an RPS enacted this year. There are a lot of difficult procedural steps to take to get an Energy Bill in front of the president, who has threatened a veto. The first challenge is to get the same numbered bill to the conference committee. The House and Senate have introduced separate pieces of legislation. The House originally passed H.R. 6 in January as a placeholder bill. In June, the Senate passed its version of the bill, which

included new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. The bill requires automakers to hike fuel efficiency by 40 percent to a combined fleet average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. It did not include an RPS. In August, the House passed another Energy Bill—H.R. 3221—that includes a 15 percent RPS. “Our position, along with the rest of environmental community, is to take the best of both bills—include the CAFE and the renewable electricity standard,” Wentworth says. “That’s the simple version of where we’re going.” But before those discussions can take place in conference committee, the bills must be the same number. This brings it back up for discussion and opens the opportunity for a filibuster. “If someone wanted to prevent it from moving forward, there are a lot of hurdles that they would make us go over,” Lowery says. Although he doesn’t know when the procedural jumps will begin, he says the committee staff members are working on it. If the bill makes it to conference committee, Lowery thinks there’s a high likelihood that an RPS will be included. “It’s an extremely high priority for [U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, DN.M.],” he says of the committee chair. Additionally, support for the measure is strong in both houses, he says. In the House, the vote was 220-190 in favor of an RPS. On the Senate side, he says the measure would have had 60 votes if it had come up for a vote. This support may bring the bill, with the RPS, forward yet this fall. BIO Anduin Kirkbride McElroy is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 7468385.


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Breaking Down Walls By Erin K. Peabody

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 resist degradation and loss of their precious sugars. Over the course of millions



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 coffeeshop 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 enormous energy that’s tied up in plants. “It’s all about the sugars,” says Michael Casler,


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.

research 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 a random affair and isn’t strictly controlled by proteins and enzymes like


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.

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 are 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 ligninrelated 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.” Researchers interested in running cell wall samples from either conventionally



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’s got 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.


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’ve got 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 together, many of their understory leaves fall off from

research 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.

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’ve also got 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 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


irror mirror on the wall, what’s the greenest fuel of all? That’s a serious question for researchers and policymakers concerned about global warming. Because the interaction between human activities and the earth are so complicated, sophisticated models are needed to tease out the implications of promoting one biofuel over another. People 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. “So 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. That 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. “So we could do what we called model validation, comparing the model to the data and tuning the model for different crops,” Del Grosso says. “We 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.

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.

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 [times the same amount of carbon dioxide],” Del Grosso says. “So 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 biofuel feedstocks studied 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 U.S. So the next big goal will be to run DayCent countrywide in areas where these biofuels are feasible and try to come up a first cut of a rough estimate on a national scale of how much fuel we could reasonably create with a national effort.” BIO —Jerry W. Kram




Biomass Power Options for Existing Ethanol Plants


s corn-to-ethanol production increases and natural gas prices appear steady or poised to rise, more facilities are interested in fueling their production with biomass residues. One of the first steps in assessing energy options at existing corn-to-ethanol plants is exploring potential available feedstocks. For utilization of biomass to be economically viable for heat and power, even with high fossil fuel costs, plants need to look for the opportune biomass fuels available to them. Biomass that has already been processed and designated as a renewable fuel, such as a pelletized biomass, tends to be more costly on a heating basis than most fossil fuels. Finding opportune fuels requires a regional search where the plant operates. The biomass may already be getting land-filled or be considered a nuisance material that can be obtained for little more than trucking cost. In many cases, trucking is the largest cost for biomass used as a fuel source since most biomass materials are far less energy-dense than Folkedahl fossil fuels. Biomass generally tends to contain more moisture than fossil fuels, which lowers its energy density. Flexibility is a key element when considering biomass as a fuel. Many of the plant’s biomass resources will not be available on a continuous basis, requiring plant engineers to consider several different kinds of biomass as energy fuels over the course of a year. Corn stover may be ideal immediately after the corn harvest, but in late winter and early spring another source such as wood biomass may be required. Plants using more than one consistent fuel source must conduct a careful evaluation of the conversion process design to ensure its adaptability to the various biomass fuels under consideration. Additional considerations include biomass storage. Coal can be brought in by the trainload and stored on the ground, and natural gas is just another pipe into the plant. However, biomass requires more storage area per unit of energy potential. In addition, drying may be necessary to prevent spoilage, odors and feeding problems within the conversion process. Another key issue is the permitting process, which should start as early as possible to ensure enough lead time to facilitate anticipated start-up dates. Once the potential biomass feedstocks have been identified, engineering studies will need to be completed to assess how the biomass will be converted to heat and power. There are four basic ways to utilize biomass for heat and power: 1) direct combustion with the biomass as the sole fuel source, 2) cofiring biomass with fossil fuels, 3) gasification of the biomass to produce a synthetic natural gas or syngas, and 4) fast pyrolysis to produce a combustible syngas and a combustible liquid from the biomass. These will be discussed further in next month’s issue. BIO Bruce Folkedahl is a senior research manager at the EERC in Grand Forks, N.D. He can be reached at or (701) 777-5243.


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