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Biobutanol: The Next Big Biofuel? Researchers Hone in on the Technologies and Microbes Needed to Improve the Economics of Large-Scale Production


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MAY 2008




..................... 22 CELLULOSE A Commercial Biorefinery Update Biomass Magazine presents timely information about the state of the emerging cellulosic ethanol industry. By Ron Kotrba

28 OUTLOOK Biobutanol: The Next Big Biofuel? Improved economics have revitalized research efforts to develop the technology necessary to commercially produce biobutanol. By Jessica Ebert

34 FUEL Gas Naturally In California, dairy manure accounts for up to 20 percent of the state’s available biomass waste. One company aims to use that abundant resource to make biomethane to supply its natural gas customers. By Jerry W. Kram

40 ENVIRONMENT Using Peter Rabbit to Clean Peter’s Pond Poplar trees implanted with genetic material from rabbits will be used to clean up underground contaminants, utilizing a process called phytoremediation at a site where oil was CELLULOSE | PAGE 22

once stored. By Sarah Smith



46 EUROPE Big Wood Construction will start soon on a giant wood-fueled power station in Wales. But where will all that wood come from? Where will the ash go? And why not use the waste heat? By Simon Hadlington

06 Editor’s Note Whatever Happened to Journalism 101?

52 RESEARCH Coordinating Biomass Research Prior to European settlement, native prairie grasses were common in the area surrounding

07 Advertiser Index 09 Industry Events

what is now North Dakota State University. Like many universities, the school is now cooperatively studying the capabilities of biomass. By Mary-Anne Fiebig

12 Business Briefs 13 Industry News 59 In the Lab Mile Marker 105: Syntec Reaches for Economic Efficiency By Jerry W. Kram

61 EERC Update A Solution for Greater Biomass Utilization By Phillip Hutton


e d i to r ’s


Whatever Happened to Journalism 101?


ince the media seems to have an insatiable thirst for printing negative news about corn-based ethanol, the commercial-scale production of the renewable fuel from biomass can’t come too soon. The latest attack came from Time magazine in the form of a cover story titled “The Clean Energy Scam.” One thing I’ve learned in my 16 years as a journalist is that the only sure way to know you’ve covered a controversial issue fairly is if people on all sides of the debate are angry when you’re done. However, it seemed pretty clear to me that this article was written to benefit the people who want to preserve the Amazon. That’s a fine, noble task, but doesn't make an adequate news article, which, for some of us old-school journalists, requires it to be fair and balanced. After reading through the Time magazine article several times, I’m left wondering what happened to the days when reporters had to back up big, sweeping statements with the facts or, at the very least, some numbers. Let's use this segment of the Time article as an example: “He sees fires wiping out such gigantic swaths of jungle that scientists now debate the ‘savannization’ of the Amazon. Brazil just announced that deforestation is on track to double this year …” As a reporter, if I had written this, the first thing my editor would have said or shouted is, “Double? Just how many acres are we talking about here?” Then I would have scrambled to come up with the figures necessary to prove my statement. Without those numbers, the article would have been killed, or at the very least, that section would have been edited out. Only once in the Time article does the writer actually give readers a sense of the size of the destruction of the Amazon forest, and it’s in this statement: “This destructive biofuel dynamic is on vivid display in Brazil, where a Rhode Island-size chunk of the Amazon was deforested in the second half of 2007, and even more was degraded by fire.” Just by looking at Wikipedia, I learned that Rhode Island covers 1,545 square miles, while Brazil is a sprawling 3.29 million square miles. I suppose those numbers wouldn’t have gotten the punch the writer was hoping for when he proposed this piece to his editors. Then he goes on to talk about palm oil, writing, “Malaysia is converting forests into palm oil farms so rapidly that it's running out of uncultivated land.” That’s a pretty bold statement to make without providing any of the dirty details. It’s not that I don’t believe there are acres of the Amazon being converted to grow soybeans. In fact, based on the price of soybeans, I’m sure it is happening—and bound to continue. However, it’s reckless to write an article about it in a highly read, well-respected magazine without substantiating any of the claims with some good, hard numbers. That being said, don’t even get me started on the lack of facts to back up this statement: “Even cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline.”

Rona Johnson Features Editor


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Energy from Biomass and Waste Expo & Conference Energy & Environmental Research Center Ethanol Producer Magazine

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industryevents 30th Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals

May 4-7, 2008 Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel New Orleans, Louisiana Hosted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, this event will feature discussions of the latest research breakthroughs and results in biotechnology for fuels and chemicals. Twelve dual technical sessions will accommodate 80 presentations, and there will also be a plenary session and two poster sessions. Plus, an evening session will highlight international bioenergy centers. (703) 691-3357, ext. 26

Renewable Energy Finance & Investment Summit

May 19-21, 2008 Firesky Resort & Spa Scottsdale, Arizona This third annual event, themed “Exploring Key Deals & Developments in the Renewable Fuel & Renewable Power Markets,” will discuss finance structures, deal mechanics, tax incentives, investment trends, efficient technologies, regulatory changes and creative financing solutions. Three tracks address renewable power, biofuels, and carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. A separate workshop will detail renewable energy project finance fundamentals. (704) 889-1287

Second Generation Biofuels Development Summit

May 13-16, 2008 Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel Baltimore, Maryland The first half of this event will focus on innovations in biofuels, while the second half will address the commercialization of second-generation biofuels. Topics in the first portion highlight biomass-to-biofuels production, including cellulosic ethanol and biobutanol. Topics in the second portion will discuss financing biofuels development, strategy, alliances, international development, and emerging feedstocks and process technologies. There will also be a hands-on workshop to discuss the implementations of the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007. (781) 972-5400

24th Annual International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo

June 16-19, 2008 Opryland Hotel & Convention Center Nashville, Tennessee This conference will follow the record-breaking 2007 event, in which more than 500 exhibitors were on display and more than 5,300 people attended. The preliminary agenda includes general sessions, concurrent technical workshops and various networking opportunities. (719) 539-0300

BIO International Convention

Biofuels 2010:The Next Generation

June 17-20, 2008

June 23-24, 2008

San Diego Convention Center San Diego, California This event covers many biotechnology topics, including biofuels and cleantech, which will be the focus of a pre-conference session held June 16. (202) 962-6655

Hilton Americas Houston, Texas This event will cover the latest innovations, developments and regulations within the biofuels industry. Topics include cellulosic ethanol; feedstocks such as Miscanthus; the commercialization of ethanol and biomass; and the integration of refining and biorefining. (416) 214-3400

Biomass ’08 Technical Workshop

Energy from Biomass and Waste

July 15-16, 2008

October 14-16, 2008

Alerus Center Grand Forks, North Dakota This event, hosted by the Energy & Environmental Research Center, will discuss trends and opportunities in utilizing biomass, biomass feedstocks, policies and incentives, cellulosic ethanol, financing, biorefineries for chemicals and other products, and biomass for heat and electricity, among many other topics. (701) 777-5246

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



Nexterra receives innovation award

Chevron,Weyerhaeuser partner

At the Globe Foundation’s 10th biennial trade fair and conference in Vancouver in mid-March, Nexterra Energy Corp. was given the Award for Technology Innovation and Application for its gasification technology that converts biomass into synthesis gas. The award was presented to Nexterra Chief Executive Officer Jonathon Rhone at a dinner held in conjunction with the conference. “Tonight’s awards demonstrate that companies no longer have to choose between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the bottom line,” Rhone said. BIO

Chevron Corp. and Weyerhaeuser Co. have joined forces to create Catchlight Energy LLC, a research and development company working to convert cellulosic biofuels into low-carbon biofuels. Michael Burnside of Chevron has been appointed chief executive officer of the new entity. Both companies will contribute financial resources and employees to the venture. Although Weyerhaeuser is one of the world’s largest integrated forest products companies, company spokesman Bruce Amundson said the initial focus of Catchlight will be to use switchgrass as a feedstock. BIO

Colusa completes restructuring, obtains research funding

Stock Fairfield provides equipment for biomass power plant

Colusa Biomass Energy Corp. has completed a restructuring plan that injected $4 million into the company for biomass research. The transaction with Pan Gen Global PLC in March gave Colusa funds to explore the commercialization of converting waste rice straw and hulls into ethanol. Colusa’s business operations will be concentrated in a new entity called Colusa Biomass Inc., headquartered in Reno. It hopes to raise an additional $40 million to complete the engineering and construction of its first biorefinery. BIO

In early March, Stock Fairfield Corp., part of Schenck Process Group, completed the installation of a belt conveyor, chain conveyor, magnetic Biomass is transported on this Stock Fairfield belt separator and duct- conveyor in the poultry-litter-fueled power plant work at a poultry- operated by Fibrominn in Benson, Minn. litter-fueled power plant operated by Fibrominn in Benson, Minn. Fibrominn is a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Fibrowatt LLC, which was founded in 2000 by the management team that built the world’s first poultry-litter-to-energy power plants in the United Kingdom. BIO

Changing World Technologies receives award Changing World Technologies Inc. in West Hempstead, New York, has been given the Most Innovative Patent Award in the Environment & Energy category by the Long Island Technology Hall of Fame. Brian Appel, chief executive officer of CWT, accepted the award at the hall of fame’s 2008 awards ceremony March 6. CWT’s thermal conversion process is a commercially viable method of reforming organic waste that converts approximately 250 tons of turkey offal and fats per day into approximately 500 barrels of renewable diesel. BIO


Renegy starts production, reports financial loss Renegy Holdings Inc. began testing at its new 24-megawatt biomass power plant in Snowflake, Ariz., in late March. The news accompanied fourth-quarter financial results showing an $11 million loss, which Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bob Worsley attributed partly to one-time items and mergerrelated costs. In February, the company appointed Hugh Smith to the position of chief operating officer. Prior to joining Renegy, Smith was employed with EnergyCo LLC, PNM Resources and Tampa Electric Co. BIO




NEWS Wisconsin-based Virent Energy Systems Inc. and international petroleum giant Shell Group have completed the first year of a fiveyear joint research project to develop “biogasoline.” The companies have been working to convert plant sugars directly into biogasoline and biogasoline blends using Virent’s aqueous-phase reforming process, trademarked BioForming, and are on track to produce the fuel at a commercial scale by 2010. Virent’s process involves using a solidstate catalyst to convert a variety of process sugars into hydrocarbons. According to Virent President and Chief Executive Officer Eric Apfelbach, the BioForming process is a low-temperature technology and is scaleable to fit in an economic feedstock radius. The process allows a wide range of feedstocks to be used and is water-positive. Perhaps the most significant benefit of all is that the biogasoline will be compatible with existing gasoline infrastructures. “We really think we’re out to a lead here, and we think we can


Companies collaborate on biogasoline production

Virent cofounder Randy Cortright holds a beaker filled with the company’s biogasoline.

maintain that lead,” Apfelbach said. “With partners like Honda, Shell and Cargill, we have everything we need to expand this on a global scale. We’ve got customers that will buy 1 billion gallons of this fuel tomorrow if we can make it today. So we’ve really got to

get that job done and give them a billion gallons.” Apfelbach said milestones set for the project have been exceeded up to this point, and work will now begin on producing biogasoline at a commercial scale. He projects Virent will be operating a 2,600-gallon demonstration facility by 2010. The facility’s location is yet to be determined and will depend on the location of cheap feedstock, as well as what is determined to be the best strategic way to enter the gasoline market, Apfelbach said. Most of the work is being done by Virent researchers at the company’s 30,000square-foot catalytic biorefinery in Madison, Wis. Shell plays a supporting role in the program, and will continue to supply knowledge on catalytic processing and verify that the product will be completely interchangeable with conventional gasoline infrastructures. -Kris Bevill

International event to discuss biobased jet fuel Solena Group, a Washington, D.C.based company developing a commercialscale biobased jet fuel production plant, will be discussing synthetic aviation fuel at the ASTM International Aviation Subcommittee meeting in Warsaw, Poland, on June 3-5. Among other topics, the meeting will include updates on proposals for aviation fuels produced from the Fischer-Tropsch process and a review of a fully synthetic aviation fuel produced by South Africabased Sasol for the Johannesburg International Airport. In early April, the company became the first in the world to receive international approval for its 100 percent synthetic jet fuel produced by its proprietary coal-to-liquids process. The approval, which was sanctioned by global

aviation fuel specification authorities, allows the company’s fully synthetic fuel to be used in commercial airliners. Sasol claims the engine-out emissions of its jet fuel are lower than those from crude-oilbased jet fuel due to its limited sulfur content. Solena intends to build its biobased jet fuel facility in Gilroy, Calif. The company is in the permitting and engineering phase of development, and the plant is scheduled to be operational in 2011. It will produce 17 MMgy of syngas generated from municipal, agricultural and forestry waste provided by Norcal Waste Systems Inc., one of California’s largest municipal waste and biomass collectors. The Solena facility will be developed, designed, built, owned and operated by

several corporations, including Solena and Rentech Inc., a coal-to-liquid production company that will use the biobased syngas as a replacement for syngas generated from coal or natural gas. Financing for the $250 million plant is being arranged in London. Solena’s production process incorporates a high-temperature gasification reactor powered by a plasma heating system. The biobased syngas is then cooled, cleaned and funneled through Rentech’s Fischer Tropsch technology into equipment that converts it to clean-diesel liquid fuel, which is then upgraded to jet fuel. The fuel can withstand temperatures down to 50 degrees below zero, according to Robert Do, chief executive officer of Solena. -Jerry W. Kram



NEWS AE Biofuels Inc., which is working to develop next-generation biofuels, announced in February that it had begun construction of a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol demonstration facility in Butte, Mont. The company aims to integrate cellulosic ethanol production into starch-based processes to lower costs and increase efficiency. The key to this integrated process is AE Biofuels’ patent-pending enzyme technology for the conversion of crop wastes, or energy crops like switchgrass or Miscanthus, into sugars that can be fermented into ethanol. The plant is expected to be fully operational in the second quarter of 2008. The enzyme technology was acquired from Renewable Technology Corp. The enzymes function at ambient temperatures, which eliminate the up-front cooking and cooling process, and reduces water and energy usage. “Our technology has been shown to significantly reduce the consumption of energy and water in the production of ethanol, and allows us to utilize a combination of nonfood and traditional feedstock


AE Biofuels to build cellulosic ethanol demo plant

By integrating cellulosic ethanol production into starch-based processes, AE Biofuels’ patent-pending technology lowers capital costs, increases alcohol concentration, and reduces energy and water consumption.

inputs,” said Erick McAfee, chairman and chief executive officer of AE Biofuels. “Applications of the patent-pending ATCSH (ambient temperature cellulose starch hydrolysis) technology may also include licensing or joint ventures with sugarcane-to-ethanol plants.” The company is currently evaluating sites for the construction of a large-scale commercial facility. AE Biofuels owns

ethanol plant sites in Danville, Ill., and Sutton, Neb., and holds options for four additional permitted ethanol plant sites in Illinois. Although the company will ultimately test multiple feedstocks, it will initially focus on various types of straw and corn stover. -Jessica Ebert

Anaerobic digestion demo wraps up in Wisconsin A Wisconsin company recently completed a research and development project through the commercial demonstration of a high-solids, two-phase anaerobic digester. Afterward, Mark Heffernan, president of Bio-Products Engineering Corp., said his company’s product is probably five years away from commercial operation. In traditional anaerobic digestion, the feedstock is placed in one tank, where microbes digest it first into acid and then into methane. In the two-phase method, which was first brought to commercial scale in the 1970s, the acid and methane phases are separated. “When you separate the two microbial populations, you end up with capabilities that a conventional system doesn’t have,” Heffernan said. “We’re taking the two-phase methodology and applying it to high solids.” The solid-loading content of conventional, two-phase systems runs between 2 14 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 5|2008

percent and 6 percent, he said. High-rate digesters can operate with a solid-loading content of 8 percent. Bio-Products Engineering spent the past four years developing the acid phase that could operate at a solid-loading content of 10 percent to 15 percent at a loading rate of one ton per day per digester. “The next step is to take the digester, find money to operate it at five tons per day and build the methane phase to go with it,” Heffernan said. “We want to operate that at a high-enough rate per day that shows commercial capability. The second step involves more money but is easier to do because it doesn’t have the solids content.” The company would market this product to industrial food processors, brewers, wastewater treatment plants and ethanol facilities. This would benefit food processors in particular because they have a lot of waste and are also high energy consumers. “Potato plants,

for example, process millions of pounds per day, but half of incoming pounds go out as waste,” Heffernan said. “There’s still energy left in those potatoes.” A high-solids system is necessary to process raw potatoes, which are 17 percent solids. “With our methodology, the energy potential of the raw material goes up because the efficiency of the process goes up,” Heffernan said. “By going to a two-phase and higher solid-loading content, you produce a stronger acid environment. Those stronger acids are able to degrade and convert more of the raw material. The energy potential from a ton of material through our system goes up, as compared to a conventional digester. You have less solid residue because more of the original solids became liquid and then gas.” -Anduin Kirkbride McElroy



NEWS BP partner awards 'mega-grants'

Coskata Inc. is like a kid in a candy store. There’s so much available biomass for a trash-to-gas enterprise, the possibilities are endless. As the company nears decisions on where to build pilot-scale and commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facilities, feedstock decisions are also being determined by the Illinois company that has partnered with General Motors Corp. to produce ethanol for under $1 per gallon. “We plan to run woody biomass, agricultural residue and municipal waste through the commercial demonstration,” said Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of business development for Coskata. “We have not announced the commercial plant, the partner that we are doing it with or the [specific] feedstock yet,” Bolsen said, adding that the company hopes to have the pilot plant producing by the end of 2008. Coskata’s process can extract the energy value in almost any carbon-containing materials in a synthetic gas stream, and bacterial fermentation by microorganisms then converts the syngas to ethanol. The company envisions using energy crops, wood chips, forestry products, tires, plastics and other municipal waste as feedstocks. The pilot plant will have a capacity of 40,000 gallons per year, while the commercial-scale plant will produce between 50 MMgy and 100 MMgy. Bolsen said the company hopes to break ground on the $300 million commercial plant in late 2008 or early 2009. Coskata has formed a strategic alliance with ICM Inc. to design and partially build the commercial plant, which will take two years to construct. Coskata envisions a licensing agreement for the flexible feedstock technology, in which developers could use the enzyme process with locally abundant biomass to make low-cost ethanol anywhere in the United States or abroad. Meanwhile, GM has been gearing up production of its vehicle fleet, so that half of its models will run on ethanol by 2012, the automaker announced in February.

The Energy Biosciences Institute—a collaboration of the University of California, Berkeley; the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign— recently awarded a total of $19.27 million to 50 projects and programs focusing on cellulosic ethanol. Another $15.73 million in grants will be announced this summer. The institute was the recipient of global energy firm BP Corp.’s 10year, $350 million ‘mega-grant’ commitment to cellulosic biofuels research. EBI Director Chris Somerville described EBI’s research effort as a comprehensive analySomerville sis of cellulosic ethanol. The projects cover a wide range of research, starting with existing programs and extending to new areas. Thus, the socioeconomic and environmental work will be global, extending to land ownership issues and life cycle analyses, among other topics. The feedstock development work will include test plots around the world, starting with Miscanthus and switchgrass as models, but looking at other feedstocks as well as the equipment needed to plant, harvest and store those feedstocks. Metagenomic studies will be looking at the termite gut, cow rumen, compost heap and forest floor to study how nature breaks down cellulose. In addition to biological systems, EBI research includes a strong chemistry component that will explore novel catalysts and solvent systems, Somerville said. “EBI is academic,” he added. “We’re not doing anything that is near-market.” The $19.27 million in funding was divided into four out of five broad categories: $4.77 million for feedstock development, $6.96 million for biomass depolymerization work, $2.21 million for biofuels production studies, and $5.33 million for studies on environmental, social and economic dimensions. Funding for the fifth broad category of fossil-fuel bioprocessing will be announced this summer. Somerville said there may also be projects funded in areas that were underrepresented in the faculty-submitted research proposals. Besides the $35 million per year over 10 years in open research conducted by the EBI, Somerville said BP will commit $150 million over 10 years internally in a closed research component, tapping into the company’s expertise in process engineering. Descriptions of the 50 programs and projects can be found on the EBI Web site at

-Sarah Smith

-Susanne Retka Schill

Coskata intends to use energy crops, wood chips, forestry products, tires, plastics and other municipal waste as feedstocks in its cellulosic ethanol plants.

Coskata: Biomass choices are nearly limitless



NEWS Nations join methane partnership An international group promoting the capture and use of methane from landfills and other sources announced in March that Mongolia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand had joined the group. Methane to Markets, or M2M, aims to capture methane for use as a clean-burning fuel while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. The group focuses on animal waste, landfills, coal mines, and oil and gas systems. The addition of the four nations in March brought total M2M membership to 25 nations or groups, including the United States. Earlier in March, the European Union joined M2M, including the biomass expertise of its 27 member nations, some of which were separate M2M members already (Germany, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom). The sharply broadened membership will help M2M promote the 91 methane-capture projects it showcased at a trade show in Beijing last year, which 750 people from 34

nations attended, said Paul Gunning, chief of the U. S. EPA’s non-carbon-dioxide programs. “The broader the engagement we have from the global community, the more the partnership will benefit,” Gunning told Biomass Magazine. Even before the EU’s addition, M2M member nations represented 60 percent of the waste-methane sources that the group targets, according to the M2M Web site. The 91 projects on exhibit at the conference in Beijing would reduce annual methane emissions by the equivalent of 11.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2015, the organization said. One proposed project would draw methane from a 127,000-pig farrow-to-finish swine operation in the Mato Grosso province of Brazil. The existing disposal method is to apply the manure to nearby land. The proposed methane-recovery system is a covered lagoon digester. The resulting biogas will be burned to generate electricity. The estimated

average reduction in carbon dioxide per year is equivalent is 71,730 metric tons. Another initiative would capture methane from a sanitary landfill in Chernivtsi, Ukraine. Opened in 1995, the landfill accepted more than 82,000 tons of waste in 2006 and is expected to close in 2012 with an estimated 1.3 million tons of waste. Preliminary biogas modeling estimates that 544 cubic meters of biogas per hour at 50 percent methane is available now for capture. That figure will rise to a peak of approximately 696 cubic meters per hour shortly after the landfill closes in 2012. Gas from the landfill may be used to generate electricity. The estimated average reduction in carbon dioxide per year would be 37,778 metric tons. M2M was launched in 2004 in Washington, D.C., by 14 national governments that signed on as partners. More information about the partnership is at www -Marc Hequet

Study: Cellulosic ethanol a long shot Research recently conducted by The hopes for cellulosic ethanol, it’s going to develContext Network LLC, an Iowa-based con- op much more slowly than people think,” he sulting firm, concluded that widely held said. The EISA’s impact on grain and oilseed notions about the progression of cellulosic production was assessed in three ethanol in the United States may time frames: short term (2008 to be too optimistic. 2010), medium term (2011 to In March, the firm released a 2015) and long term (2016 to paper, titled “A Review of the 2022). Murphy noted that only two Energy Independence & Security cellulosic ethanol pilot plants are Act of 2007, and Its Impact on operating in the United States, and U.S. Grain and Oilseeds Range Biofuels is the only other Production,” which assessed company that has secured the necwhether the requirements of the Murphy essary funding to move forward act could be met and the impact of those requirements. Jim Murphy, principle with a larger cellulosic ethanol plant. “Other author of the paper, said the review concluded developers will have to get their financing in that cellulosic ethanol is “a dead duck” and has place pretty quickly for there to be any chance little chance of becoming a major contributor of meeting the 2010 EISA cellulosic target of to the biofuels market. “While there’s high 100 million gallons,” he said, adding that the

short-term goals set by the EISA are virtually unattainable. Medium- and long-term outlooks also failed to provide positive results for cellulosic ethanol. “It becomes a more chronic situation as time goes on,” Murphy said. “The law mandates blending of 16 billion gallons (of cellulosic ethanol) by 2022. Our estimate is that, at best, we’re going to reach somewhere around 3 billion.” Murphy suggested that legislation after 2015 may be more favorable toward cellulosic ethanol and could prompt an increase in production after 2020. He also noted that EISA mandates are for consumption, not production. Because of that, imports could play a substantially large part in U.S. biofuels consumption in the future. -Kris Bevill



NEWS SunOpta, Abengoa technology dispute enters arbitration A U.S. District Court judge has sent SunOpta Inc. and Abengoa Bioenergy to an arbitration panel to sort out their grievances over allegedly pirated technology. Meanwhile, the lawsuit filed by SunOpta under seal in January in a Missouri court has been stayed, pending the arbitration outcome. Canada-based SunOpta, which has foodprocessing and biofuels divisions, sued Spanish ethanol giant Abengoa Bioenergy, accusing the defendant of appropriating SunOpta’s biomass-to-ethanol technology without compensation, luring away its former process technology manager to induce him to reveal proprietary trade secrets and using replicas of the SunOpta technology in two Abengoa Bioenergy ethanol facilities. Abengoa Bioenergy denied it had misappropriated the technology. It claimed SunOpta was trying to coerce settlement of the contractual disputes by filing the suit. The companies became involved in 2002 when they entered into negotiations regarding Abengoa Bioenergy’s potential use of SunOpta’s fiber preparation and pretreatment technology, in

which a unique steam explosion process developed by SunOpta converts biomass to cellulosic ethanol. They formalized this engineering and consulting agreement in January 2004, according to the Missouri judge’s order. SunOpta agreed to provide technical information for Abengoa to use in a cellulosic ethanol venture in Salamanca, Spain. In April 2004, the parties entered into a separate technology agreement relating to a grant that Abengoa Bioenergy received from the U.S. DOE. This agreement was intended to protect SunOpta’s right to its existing and developing intellectual property, and trade secrets. In 2005, an Abengoa Bioenergy subsidiary executed a contract to purchase a SunOpta filter preparation system for the Spanish plant. By 2007, the companies were disputing whether SunOpta had reneged on obligations to deliver additional equipment to Spain, and Abengoa stopped payments on the system.

SunOpta said Abengoa Bioenergy subsequently used identical SunOpta technology in two U.S. ethanol plants and received its DOE grant based on SunOpta’s replicated technology. It then filed the complaint and sought an injunction to stop Abengoa Bioenergy from using the technology. Abengoa Bioenergy denied all of the accusations. Because the two companies included a binding arbitration clause into their contractual agreements, the Missouri judge ordered them before an arbitration panel to settle the dispute. He refused to dismiss SunOpta’s claims and its request for an injunction until arbitrators decide the issues in the case. The American Arbitration Association will sort out the parties’ legal rights under their contracts in a nonpublic forum. The Missouri judge will conduct a status conference in September. -Sarah Smith

Thermal Energy opens Dry-Rex test facility Canadian company Thermal Energy International Inc. has established a test facility for its funded research projects, including work on its Dry-Rex biomass-drying technology. The laboratory will be located in Chilliwack, British Columbia. The Dry-Rex system is a low-temperature biomass-drying technology. The low temperature minimizes the amount of volatile organic compounds generated by biomass, which reduces the risk of fires or explosions. The system can operate on waste heat from a variety of commercial and industrial sources. According to Raymond Belanger, chief scientist at Thermal Energy, the facility has already received its first contract from an Italian firm to conduct tests on drying orange and grape pressings. He added that several potential customers from Europe’s biofuels industry have

been in contact with the company. Potential applications include waste streams such as wood, industrial and municipal sewage, food and beverage waste, and other materials, which could be converted into biofuels. The system could also be used to dry distillers grain produced by ethanol plants. “With all fossil fuels increasing in price at the same time as demand grows for ecofriendly alternatives, more and more manufacturers and producers are realizing their waste has the potential to become valuable biofuels,” said Tim Angus, president and chief executive officer of Thermal Energy. “Our new lab provides a cost-effective way for them to determine the viability of converting their biomass for this use or as a secondary commercial product.” The lab is equipped with a gravimetric

moisture analyzer to determine the concentration of moisture and solids before and after testing. It will also be equipped with a calorimetric device for measuring the energy content of dried waste products to determine their financial value as a fuel source. Thermal Energy will also be developing a green energy power facility for an unnamed pulp and paper mill in eastern Canada, a project for which Natural Resources Canada committed $900,000 in funding in February. Thermal Energy conducted a feasibility study of the benefits of using the Dry-Rex system to dry the mill’s biomass waste stream to produce a biofuel. The mill is reviewing the findings and is expected to make a decision this fiscal year. -Jerry W. Kram 5|2008 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 17


NEWS DOE, USDA award $18 million in biomass grants The University of Minnesota landed three of the biomass research and development grants awarded in March by the USDA and U.S. DOE. A team from the university’s Center for Biomass Refining received $975,676 to help develop a microwave-assisted pyrolysis system for the on-farm conversion of cellulosic biomass to bio-oils. The research also aims to develop processes to improve the purity, stability and long-term storability of bio-oils. Another University of Minnesota team received $576,368 to analyze lignin as a facilitator during saccharification by brown rot fungi. The third project seeks to develop pathways to achieve U.S. bioenergy policy goals, develop economic costs and environmental impacts, and identify potential technological bottlenecks. The three Minnesota projects were among 21 biomass research and development proposals receiving grants totaling

$18.4 million. A wide range of projects from universities and private firms nationwide received the grants. Several projects will study biomass feedstocks, and others deal with conversion processes for cellulosic ethanol, biomass power and biobased chemicals. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced the awards at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference in Washington D.C., in March. Funding for these projects will be provided through the Biomass Research & Development Initiative,

a joint USDA-DOE effort established in 2000 to develop the next generation of clean, biobased technologies. Grant recipients are required to raise a minimum of 20 percent matching funds for research and development projects, and 50 percent matching funds for demonstration projects. Of the $18.4 million, the USDA will provide up to $13 million, and the DOE will provide up to $5 million. For the complete list of grantees, see -Susanne Retka Schill

GE Jenbacher engines light up Japan Two General Electric Jenbacher gas engines in Japan have been fired up at the country’s largest wood-based gas-to-energy plant and are supplying two megawatts of electricity in local power. Utilizing GE’s most powerful engines in commercial operation, the plant represents an effort to utilize a specialty gas-to-energy model that will support the Japanese government’s initiatives to expand and increase renewable energy production to help meet its emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. “This project represents the first order of largescale wood gas engines for GE Energy in Asia,” said Prady Iyyanki, chief executive officer of GE’s Jenbacher gas engine business.


The plant runs completely on woodbased gas with no backup fuel supply. Because the plant is near a forest, the facility has access to a steady source of biomass and provides a new use for the forest’s trimmed branches, said Martina Streiter, spokeswoman for GE. Chikao Miyamoto, an executive for GE in Japan, said the plant’s technology provides an avenue for meeting energy security through fuel diversification and supports cost-effective waste disposal. The facility will convert wood biomass into power, allowing it to use the electricity to power internal site operations and make money by selling to industrial customers, he said.

The Jenbacher engines have an efficiency rating of up to 36 percent, which is higher than a conventional steam turbine power plant on the same scale, Streiter said. Most of the plant’s energy is sold to a power producer and supplier, while the rest is used to support plant operations. By 2010, Japan hopes to increase renewable energy production to 3 percent of the country’s overall energy supply. The goal is to increase its use of biomass-based power up to 330 megawatts by 2010, Streiter said. -Timothy Charles Holmseth



Ben Woodward, left, director of the University of Maryland’s Bioprocess ScaleUp Facility, and Hutcheson work with Zymetis’ bacterium.

University of Maryland scientists explore low-cost ethanol source University of Maryland researchers recently announced that a bacterium discovered in the Chesapeake Bay more than 20 years ago may hold the key to the cost-competitive production of ethanol from cellulose. The bacterium, Saccharophagus degradans, produces a mixture of enzymes capable of degrading a range of cellulosic materials from marsh grasses to newspapers. The biomass-degrading enzyme cocktail, trademarked Ethazyme, is being developed by Zymetis Inc., a University of Maryland spin-off and the newest company to join the school’s technology company incubator, the Technology Advancement Program. Zymetis has also entered into a partnership with Fiberight LLC, a regional processor of cellulosic waste. The two companies aim to establish a full-scale cellulosic ethanol plant by the end of 2008. “We believe we have the most economical way to make the novel, efficient enzymes needed to produce biofuels from cellulosic material,” said Steven Hutcheson, founder and chief executive officer of Zymetis, and a chemical and life sciences professor currently on leave from the university. “Ethazyme breaks down cellulosic sources faster and more simply than any product available, resulting in lower costs.” Ethazyme degrades cell walls and other components of plants to fermentable sugars in a single step, which, compared with other processes, is faster, cheaper and reduces the need for caustic chemicals.

Pellet project on hold in West, possible on East Coast GEI Waste Systems may soon receive carbon credits for pelletizing municipal solid waste (MSW), but it won’t be in the West. The subsidiary of GEI Development LLC had been in negotiations with the city of Cheyenne, Wyo., to install a VR-95 Extruder, which would have processed the city’s MSW into fuel pellets that could then be sold as a coal replacement to an industrial end user. However, the city shelved the proposed project earlier this year. GEI has directed its focus to the East Coast, according to company President Larry Giroux. He said his company is in the negotiation stages of pelletizing projects in Virginia, Boston and Toronto. The project in Virginia would pelletize wood from construction and demolition waste, the project in Toronto would use MSW, and a combination of the two wastes would be used in Boston. Giroux said he hopes to get each of these projects on line in approximately six months, a relatively short development time line because the locations have existing infrastructure or a short permitting process. This time line is in contrast to the projected time line in Cheyenne, which was more than two years. “Before any money was spent, we had to secure a contract to sell the pellets to show the city that we had revenue, which could take several months,” Giroux explained. “Then, the city had to go through its procurement process to build a $2.5 million building for us, which it could lease back to us. Procurement and permitting would take over a year.” With a landfill that has less than four years of space left, the city decided it couldn’t wait for the project to be developed. After a change in management at the city’s public works department, the city put the negotiations on hold and instead elected to focus on short-term solutions. “We think [GEI’s proposed project] would have been useful,” said Vicki Nemecek, assistant public works director in Cheyenne. “However, we have immediate needs. We can’t wait two to four years. We chose to do something now.” Giroux conceded that Cheyenne isn’t a target market for his company—at least not for an initial project. “We stumbled into Cheyenne because it had a need and it was excited about it,” he said. However, Cheyenne has cheap coal and low tipping fees of approximately $25 to process approximately 200 tons per day. Giroux said Boston pays $80 to $100 in tipping fees. He explained that the East Coast—with expensive coal, environmental restrictions and high tipping fees—offers a better market.

-Jessica Ebert -Anduin Kirkbride McElroy



NEWS Global Energy teams with Covanta, Renewable Diesel New York-based Global Energy Inc., a waste-to-renewable-energy technology developer, has entered into separate agreements with Renewable Diesel LLC and Covanta Energy Corp. to pursue projects to convert municipal solid waste and other hydrocarbonrich biomass materials into renewable diesel. Under the terms of the agreement established in February, Renewable Diesel will jointly develop projects to convert hydrocarbon-based feedstocks (such as paper, wood, plastics and refuse) into renewable diesel utilizing turbine technology patented by Germany-based AlphaKat. AlphaKat’s KDV 500 system is a standalone unit that uses a unique catalytic depolymerization process, enabling it to break down the molecular chains present in the hydrocarbon feedstock and cause new molecular chains to be formed to create renewable diesel. Each KDV 500 unit can operate independently and is capable of producing approximately 3,100 gallons of

renewable diesel per day, depending on the feedstock input. Global Energy signed an agreement with AlphaKat in May 2007 to assist in the marketing and development of the KDV technology in the United States and China on an exclusive basis, and most other countries on a nonexclusive basis. Global Energy has an option to be a 51 percent equity participant for all of the projects developed by Renewable Diesel. Global Energy’s agreement with Covanta allows Covanta to develop projects using the KDV technology for certain defined feedstocks. The Fairfield, N.J.-based operator of waste-to-energy projects has purchased its first KDV 500 unit, which will be used to demonstrate the commercial viability of the unit. It is also the first KDV 500 to be installed in the United States. According to Renewable Diesel Chief Executive Officer Bruce Drucker, the KDV 500 unit will be

installed at one of its existing waste-to-energy facilities, but the specific location is still being discussed. Covanta owns five wood-fired generation facilities in California and has a 55 percent interest in a sixth wood-fired generation facility, also in California. Once the technology has been demonstrated with this initial unit, Covanta must purchase a significant number of additional KDV units to retain its exclusive rights under its license agreement. Global Energy, Renewable Diesel and Covanta intend to develop three to four additional projects in the next 18 to 24 months. Each of those projects would be capable of adding additional KDV units to take advantage of the economies of scale for the front-end processing of waste, and the operation and maintenance that will reduce the cost of processed waste per ton, according to Drucker. -Bryan Sims

Study: Experience matters when growing switchgrass Tests conducted over a period of five years in three Midwestern states have shown that switchgrass could be a contender in the cellulosic ethanol fuel market. Richard Perrin, professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, helped facilitate the tests along with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. He said two of the participating farmers were experienced in raising switchgrass, and it definitely showed in results. “Those two farmers produced at about two-thirds the cost of the average of the group,” he said. The test, the first of its kind, determined that the average cost to grow switchgrass was around $60 per ton. However, the two farmers who had previous experience in growing switchgrass were able to produce it for $39 per ton. Perrin said diligence and preparation of the field appeared to be significant factors in


In a study conducted by the USDAAgricultural Research Service, switchgrass was produced for as low as $39 per ton.

obtaining good results. “One of these guys made a lot more trips across the field getting ready to plant, even more than we had recommended,” he said. Favorable weather, a good emergence of the seed and the proper use of herbicide also contributed to the more successful fields. Some of the farmers didn’t experience favor-

able weather, which may have hindered their results to some degree, Perrin noted. “Some didn’t have enough [switchgrass] to even bother harvesting that first year,” he said. There were also instances where the farmers didn’t follow instructions, which may have impacted the results in a negative way. Perrin said there are currently no ethanol plants in the central United States purchasing switchgrass if farmers were to produce it. He said there is a future for switchgrass as a viable source of cellulosic ethanol, but he believes much depends on U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman as he enforces the new federal mandates in the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, which requires that 1 MMgy of cellulosic biofuel be consumed by 2013. -Timothy Charles Holmseth




Commercial Biorefinery Update The clock is ticking on public acceptance of ethanol as the United States’ corn-based industry is under relentless attack. With cellulosic conversion technologies as the ostensible lone saving grace for ethanol, Biomass Magazine takes a look at what fruits the first-quarter ‘08 produced. By Ron Kotrba


wo years ago the U.S. DOE began its long and arduous task of technology optimization and risk mitigation for commercial production of cellulosic ethanol. This was done through an award of $385 million to six large-scale projects. Even though the DOE is still cutting checks from this original award allotment, first quarter 2008 has seen a project funding revitalization of sorts as the department moves ahead with more grants totaling $114 million slated for four smaller demonstration projects. And there’s more—the department also issued a few separate grants in recent months to fund specific technology advances. But it’s not just taxpayer money fueling second-generation ethanol schemes, although federal backing certainly helps attract private investment. “We are tied into a lot of what’s happening in the private arena,” says Larry Russo, biorefinery technology manager within the DOE’s Biomass Program. “There’s been a tremendous amount of private money in the last 18 months— mostly venture capital—flowing into a lot of these projects making them catch fire a little bit, and getting the technologies out there.” But doing the research is not enough. “We need to do the research of course, but then we need to do the pilot testing with our


cellulose the DOE decided to cut initial checks post haste to Range Fuels, Poet Energy, Abengoa Bioenergy and BlueFire Ethanol Inc. Only one of these original six projects is working on a concentrated acid hydrolysis pretreatment—BlueFire Ethanol. The company recently completed testing on decrystalizing, hydrolyzing and filtration equipment from B&P Process Equipment, a vendor out of Saginaw, Mich. B&P Process Equipment engineer Abbey Martin says decrystalization tests using its equipment yielded better results than data from the Izumi, Japan, pilot plant. “We believe that we can now design a commercial unit that will perform better and cost less than a design based solely on the pilot data,” Martin says. The vendor equipment testing is part of a larger, “integrated investigation” being conducted for final engineering of BlueFire’s full-scale 17 MMgy municipal solid waste biorefinery, the location of which will be at a landfill in Corona, Calif.

had raised more than $100 million in series B equity financing. This is in addition to the $76 million DOE grant Range Fuels received along with a $6 million grant from the state of Georgia. The company says the $100-plus million will go toward the completion of construction on the 20 MMgy biorefinery. Russo confirms that Range Fuels is the only commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant under construction by the end of the first quarter of 2008. Three more projects that were part of the original $385-million award have completed what’s called a Phase One award. “We’re awarding these large projects in two phases,” Russo tells Biomass Magazine. “This allows work to get started other than construction to meet the compliance issues—it allows them to dot their i’s and cross their t’s prior to construction.” Because federal money is involved, the national environmental protection act requires proof that a biorefinery project will not detrimentally affect the environment and, if there is a potential for ill effects, tactics to mitigate them must be presented. “All of this takes about a year,” he says. To enable progress to start earlier,

Recent ‘10 percent’ Demos


partners, and then scale these things up to get to the point where it can attract financing on its own,” he says. “That’s what we’re doing at DOE—we’re buying down the risk by our involvement.” One of the big challenges still facing a U.S. biorefinery build-out is “techno-economical” in nature as Russo characterizes it. In other words, loose technology ends still need cinching up before big-money lenders have enough faith to strike a loan deal for biorefinery projects. Thermochemically, this means improving syngas clean up. “We know that clean up is a very important step so we had a solicitation that was issued just this week (at the end of March) to address not only the clean up, but to address catalyst selection as well,” Russo reveals. Biochemically speaking, there is still the lingering need for more cost-effective and higher performing enzymes and more fruitful ethanologens. Despite all of this, Range Fuels Inc., which broke ground on its 20 MMgy wood-to-ethanol thermochemical plant in Soperton, Ga., is finding success quite unlike the rest of the biorefinery projects. On April 1, the company announced that it

Calvin Feik of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory explains to visitors how the thermochemical pilot plant at the Golden, Colo.-based DOE lab works. 24 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 5|2008

The more recent DOE grant award of $114 million announced in first-quarter 2008 is for four “10 percent” demonstration facilities with two additional projects to be named later. These projects are smaller scale than the original six and are expected to demonstrate commercial viability by building biorefineries producing 10 percent of an intended commercial volume. Recipients of this latest grant are ICM Inc., Lignol Innovations Inc., Pacific Ethanol Inc., and Stora Enso North America. Awarding the 10 percent projects before announcing funding for the six commercial-scale biorefineries may have made more sense to some, but there is a method to the DOE’s madness. “When Congress did the Energy Policy Act of 2005, they decided they wanted to do something to get commercial deployment of cellulosic biofuels out the door,” Russo says. “Those first six projects have been worked on for years and years, and were the closest to being ready— the closest to deployment.” Ten percent is not a magic number either—it’s what Wall Street and conventional financiers told

DOE they require to even consider a finance package. Co-recipient ICM plans to have a 1.5 MMgy pilot plant in operation by the end of 2010, to be located at its St. Joseph, Mo., facility. Its design will be based on a biochemical platform and will use corn fiber, switchgrass, forage sorghum and corn stover as feedstocks. ICM says its 750 employees and support staff will be ready to take the pilot technology to commercial scale by 2012, and existing ICM-designed dry mills have already expressed interest in incorporating the new technology. Lignol Innovations received funding to help build a 2 MMgy biorefinery using hard and soft wood residues, and will make ethanol, furfural and high-quality lignin. The demo plant will be positioned near a Suncor Energy petroleum refinery in Commerce City, Colo., which intends to purchase all the ethanol produced by Lignol. With its newly awarded DOE money Pacific Ethanol’s 10 percent demo plant will be colocated with the company’s



Abengoa Bioenergy’s biochemical pilot plant in York, Neb., was just recently completed.

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2008 More Networking More Leads More Visibility 5|2008 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 25

cellulose Boardman, Ore., corn-based ethanol plant. At 2.7 MMgy, Pacific Ethanol says it will use the BioGasol proprietary conversion process to make ethanol out of the wheat straw, corn stover and poplar residuals from a 50-mile radius surrounding the plant. According to Pacific Ethanol, the demo plant will be operational some time next year with expansion to commercial scale by 2012. Compared with the six commercial projects, these three new recipients, in addition to Stora Enso North America’s proposal, constitute the “next lowest hanging fruit” on the path to commercial production of cellulosic ethanol, Russo says.

More Projects, Pilots and Considerations Verenium Corp.’s 1.4 MMgy demonstration facility in Jennings, La., was expected to reach “mechanical completion” by March 31, according to the company. Biomass Magazine could not verify if this was achieved as calls to Verenium spokespeople were unanswered. At the late-

February National Ethanol Conference in Orlando, Fla., the DOE announced an additional $34 million to further advance the cost-effectiveness and functionality of enzymes for saccharification of biomass. Verenium, Novozymes Inc., Genencor Inc. and DSM Innovation Center Inc. were all part of that award. In Upton, Wyo., a 1.5 MMgy plant converting wood waste to ethanol began operating in January. Designed by KL Process Design Group in cooperation with the South Dakota School of Mines, the plant is named Western Biomass Energy and is the culmination of six years of development. Abengoa Bioenergy’s $35 million pilot plant in York, Neb., is operating and other companies with operating pilot plants include Iogen Corp. and Mascoma Corp. Tracking down every company with plans to develop cellulosic ethanol plants would be a daunting task. Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-op and SunOpta Inc. are working together with intentions to build a 10 MMgy commercial plant located

next to CMEC’s existing dry mill. The plant is equipped to gasify wood chips to power its ethanol production process—and the same feedstock is intended for its commercial plant. The list goes on. While the DOE is addressing the “techno-economic” challenges to the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol, critics of biofuels pose a challenge perhaps even the DOE cannot surmount. “It’s plaguing the entire biofuels development and commercialization,” Russo says. The notion that it takes more energy to make ethanol than what the fuel itself can put out is what he finds himself addressing most. “We’ve addressed that for years and years, yet every six months we go through it again. When you’re relying on not only the technology but that positive message to draw the financing to establish your momentum, it’s a kick in the shin and slows down the developments we could make.” BIO Ron Kotrba is a Biomass Magazine senior writer. Reach him at rkotrba@bbibiofuels .com or (701) 738-4962.

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Biobutanol: The Next

Big Biofuel?

It’s touted as a superior renewable fuel but challenges have stymied the industrial-scale production of biobutanol. Now, however, Dupont and BP have teamed to develop and commercialize the fuel. This comes as scientists announce advancements in the design of process technologies and the engineering of microbes aimed at improving the economics of mass-producing biobutanol. By Jessica Ebert




t’s certainly not new to the renewable fuel scene. In fact, some experts would say that, historically, the fermentation of sugar-based feedstocks into butanol takes a back seat in importance to ethanol. Biobutanol plants operated in numerous countries, including the United States, UK, China, Russia, South Africa and India, during the first two World Wars. These plants were designed to harness the fermenting talents of microbes to produce acetone from feedstocks such as molasses and corn starch. The acetone was used to make a smokeless gun powder and a propellant for rockets. Interestingly, acetone was not the only product of this fermentation. Ethanol was produced in small amounts but the major product of the fermentation was butanol. Starting in the 1960s, the growth of the petroleum industry and the cheaper cost of producing butanol from petroleum products rather than renewable feedstocks made the biobased butanol plant obsolete. The last significant vestige of the industry—a facility in South Africa— ceased its operations in the early 1980s. But rising oil prices and concerns surrounding climate change and national security have rejuvenated interest, research and development into biobu-

Butanol can be used: in the production of other chemicals, synthetic rubber and plastics, including safety glass, hydraulic fluids and detergents in solvents for paints, coatings, varnishes, resins, dyes, vegetable oils and waxes Butanol can be found in: textiles, flotation agents, cleaners, floor polishes, antibiotics vitamins, and hormones

tanol. Although the primary use for the alcohol is as an industrial solvent, it offers several advantages over ethanol as a transportation fuel. Since the molecule contains four carbons compared with the two of ethanol, those extra chemical bonds release more energy when burned. In addition, butanol is less volatile than ethanol, it can be used at a 100 percent blend in internal combustion engines without any modifications, it doesn’t attract water like ethanol so it can be transported in existing pipelines and it is less sensitive to colder temperatures. “Butanol is an excellent fuel,” says Nasib

Qureshi, a chemical engineer with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Peoria, Ill. “As a result of gas prices going up it is looking more effective than ethanol and more effective than gasoline.” Some big names in the energy business seem to agree. In 2006, BP and DuPont announced a joint venture to deliver advanced biofuels, initially targetting biobutanol. This past spring, the companies announced results from fuel testing including: that a 16 percent biobutanol blend performs similarly to a 10 percent ethanol blend and higher biobutanol blends also produce favorable results; that

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Nasib Qureshi stands by a reactor where agricultural residues such as wheat straw are fermented to biobutanol.

the energy density of biobutanol is closer to unleaded gasoline; and that biobutanol does not phase separate in the presence of water. “Biobutanol addresses market demand for fuels that can be produced from domestic renewable resources in high volume and at a reasonable cost;

fuels that can be used in existing vehicles and existing infrastructure; fuels that offer good value to consumers; and fuels that meet the evolving demands of vehicles,” says Frank Gerry, BP Biofuels program manager. Earlier this year, the companies announced that the partnership was developing biocatalysts for the production of 1-butanol as well as 2-butanol. (The latter is called an isomer of butanol because although it contains four carbons, the atoms of the alcohol are arranged differently). The goal of the partnership is to deliver a biobutanol production process with economics equal to ethanol production by 2010. Currently, the two companies have applied for more than 60 patents in the areas of biology, fermentation processing, chemistry and end uses for biobutanol. The challenge to improve the process technology and the microbes that carry out the fermentation drives academic and governmental researchers as well. Qureshi, for instance, has been studying biobutanol production for more than 20 years. He came to the United States from New Zealand to develop a membrane process for more effectively recovering butanol from fermentation broth. He’s also worked to develop efficient butanol

bioreactors. In the past few years, however, his research has taken a different direction, one that focuses on optimizing the process for more economical substrates such as wheat straw, barley straw, switchgrass and corn stover. “We need to move toward more economical substrates,” Qureshi says. “But it’s not as simple as it looks.” First of all, there’s an inherent paradox in the microbial fermentation of butanol: although butanol-producing bacteria produce the enzymes that convert simple sugars into the alcohol, butanol itself is toxic to those same bugs. This butanol inhibition results in a lower alcohol concentration in the fermentation broth, which leads to lower yields of butanol and higher recovery costs. These are the challenges that surface when highly pure feedstocks are used. When a cheaper, biomass substrate is used, additional microbial inhibitors are generated during the pretreatment process. Strategies for reducing butanol toxicity and improving yield, including integrating several steps in the process and manipulating the microbial cultures, are advancing. “We’ve made good progress with raw materials, removing inhibitors and product separation,” Qureshi says. The overall process that Qureshi’s team





James Liao and postdoctoral fellow Shota Atsumi, foreground, in the laboratory at UCLA where E. coli has been engineered to produce butanol.

The bacteria growing on this plate are used to make biofuels.

has developed for the production of butanol from agricultural residues involves four steps: pretreatment, which opens the cell wall structure and removes lignin; hydrolysis of hemicellulose and cellulose into simple hexose and pentose sugars using enzymes; fermentation of simple sugars into butanol using a pure culture of Clostridium beijerinckii P206, an anaerobic bacterium; and recovery of the butanol. The unique aspect of the process is that the last three steps are combined and performed in a single reactor. “We’ve integrated the process and it appears to be very effective economically,” Qureshi says. His team is currently in the process of filing a patent on the process. In addition, Qureshi has teamed with Lars Angenent, an environmental engineer at Washington University, as well as other USDA-ARS researchers to improve the economics of the hydrolysis step. The idea is to replace the need for enzymes, which are often expensive, with a mixed culture of bacteria. “The real tenets of my lab involve studying nondefined mixed cultures and seeing what they can do,” Angenent explains. In the collaboration with Qureshi, Angenent will use microbes collected from the sludge of an anaerobic digester as well as microbes from sheep rumen to ferment pretreated corn fiber to butyric acid, a chemical found in rancid butter, parmesan cheese and vomit. The solution containing the acid will be sent to Qureshi’s lab where it will be fermented into butanol by his pure cultures of Clostridium. The collaboration is in its infancy, financed by a $425,000 grant from the USDA. Currently, Angenent’s team is working to optimize the butyric acid production by tweaking conditions like pH and temperature. “We try to steer the community to produce one product over another,” he explains. Once conditions are right for the production of significant levels of butyric acid, Qureshi will take over.

that naturally produce it, a team of chemical and biomolecular engineers from the University of California, Los Angeles, recently reported a different course. In a recent issue of the journal Nature, the team led by James Liao, described how they genetically modified a well-known bacterium, Escherichia coli, to efficiently synthesize butanol, a molecule it doesn’t normally produce. To do this, the team reasoned that they could divert some of the metabolites that E. coli uses to make amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, to a metabolic pathway that would result in the production of butanol. “Amino acid biosynthesis is very well studied in E. coli,” Liao explains. Using that knowledge, Liao’s team inserted two genes into the E. coli genome: one from a microbe involved in the production of cheese and one from a yeast. These genes express proteins that convert keto acids, components of the amino acid biosynthesis pathway, into butanol. In addition, by inhibiting the expression of other genes and making changes in certain proteins in the pathway, Liao was able to increase the efficiency of the process to a level high enough for industrial use. “By using these two tricks we could force the flux to the desired direction,” he says. “We were able to produce isobutanol very quickly and improved the titer in a few months.” The technology is so promising that Gevo Inc., a biofuels startup based in Pasadena, Calif., recently announced that it acquired an exclusive license to commercialize Liao’s process. The company is currently scaling up the technology and deciding whether to go ahead with its own plans to build a butanol plant. Liao, meanwhile, is working on converting cellulose waste materials into isobutanol as well as trying to implement the approach in other microbes. “We’re very excited about the promise of the project,” he says. BIO

Engineering Butanol-Fermenting Bugs

Jessica Ebert is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 738-4962.

Whereas the approach spearheaded by Qureshi and Angenent involves optimizing butanol production by microbes 32 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 5|2008




Gas Naturally California, according to some dairy commercials, is home to happy cows. So many cows, in fact, that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. estimates that dairy manure makes up 20 percent of the state’s available waste biomass for conversion into renewable fuels. The company is aggressively courting developers of anaerobic digestion and biomass gasification projects to provide biomethane for its millions of natural gas customers. By Jerry W. Kram


iomethane, also called biogas, would seem to be a natural, easy-to-obtain renewable fuel. Take some manure or other biomass, cover it to catch the gas and let innumerable methane generating bacteria do the work for you. But raw biogas isn’t ready for the pipeline. Along with the valuable methane, raw biogas is a mix of water, sulfur, carbon dioxide and possibly even pathogenic bacteria. These components lower the heat value of the biogas and can even damage natural gas pipelines. In Europe and elsewhere, these problems have been handled by using biogas in small-scale combined-heat-

and-power (CHP) generators designed to handle the impurities in the gas. These CHP facilities typically only serve the farms where the biomass is produced, and the surrounding local area. Biogas would be a more useful energy source if it could be integrated into the existing natural gas distribution system and dispatched to wherever it is needed. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. owns one of the largest of these gas distribution systems. The company provides gas and electricity to approximately 15 million people in California. Its gas transmission “backbone” is 6,128 miles long and reaches 4.2 million homes and businesses. The company has a long-held interest in alternative fuels and environ-




This biogas refining system was installed at the Vintage Dairy farm in Fresno County, Calif. This project went live in March and was the first biogas-to-pipeline injection project in California.

mental protection. In May 2006, the company adopted a policy statement to the effect that it would not only seek to minimize its greenhouse gas emissions, but would also become a leader in addressing global climate change with responsible policies and programs. “Our commitment to renewable energy is pretty solid,” says Ken Brennan, a senior project manag-


er in PG&E’s business development division. “We are trying to get any kind of nonfossil-fuel-based renewable energy we can into our portfolio.” One way to expand its efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions is the integration of biogas into its gas distribution system. The first stage in the process is a project in California’s dairy country involving the anaerobic digestion of manure. “We have been working with dairies in the San Joachin Valley to connect them with our transmission system,” Brennan says. The initial project centered on converting the manure into biomethane and creating a system that could clean up the gas at the farm level so it could be injected into the existing gas pipeline system. “Some dairies are already capturing methane from their covered digestion ponds,” says Rod Boschee, manager of PG&E’s business development division. “They are burning it on-site in combustion engines to produce electricity to use on the farm. That is certainly a step in the right direction but we feel a more efficient use of that gas is to clean it up and put it in a pipeline.” The first dairy in the project began biomethane production in April, and the gas it produced is being tested to ensure that it meets the standards for pipeline gas. The dairy is expected to produce about 600 Mcf of gas per day, and plans call for three or four neighboring dairies to eventually tie into the same system.


The next stage of the project will be to investigate codigestion, where agricultural waste and other biomass is placed in the digester along with the manure. “You add to the dairy waste soft waste such as food waste, cheese whey, grape pomace, all types of other material that can enhance the volume of gas from the digestion process,” Brennan says. “We see this as the first step of the evolutionary process of using additional waste streams that can generate gas.” Future projects could look at wastewater processing plants and landfills as additional waste streams to convert. The problem with digester gas is that it’s more than just methane. It can contain carbon dioxide along with a corrosive mix of sulfur compounds and water. The company also has to be aware of potentially pathogenic bacteria being introduced into the pipeline system. “There is technology that can remove the main components of the biogas,” Brennan says. “They have to remove the hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. So the final product should be pretty much pure methane gas. But the real concerns that utilities have is biological. Is there any material in the gas, microbes and pathogens that could be harmful? That’s the big unknown that needs to be evaluated.” Brennan says PG&E will be taking numerous samples of the biomethane from its initial dairy project to check for biological contamination. He doesn’t expect there will be any


Manure and Then Some

Before biomethane can be injected into pipelines using this pipeline injection system, it has to be cleaned to remove carbon dioxide, water and hydrogen sulfide, as well as any microbial contamination.

problems because during the cleaning process and in compressing the gas for injection into the pipeline the gas is heated to several hundred degrees Fahrenheit, high enough to kill most bacteria. “If the gas meets our pipeline quality, we anticipate that it will be a good, clean product,” he says. Boschee says injecting the biomethane in a pipeline is better than producing electricity on-site because PG&E’s large

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fuel combined-cycle gas-fired power plants are much more efficient than the farm-based combustion generators. “You can get even greater utilization of that energy to get even more power for the electricity demands here in California,” he says. To move beyond the limits of anaerobic digestion, PG&E is exploring a project it calls biomethanation. “[Anaerobic digestion] is pretty traditional stuff,” Brennan says. “It’s been done in Europe for the past 10 or 15 years. Biomethanation is a more emerging technology.” The company began the biomethanation project in the first quarter of 2008 by issuing a request for proposals. At this point, the project is not limiting itself to any specific feedstock other than manure, or technology or process, as long as it makes a pipeline-ready gas out of biomass. “Dairy manure is about 20 percent, give or take, of the available biomass in the state, so we are looking for technologies that can turn the other 80 percent into renewable energy for us,” he adds. “That includes anything from ag waste to food waste to municipal waste to woody biomass from forests, anything organic, really.” PG&E issued a request for information on new biomethanation projects earlier this year. The company is looking for innovative technologies, primarily using gasification, to increase the percentage of renewables in its natural gas supply. “We want to encourage people to develop projects to convert these hard organics into methane and put that into our pipeline system,” Boschee says. The company will review the submissions in May, and Brennan says the company hopes to sign up the first projects before the end of 2008. PG&E will not act as the developer for the biomethanation projects. Rather, the company will be acting as facilitator to bring developers, investors and regulators together to expedite the development of the projects. “We are trying to bring the parties together, the people who have the technology, the people who have waste streams, people who like to site those facilities and people who have money for investing,” Boschee says. “All of those parties are part of the process. We will work with them and help to find financing to develop demonstration projects somewhere here in California.” With the resources of a major company, PG&E can help smaller developers overcome financial and regulatory barriers. “We work with project developers and dairymen to facilitate the development,” Brennan says. “There are a lot of hurdles these projects have to face, whether it is permit or process related. Smoothing the way, spreading information and making good contacts for developers are very important roles that PG&E is playing in facilitation of these projects.” PG&E will also consider projects that will improve the efficiency of anaerobic digestion. One of the ways this could be accomplished is by reducing the time it takes to produce biogas in the digesters. Brennan says the traditional digestion


process takes 20 to 40 days to complete, whereas new methods complete the process in less than a week.

Adding Value to Ag Waste Projects such as PG&E’s biomethanation initiative have other benefits as well. Agricultural waste is an environmental headache in California. Nutrients and bacteria in manure threaten to contaminate water supplies. Air quality regulations prevent farmers from burning straw and other ag waste, leaving them with a disposal problem. “We have been trying to encourage farmers to realize the energy potential of these waste streams,” Boschee says. “They can capitalize on these waste streams and capture the methane gas and use it in the most efficient way possible.” PG&E is not using any biogas in its system currently, although the first dairy-based project is about to come on line. The company’s goal is to aggressively grow the supply of biomethane in the state to provide for 10 percent of its consumption. That would be equivalent to more than 200,000 Mcf per day. Biomethane is an important part of PG&E’s plans to increase its renewable portfolio. Unlike solar and wind energy, biomethane can be stored and easily dispatched to areas where it’s needed. “You don’t need to use it right away, where as electrical energy must be,” Brennan says. “With gas, you can stick it in the pipeline and store it until it can be used most efficiently. It provides a great deal more flexibility than other renewable options.” Brennan also sees other advantages from the local production and control of biomethane. “Because it is being manufactured right in our service territory, it reduces our reliance on outside sources of gas,” he says. “It reduces our need to reinforce our pipeline system to bring gas into the state. It also reduces our need to reinforce our local transmission systems. [Gas from] these dairies is going into existing pipelines that are already serving our customer base.” California recently passed legislation calling on utilities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. While this legislation calls for the ambitious development of renewable fuels, Brennan points out that PG&E started its biomethane program well before the bill was passed. “The impetus for our program came before Assembly Bill 38 was passed,” he says. “But it does set a very ambitious goal of 20 percent renewables by 2010. So we were forced to put the gas pedal down on something we were already doing.” BIO Jerry W. Kram is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 738-4962.




Using Peter Rabbit to Clean Peter’s Pond Purdue University researchers have implanted poplar trees with genetic material from rabbits. The trees are destined for a Herculean task: cleaning up a contaminated site that housed an oil storage facility. The site, called Peter’s Pond, was tainted by contaminated oil stored there nearly 40 years ago. The process, called phytoremediation, allows transgenic trees to slurp up underground contaminants. By Sarah Smith




y the U.S. EPA’s own estimate, there are “tens of thousands” of Superfund sites scattered throughout the United States. Complex, longterm, formidable processes to clean up those abandoned hazardous waste sites are taking place throughout the nation, parsed among 10 EPA districts. Superfund was born in 1980 in response to the discovery of numerous environmental catastrophes like the Love Canal. Those toxic waste dumps gave rise to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. Superfund areas carry the dubious designation as the nation’s worst toxic waste sites. Currently more than 1,300 sites are on the National Priorities List and EPA estimates that they affect 11 million people. But numerous other sources of land contamination, such as state Superfund sites, brownfields, nonhazardous waste disposal facilities and other land contamination sources are not currently tracked in national databases, leading to EPA’s ballpark estimate of tens of thousands of areas that need cleanup attention. That’s where Purdue University researchers come in, participating in the EPA’s Return to Use program. One of the most prevalent pollutants, trichloroethylene, or TCE, has been found to be a susceptible victim of transgenic poplars—trees that possess a gene transferred from another species. The Purdue researchers, collaborating with scientists from the University of Washington, have found that the poplars are capable of absorbing TCE and other pollutants, then processing them into harmless byproducts. “The poplar has an innate ability, in plants that have not been genetically modified, to absorb and metabolize TCE to a certain extent,” says Richard Meilan, associate professor of molecular tree physiology at Purdue. “But it’s not particularly efficient.”


Enter the rabbit to speed things along. Mammalian livers are “highly evolved detoxifying organs,” Meilan says, and contain enzymes that are capable of metabolizing a variety of potential hazardous compounds, including TCE. When the gene encoding this enzyme is introduced into a poplar, the tree recognizes the rabbit DNA and it’s capable of breaking down TCE and other harmful chemicals, including chloroform, benzene, vinyl chloride and carbon tetrachloride. The EPA thinks TCE is the most common groundwater pollutant at Superfund sites, and it’s a suspected carcinogen. At Peter’s Pond, TCE lies within 10 feet of the surface—an easy target for transgenic tree roots. Meilan co-authored a study, published in October 2007 in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” which found that the genetically altered trees were able to absorb and metabolize a variety of toxic compounds much more rapidly than unaltered poplars. “Livers serve a protective role to detoxify these things and keep them from having negative effects” in mammals, Meilan says. TCE is considered a halogenated product because it contains nonmetallic elements from what Meilan refers to as the “dreaded” Periodic Table, which was introduced to most people in junior-high science classes. Halogens include fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine. They’re highly reactive and in their natural state generally have fleeting existences as gases. “Provided they’re not ingested in huge quantities, some halogens such as the chloride ion in table salt aren’t harmful to us,” Meilan says. “But when you attach the chloride ion to other molecules, depending on their configuration, they can be incredibly harmful molecules. There are all kinds of organic compounds and when they have these halogens attached, they can be nasty stuff.” That’s where the hare-poplar combination



Meilan inspects hybrid poplars, which were not genetically engineered, grown near West Lafayette, Ind.

proves useful. The enzyme produced by the expression of this rabbit gene in poplars, cleaves off the halogens and liberates the organic material, producing an innocuous product with the toxic properties removed. Essentially, the trees metabolize the harmful contaminants and emerge unfazed, and unpolluted.

Peter’s Pond is actually a Chrysler site. “It was never grossly contaminated and Chrysler removed the majority of the contamination in work done in the 1980s and then again in the early part of this decade,” says Max Gates of the automaker’s Safety and Regulatory Communications Department. “At Chrysler, we got involved with EPA and the Return to Use program at a site in a rural region near our headquarters north of Detroit. The work at Peter’s Pond is an extension of that involvement, which we think has great potential for recapturing the benefits from the investment made in environmental cleanups and creating potential sites for growth of fuel crops for biodiesel, ethanol and perhaps other alternative energy sources.” Chrysler has committed $313,000 to funding the project, Meilan says.

Mutated Plants Spawn Controversy Meilan and other researchers must undergo a lengthy permitting process with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before they receive permission to plant genetically altered trees anywhere but in a laboratory or a contained greenhouse. Before any deployment takes place and after a permit has been issued, genetically altered plants are strictly regulated by a U.S. government agency called the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The researchers are taking comprehensive steps to assure that no transgenes escape into the environment. Hence the three-year life span of the project. Meilan says although many genetically modified crops such as corn are being grown for commercial purposes, “because they’ve been so heavily domesticated they have few or no wild relatives with which to mate, thus minimizing environmental risks,” he says.


environment Trees are different because they have long juvenile periods. They can grow for many years without producing seeds. Meilan says some trees don’t become sexually mature until they are 25 years old. “We have not domesticated trees to the extent we have agronomic crops,” he says. “As a result all these trees we’ve genetically altered have wild relatives with which they can mate. Pollen from a 15-year-old tree can disperse over miles and there may be wild relatives downwind that it can fertilize.” That’s why genetically engineered trees are strictly regulated. “Currently no transgenic trees can be grown for commercial purposes, but they can be grown for research purposes,” he says. The trees will be harvested after three years because poplars typically flower after about five years. If they are harvested before they flower, there’s no

chance of any genetic material escaping. But the three-year growth period will allow the poplar roots to grow to the necessary depth to access the contaminants in the suspended water table at Peter’s Pond. Contaminants similar to those in Peter’s Pond are prevalent throughout the United States, Meilan says, particularly at military installations. “There were gobs of this stuff,” he says, referring to the TCEs. “Many sites need to be cleaned. Ultimately there’s some potential down the road.”

Afterlife of a Genetically Altered Tree—Devitalization “There are a lot of contaminants out there—mercury, lead, cadmium—and plants such as ferns can sequester these contaminants,” Meilan says. “They bioaccumulate them in their tissues. Using

these plants to accumulate heavy metals will take up this stuff but you now have a contaminated plant. What do you do with it? Do you burn it and release it into the atmosphere? Do you dispose of it in a landfill?” Unlike these other plants used for phytoremediation, poplars metabolize the harmful substances so there are no worries about disposal, he says. But any biomass applications for the harvested trees cannot be used in for-profit ventures. Regulators won’t allow poplars containing the hare gene to be grown commercially until containment strategies have been perfected to APHIS’s satisfaction so genetically engineered trees don’t release any “introduced genes” into the wild. Destruction of the transgenic trees, at the end of the field test, involves what APHIS calls devitalization. Suitable methods include autoclaving, burning, chipping and an herbicide treatment. But the key is commercial applications. They cannot be harvested for commercial purposes, unless a commercial entity has a permit to grow transgenic trees for experimental purposes. And they still cannot be sold on the open market. “In the future poplars have the potential to be used as a bioenergy crop, as a cellulosic feedstock,” Meilan says. “Because these trees are able to detoxify the contaminants, they may make for an ideal feedstock for energy production.” They can also be grown for a variety of other purposes, including fiber for making paper and carbon credits. “Thus, in the future, maybe we can double-dip,” he says. Meilan just hopes that regulators will soon allow commercial applications for transgenic poplar biomass—especially for trees carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot—or liver. BIO Sarah Smith is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 663-5002.



BIG WOOD Construction will start soon on a giant wood-fueled power station in Wales. But where will all that wood come from? Where will the ash go? And why not use the waste heat? By Simon Hadlington






ort Talbot on the coast of Wales, at the western edge of the United Kingdom, is probably not the first place that would spring to mind as the location for a remarkable experiment in renewable energy. The town, once the hub of the United Kingdom’s thriving steel industry before recession hit hard in the 1970s and 1980s, has seen more industrially prosperous days. But Port Talbot could become home to the world’s largest power station run on biomass. A 350-megawatt plant—gargantuan by industry standards—is scheduled to move from the drawing board to the building site within the next few months. The plant will be fired by wood chip. The company behind the project is Prenergy Power Ltd., owned by Switzerland-registered Global Wood Holdings, which is partly owned by TMT Co. Ltd., the Taiwanese shipping group. The Port Talbot plant, scheduled for commissioning in 2010, will produce 70 per cent of the renewable energy target for Wales by providing electricity for around 550,000 homes— half of the households in Wales. The cost of the plant is expected to be around $750 million. Given that a typical wood chip power plant has a capacity of around 5 megawatts, and a 40-megawatt plant is considered to be large, the scale of Prenergy’s ambition is enormous. “It is,” says Peter Richards, business manager of Austrian biomass energy company Cycleenergy and an expert on the industry, “something like sending a man to the moon.”

Crucial Location The location of the proposed plant adjacent to a deep water port is crucial to the economics of the project. The plant


‘If you are simply lighting a big fire under a big boiler solely to produce electricity, you are losing 60 to 70 percent of useful energy through heat loss.’

will require 3 million tons of wood chips annually, which the company says will be imported from a number of countries in North America, South America and Europe. “All the sources will be independently certified as sustainable and we will have an audit trail confirming the source of each shipment of wood chip,” Prenergy spokesman John Anderson told Biomass Magazine. The company is investigating the best way to dispose of the estimated 80,000 tons of ash produced each year. The ash could be used as a soil conditioner or fertilizer for forestry or agriculture, used in the cement industry, or deposited in landfill. “Our preference is strongly for the first option and we are working with forestry experts to develop methods of conditioning the ash to produce the right characteristics to allow it to be easily spread,” Anderson says. Certain aspects of the project have, however, been criticized and some industry insiders remain curious to see how Prenergy will be able to source and transport the vast quantity of wood chips that it will require. One issue that has been raised is that the plant will provide only electricity, and will not pipe excess heat to local business-

europe es and homes, as combined heat and power plants do. In response, the company says that the infrastructure for supplying heat locally does not exist in the UK in the same way it does in parts of continental Europe. Furthermore, the company says, the plant is designed to generate electricity far more efficiently than smaller plants, with an efficiency of around 36 percent compared with typically 22 percent for small plants. Concern has also been voiced about the use of shipping, which itself generates pollution, to transport the fuel. Prenergy insists, however, that for a project of this scale water transport represents the most environmentally benign form of transporting bulk quantities of raw material. In principle, a wood-burning power station is a good idea, says Dan van der Horst, an expert in biomass energy at the University of Birmingham in the UK. “Biomass only reduces carbon dioxide emissions if the energy put into growing the biomass produces significantly fewer emissions that you displace by using biomass as an energy source,” he says. “Generally for woody biomass from sustainably managed forestry this is not a problem—as it can be for other kinds of energy crop such as rapeseed, cereals or even short-rotation coppice such as willow or poplar, which require agricultural inputs.” He points out that while shipping the wood chip will produce pollution, the carbon emissions for shipping are often not taken into account when calculating the “carbon advantage” of a fuel source. “Because pollution caused by international shipping does not get ascribed to any single country, it tends to be ignored by people considering only national targets for reducing carbon emissions,” says van der Horst.

ROCs Increase Profitability Generating electricity from renewable sources represents a potentially attractive investment in the United Kingdom. The government requires energy companies to provide an increasing proportion of their power from renewables or face financial penalties. The system adopted by the government is to issue renewable energy certificates (ROCs) to power generators that are making electricity from sustainable sources: one ROC per megawatt-hour of power they generate. The ROCs can then be sold on the open market to other companies to make up any shortfall buyers have accumulated by not producing enough electricity from renewables. The introduction of the ROC system has increased the profitability of renewables—and in some market conditions the certificates can sell for more than the price of the electricity itself.


europe Wasting Heat Of far more concern to van der Horst is the fact that the new plant will not be using its excess heat. “My big concern with generating electricity from wood is that if you are simply lighting a big fire under a big boiler solely to produce electricity, you are losing 60 to 70 percent of useful energy through heat loss,” he says. “One way of dealing with this is to use the heat to heat homes, but the energy markets in the UK tend not to

favor this kind of approach and energy providers claim it is simply too expensive to install the necessary infrastructure. But if you do not use this heat you waste twothirds of your biomass energy.” For van der Horst, the most efficient way to turn biomass into electricity is to burn it together with coal in coal-fired power stations. “This directly displaces coal, which is the most polluting fossil fuel,” he argues. “A brand new biomass plant producing only electricity is a bad idea.”

Cycleenergy’s Richards, meanwhile, will be watching the progress of the new plant with fascination. “The project is particularly interesting because of its phenomenal size,” he says. “If you consider that 200 megawatts of renewable energy through biomass is considered a typical target for a country trying to stimulate this form of energy generation, that is equivalent to 50 plants each of 4 megawatts capacity. So one single plant of 350 megawatts is unbelievable.” Transporting the fuel is clearly an issue, says Richards. “There was a case of a 50-megawatt wood-burning plant in Hungary, which required 14 truckloads of fuel a day,” he notes. “For a plant of 350 megawatts bringing the fuel by land would be exorbitantly expensive, so it is quite clever putting it on a port. But nevertheless the sheer logistics remain interesting.” Håkan Ekström, an expert on the global wood trade at Wood Resources International in Seattle, points out some of the challenges that could face the new project. “If they need to import 3 million dry tons of wood fiber it sounds like a huge project,” Ekström told Biomass Magazine. “The volume is slightly less than what the entire Swedish pulp industry is consuming in one year, or twice the chip volume the German pulp industry is consuming. Japan is, by far, the largest chip importer in the world and they import 13 million dry tons per year. “So entering this market to purchase 3 million tons sounds like a difficult task, but it all depends on what they are willing to pay for the wood. And it is not going to be easy to find that volume of certified wood unless they plan to chip pulpwood and that would be really expensive.” BIO Simon Hadlington is a journalist who covers biofuels from his base in York, United Kingdom.




Biomass Research

Research into all facets of biomass-supported industries is taking off at schools throughout the country. North Dakota State University is combining and coordinating its efforts to a better biobased program. By Mary-Anne Fiebig

The claims and statements made in this article belong exclusively to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Biomass Magazine or its advertisers. All questions pertaining to this article should be directed to the author(s). PHOTO: NDSU




nvolvement in biobased research and products is not a new interest for North Dakota State University. Beginning in 1905, the Fargo, N.D.based land-grant university conducted polymers and coatings research centered on the use of linseed oil as a base for paint. Today, with a growing emphasis on alternative fuel and energy sources and the use of entire plants for an increasing array of products, biobased research continues to be the focus for many NDSU research efforts. To coordinate this activity, the university formed the NDSU Biomass and Bioproducts Initiative in early 2007. It culminated in the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education approving the NDSU Bio Energy and Product Innovation Center (NDSU BioEPIC) in mid-November 2007. The center’s purpose is to serve as a single site within the university to develop, coordinate and pro-

mote the development of bio-related activities at NDSU and in North Dakota. “What we’ve been looking at is to effectively pull together the full set of capabilities within the North Dakota State University system and position ourselves to be partners with other organizations and companies looking to emerge and grow in North Dakota,” says D.C. Coston, vice president for agriculture and university extension. The multidisciplinary and multidepartment center will be headed by two co-directors: Ken Hellevang, a professor in the department of agricultural and biosystems engineering, and David Saxowsky, an associate professor in the department of agribusiness and applied economics. Both were instrumental in the development of the center. More than 15 departments on campus and eight Research Extension Centers throughout North Dakota are researching

answers to various aspects of energy and biobased production. To begin coordination of research and activities, a series of forums was held designed to raise awareness of current research, education, and extension achievements and directions. At each forum, four or five researchers or extension specialists from various departments and colleges showcased their work in the biobased arena, which was followed by group discussion. The forums promoted valuable interaction and collaboration. A daylong NDSU BioOpportunities Workshop, held in May 2007, included several breakout discussions involving NDSU faculty, researchers and extension personnel, as well as invited guests from private industry, government, producers and stakeholders. Approximately 150 people attended. Broadly, the center’s objectives are to continue developing frontier technologies in the biomass and bioproducts arena,


RESEARCH coordinate research strategies and activities, utilize biomass and bioproducts to eliminate waste and increase efficiency, energize business and industry investment, stimulate student interest and learning, and revitalize communities throughout the state and region. “We are convinced that bio-opportunity is very much an interdisciplinary effort,” Saxowsky says. “The reason NDSU is in such a strong position is because we have this wide range of discourse well-established.”

More than Biofuels Today, most news reports appear to be concentrated on biobased fuels, especially ethanol extracted from corn and other sources, such as corn stalks, wheat straw and grasses, including switchgrass. But many other products are being discovered. For example, wheat straw can be used for more than an ethanol feedstock. One coproduct of creating ethanol from wheat is unhydrolyzed cellulose, which can be processed to produce cellulose nanofibers or nanowhiskers. Nanowhiskers can be used as a substitute for fiberglass and petroleum-based composites. Biobased composites are easier to recycle. Nanowhiskers also have the potential to make composite materials twice as strong as their petroleum-based counterparts. Cars made with biocomposites can be lighter, which leads to increased mileage per gallon of fuel without compromising strength and safety. Adding nanowhisker production to a wheat straw-toethanol plant adds an estimated $770,000 in direct economic impact, according to a study by Larry Leistritz, NDSU professor of agribusiness and applied economics. His study has been ongoing the past three years. Leistritz’s program, in collaboration with Lansing, Mich.-based MBI International, is approaching Phase 2 in the project that involves setting up a pilot plant. This stage is required in the commercialization of nanowhisker production. Development of the next stage will have major ramifications to the success of this project and to the state. In the same area of research, but in another part of campus, Chad Ulven, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics, develops composites that are made with biobased polymers and natural fibers. Continuous flax fiber or short corn fibers are used to strengthen various plastics, just as rebar is used to reinforce concrete. “In terms of assisting the biofuels production, this is an important area of research,” Ulven says. “The byproducts created from biofuel production need some type of use. With biobased polymers and natural fibers, you’re getting a much higher value for the byproducts.” Continuing research in the biobased industry not only involves converting plant material into biobased products, but continued on page 56



Broadening the Research Scope NDSU has many different areas of research in the biobased arena. Some examples are listed below. For more information, visit Hydrogen power Pickup trucks and farm tractors are testing hydrogen fuel at NDSU Research Extension Centers. Future research will determine the feasibility of hydrogen fuel in various applications and the development of hydrogen fuel cell technology. Making ethanol from alternative sources Production of ethanol from native grasses such as switchgrass and other lignocellulosic materials is being investigated. Efforts to improve Conservation Reserve Program management and to investigate the effect of harvesting CRP to ensure environmental sustainability are included in this research. Alternative crops for corn biorefineries Researchers are studying other crops that can be processed in corn-based biorefineries. Economic analysis Research includes economic analysis of processing the product, optimum location of processing plants, transportation requirements, and handling and storage methods. Developing coproducts Efficient use of all coproducts is a major consideration of biomass conversion at NDSU. Distillers grains, a coproduct from ethanol production, and canola meal, a coproduct from canola biodiesel production, are being explored as a feed ingredient for livestock. Investigation is being conducted into the colocation of cattle feedlots near ethanol plants and combining an anaerobic digestion processing plant to convert animal waste into methane to fuel the ethanol plant. This is being carried out at the Blue Flint Ethanol LLC plant in Underwood, N.D., with the aim of producing a self-sustaining biorefinery. Research continues to develop value-added products for new markets in biofuel, biolubricants, cosmetics, food products and nutraceuticals. Market and policy analysis Research by NDSU economists includes plant feasibility analyses, evaluation of alternative federal policies designed to promote biomass and bioproduct production and use, and impacts of increasing use of biomass and bioproducts on national and international food and energy markets. Student learning A course on biofuels is available for undergraduate and graduate students. Other courses increasingly include biomass and bioproduct course material. Community support NDSU economists investigate and propose new crop insurance for biomass crops previously not covered. Risk management strategies are also prepared to minimize income variability and to sustain the viability of farms and rural communities.

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Approximately 150 people attended NDSU's BioOpportunities Workshop.

continued from page 54

also producing a healthy plant and improving the plant’s performance for that specific purpose. The NDSU Oilseed Development Center of Excellence is one example of this important research area. During the past few years, the center has obtained new and improving canola germplasm (genetic material) that has increased oil content of the seed from 16 percent to 18 percent. This result alone has an estimated annual value to North Dakota of $22 million, based on current acreage. If the demand increases as antic-


ipated, it could escalate to approximately $110 million per year. Benefits of biorelated research includes increased employment and educational opportunities, as well as increased income for producers and processors in North Dakota and the region. NDSU has classes to educate tomorrow’s engineers and scientists in areas relating to biofuels and bioprocessing. In addition, NDSU faculty are sharing their expertise statewide. For example, Hellevang, also an NDSU Extension Service agricultural engineer, is involved in the North Dakota Biomass Energy Task Force and the North Dakota Alliance for Renewable Energy. Other faculty are demonstrating canola biodiesel production and use, and providing off-campus educational programming on biofuels and agricultural energy efficiency. Faculty are also working with groups, businesses and communities across the state to develop the future of renewable energy and bioproducts. “It is this team approach that will help North Dakota communities participate in the bioeconomy,” Hellevang says. “It is continuing the land-grant philosophy of NDSU to foster the economic prosperity and quality of life of the people we serve.” NDSU has the expertise and experience to research biobased products from the ground up—from soil to product—to their effect on community and the region. Collaboration among the researchers and educators provides a complete range of services. NDSU BioEPIC will continue its mission to coordinate and encourage interaction across disciplines on campus and throughout the state and region to enhance and promote a sustainable future for generations to come. BIO Mary-Anne Fiebig works with BioEPIC at North Dakota State University. Reach her at or (701) 231-8190. For more information, visit



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LAB Mile Marker 105: Syntec Reaches for Economic Efficiency


n a long and winding road, sometimes the only way to note progress is to watch the mile markers on the side of the road as they slowly tick higher. On the road to commercially producing cellulosic ethanol, Syntec Biofuel Inc. recently passed a significant marker. Its thermochemical method of producing ethanol and other alcohols reached a production efficiency of 105 gallons per ton of biomass. According to George Kosanovich, chief executive officer of Syntec, the milestone was significant not only because it exceeds the threshold for the economic production of biofuels, but also because it exceeds the efficiency of fuel production from corn. Syntec’s B2A process is based on the gasification of biomass and the catalytic reforming of synthesis gas in a Fischer-Tropsch process. The original research on the process was conducted at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 2000. Syntec was formed to commercialize the technology coming from the university. “The research has been ongoing since that time, primarily on catalyst development,” Kosanovich says. The company has gone through several ownership changes over the years; Kosanovich joined the company a year ago. The B2A process produces mixed alcohols as a final product. Eightyfive percent is methanol and ethanol, and the rest is propanol and butanol. A year ago, the process produced 40 gallons of alcohols for each ton of biomass produced. Kosanovich uses rough estimates of 1,000 pounds of carbon per ton of biomass and a little less than seven pounds of carbon in a gallon of alcohol to calculate that the process was only approximately 30 percent efficient in converting the carbon in biomass into alcohols. With the improvements, the process’ efficiency has surpassed 65 percent. Kosanovich says advances in catalyst technology made it possible to make the 80-year-old Fischer-Tropsch technology more efficient. “We are changing from what I would call a chemistry focus to guide the lab advancement to an engineering/economic focus to improve the key properties and parameters of the catalyst,” he explains. “We did this through a series of cat-

alyst improvements, including getting away from very expensive components in the catalyst. That not only made the catalyst a higher performer, but less expensive to produce.” To improve the catalyst by more than 150 percent took a considerable amount of micro- and nanoscale engineers. “We made a whole series of detailed improvements to the catalyst's promoters and copromoters, plus detailed changes to the construction of the pellet,” Kosanovich says. “We had to look at [the pellet’s] porosity, pore size and composition to actually put the active sites down on the catalyst carrier pellet. Optimizing all those elements allowed us to create the improvements we did.” Syntec researchers worked to find the best balance among 15 different parameters to evaluate and improve the performance of the catalyst. Kosanovich says they actually underestimated the complexity of the task when all the substitution of ingredients was taken into consideration. “It’s a highly multivariate composition,” he says. “We are still in the midst of that task, but we have found a few key breakthroughs that allowed us to have that very impressive improvement. However, we haven’t completely optimized it yet.” Along with efficiency improvements, Syntec is investigating ways to increase its catalyst’s longevity. The third goal is to increase the catalyst’s productivity, which Kosanovich describes as the amount of alcohol produced per pellet of catalyst. While Syntec continues to work on improving its catalyst, the economics are positive enough for the company to move ahead and develop a demonstration-scale plant. Kosanovich says the company is currently raising funds and evaluating sites for the demonstration facility. “We are at a point where, if the catalyst does not get an iota better, our economics are quite impressive,” he says. “However, we know we are not done with that improvement cycle. There are a bunch of things we are going to do that we are confident will yield additional improvements.” BIO —Jerry W. Kram Left to right: Caili Su, senior scientist; Kosanovich; Steven Li, process engineer; and Raymond Ko, lab assistant PHOTO: SYNTEC BIOFUEL INC.




A Solution for Greater Biomass Utilization


aste biomass represents an enormous underutilized resource for electrical generation. Studies have shown that up to 600 million tons of waste biomass is produced each year in the United States. This represents a potential renewable electricity resource of up to 120 gigawatts of electrical power. However, these resources are distributed in relatively small quantities, and it is almost always less expensive for the company producing the waste biomass to pay for its disposal than to convert it to electricity using traditional combustion technologies. Coal and nuclear power plants operate on a scale of hundreds of megawatts. Both capital and operating costs benefit from economies of scale. For waste biomass, the system would have to be scaled down to less than a megawatt to match the typical size of the biomass resource. High-pressure combustion boiler systems require certified operators, and a cost is associated with system maintenance and pollution control. Even with free fuel, the cost and difficulty of operating a small boiler system on a per-kilowatt electricity basis are often higher than the retail price of electricity from the grid. The Centers for Renewable Energy and Biomass Utilization at the Energy & Environmental Research Center are investigating alternative technologies for converting solid biomass fuel to electricity at small scales. One such technology is small-scale gasification. Similar to a boiler, air is mixed with fuel to produce heat. However, this is where the similarities end. Where a boiler uses the heat to produce steam, a gasifier uses the heat to initiate chemical reactions to break down the biomass into its hydrogen and carbon monoxide conHutton stituents. The hydrogen and carbon monoxide can then be used in a fuel cell, gas turbine or internal combustion engine. This is a little trickier than simply burning the fuel. Just enough air must be added to produce the necessary heat for the chemical reactions, but not so much that air ends up burning the hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Small-scale gasifiers may have issues with high moisture contents in biomass, and small fractions of tars and oils can pass unconverted through the gasifier. These condensates can cause downtime and increased maintenance costs. To overcome these problems, researchers at the EERC have developed a process for thermally integrating a gasifier with the electricity converter, such as the fuel cell or gas turbine. Waste heat from the gas turbine or fuel cell is recycled back to the gasifier to help heat the gasifier. The addition of external heat to the gasifier allows for the use of higher moisture biomass. The gasifier can also be designed to physically increase the size of the gasification zone, minimizing the oils that can pass through unconverted. The goal is to decrease the cost of preparing the biomass for gasification and minimizing the oils leaving the gasifier. Through funding from the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund, the EERC has constructed a benchscale gasifier designed to be integrated with high-temperature fuel cells. Testing of the gasifier demonstrated exceptionally low tar and oil output with high-moisture wood. As part of the work, the gas output of the gasifier was used to power a small high-temperature fuel cell stack. The next step will be to scale the gasifier beyond the bench scale and integrate it with a larger electricity converter, a gas turbine. Using this concept, the EERC plans to thermally integrate a small gas turbine with a gasifier to put power onto the electrical grid. The goal of the project is to produce a low-cost, low-maintenance distributed power system for converting biomass to electricity. In addition to the design and testing of the power system, this project will quantify operating and manufacturing costs, and provide a commercialization road map to minimize time to market. BIO Phillip Hutton is a research manager at the EERC in Grand Forks, N.D. He can be reached at or (701) 777-5204. 5|2008 BIOMASS MAGAZINE 61

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Biomass Magazine - May 2008  

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