Biomass: Opportunities Abound

If the presenters at Biomass '07 are any indication, the biomass industry is past taking baby steps and is ready to boldly move toward a bright and prosperous future.
By Jerry W. Kram and Bryan Sims
Biomass is good business and it's here to stay. That was the one message that permeated the Biomass '07: Power, Fuels and Chemicals Workshop held in May in Grand Forks, N.D. The conference was organized by the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC), a nonprofit organization associated with the University of North Dakota. The fourth annual conference was attended by more than 400 people from 28 states and three foreign countries.

The EERC began as a federal coal research laboratory but has been an independent energy research facility for more than 30 years. According to Director Gerald Groenewold, the facility has more than 400 active contracts for research, development, demonstration and commercialization projects worldwide. The center is involved with projects ranging from clean coal technology and carbon sequestration to wind power and biofuels development.

The EERC started a center for biomass and renewable energy 17 years ago, Groenewold said. The EERC has 40 corporate partners working on biomass projects. He sees the center's role in the industry as identifying and removing technical barriers that limit the industry's growth. "Heaven knows there are technical barriers," he said. "We do not advocate for any technology, but we provide credible, technical answers to critical questions."

The current state of the biomass industry has two faces, according to Groenewold. There are some top-notch ideas that deserve investment and development. There is also a lot of money being invested in questionable ideas by well-meaning people. "We're here, in part at least, to help people figure out where to put their money," he explained.

The center is working with its business partners and other funding sources to commercialize projects involving lignocellulosic ethanol, higher alcohols through the Fischer-Tropsch process, advanced tactical biofuels for the military, distributed electrical generation through biomass microgasification facilities, improving biodiesel's cold-weather performance, integrated urea production at ethanol plants and aviation-grade ethanol.

Growth Potential
Several factors are driving the current interest in biomass, according to Chris Zygarlicke, deputy director for research at the EERC. They include economics, the desire for energy security, global warming concerns, rural economic development, technical needs (such as the need for ethanol as an octane booster in gasoline) and public opinion. These combined make biomass utilization a dynamic industry with a bright future, especially in the Northern Plains region of the United States.

With just a 3 percent share of the U.S. energy market, biomass has plenty of room to grow. "We have a long way to go to make an impact on the consumption of fossil fuels," Zygarlicke said. In the case of ethanol, current technologies based on fermenting corn can take the industry to about 15 billion gallons by 2015, to expand beyond that figure will require the development of cellulosic ethanol technology, he said.

Key challenges for cellulosic ethanol production are similar to those facing much of the biomass industry, Zygarlicke said. The first challenge is growing large quantities of biomass and economically transporting it to a central processing location. "A typical plant making 30 [million] to 50 million gallons of ethanol a year from cellulose is going to need 2,000 tons of feedstock a day," Zygarlicke said. "A commercial plant will operate from 250 to 300 days a year. This translates into a lot of corn or a lot of cellulose and a lot of land by the time we get to 2030, and expect to be consuming 60 billion gallons of ethanol."

According to several studies, the Northern Plains has some of the best potential for developing a biomass industry, Zygarlicke said. "We have economical feedstocks," he continued. "We have some of the best land for developing switchgrass according the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We have innovative farmers and other people. There's a lot of technology here, not just at the EERC but at the universities in Minnesota and South Dakota. There's also experience with renewables. Finally, I think we have to have federal advocates who will promote the policies needed to drive renewable energy and fuels in this region."

The second challenge is to develop robust organisms that can ferment all the available C5 and C6 sugars in the biomass. Related to that is the need to further reduce the cost of the technologies needed to exploit biomass-such as enzymes. The cost of these enzymes has dropped significantly from $5 a gallon to 25 cents a gallon of cellulosic ethanol, but it needs to become cheaper yet. Finally, thermochemical methods of converting cellulose into useful products and power need to be further researched and developed.

Although there are ways to turn biomass into ethanol, the technology needs to be proven in an economically feasible, commercial-scale facility. That's where ethanol producers like Abengoa Bioenergy and ICM Inc. enter the picture. Abengoa Bioenergy is driven to apply innovative biorefinery concepts for augmenting the growth of cellulosic ethanol, said Gerson Santos-Leon, research and development director for Abengoa Bioenergy, which is headquartered in St. Louis, Mo. The U.S. DOE awarded the company $76 million to build a hybrid facility that would utilize the synergies between the enzymatic and thermochemical pathways to make energy, power, fuel and feed products. Abengoa plans to produce 15 MMgy of ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass and 85 MMgy from starch. "This is going to be a very significant investment and a very significant milestone for Abengoa," Santos-Leon said. "Our objective is really to have good technology, to license the technology and to be able to use multiple crops to make biofuels. I think this is really our vision for the future."

Abengoa's research into new enzyme fermentation methods to break down lignin-a substance within the cell walls of plant-derived biomass that's difficult to ferment-into a productive source of energy is enhanced by working with companies like Dyadic International, Novozymes Inc., NatureWorks LLC and Syngenta to further research lignocellulosic ethanol.

Greg Loest, director of technology integration for ICM Inc. in Colwich, Kan., addressed two main platforms that are gaining attention in furthering the commercialization of lignocellulosic ethanol technology: thermal and hybrid platforms. Although both are capital intensive, the thermal platform-cogeneration of heat and electricity from biomass-has a long history in the petroleum industry. The hybrid process is an emerging platform using various research methods that are currently under development. The hybrid platform has the potential to combine positive attributes from sugar and thermal platforms similar to Abengoa's future plans. "It's more nascent at this particular point in time, but it's a stepping stone of what we are able to achieve in the future," Loest said. "It will be interesting to see where these platforms go in the future."

Making it Work
A big part of developing a vigorous biomass industry is figuring out what works right now. Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. (CVEC), a farmer-owned cooperative in Benson, Minn., thinks it has found a way to beat volatile energy prices by using biomass.

CVEC is expanding its ethanol production capacity from 45 million to 85 million gallons a year. Part of that transformation is the installation of biomass-fired boilers to provide heat for distillation and drying at the company's facility. "Our goal is to displace natural gas inputs into our plant," said CVEC General Manager Bill Lee. "There are two objectives, one is to put the technology in place and make it work and then the other piece is to work with outside stakeholders to make sure we have reliable, economic, sustainable feedstocks available."

CVEC is building a biomass gasification system to fire its boilers. The project has three phases. The gasifier will be capable of burning 55 to 70 tons of biomass a day in a flexible-fuel, fluidized-bed design. The syngas will be cofired with natural gas in a multi-fuel burn. The design decouples the rest of the plant from the gasifier. "We think that is pretty important for what is basically a research and development project," Lee said.

The second phase of the project will involve adding additional gas cleaning capacity to the gasifier. The initial gasifier will displace about 25 percent of the company's natural gas consumption. The third stage will be the construction of a second, larger gasifier that will displace the rest of the plant's natural gas needs. "After we have some experience operating the gasifier we will build the second one," he said.

Lee expects natural gas prices to become more volatile in the near future. That, combined with a general upward trend in gas prices, makes developing a long-term supply of renewable fuels more attractive in the long run. "Natural gas prices are not the only reason we're doing this," Lee said. "There are some other things in play that may add additional value to our company." For example, in the future there may be markets for ethanol with a lower carbon footprint, he said. Moving away from natural gas could boost the energy balance for ethanol from about 1.67 to more than 3. The reduction of net carbon emissions over gasoline would increase from 20 percent to 50 percent. "We see California's low-carbon fuel standard as an initial foray into this area. We also noticed (Sen.) Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has included such a proposition in his presidential campaign rhetoric. Where this goes we don't know but it seems reasonable that this country will start to address the climate change and carbon issues, and reducing your carbon footprint will have some reward," he concluded.

Around Town
Farmers aren't the only ones who stand to benefit from biomass energy. The city of St. Paul, Minn., established district heating in the 1980s, said Kenneth Smith, vice president of District Energy of St. Paul. Today, more than 80 percent of the downtown area-31 million square feet-is heated from a single central plant. This eliminated 150 smokestacks in the community and reduced air pollution by 60 percent. In 2007, District Energy decided to diversify its energy supply by adding biomass to its former mix of 80 percent coal and 20 percent natural gas. Currently, 75 percent of the district's fuel is biomass-based.

District Energy is using a wood-fired combined heat and power (CHP) system. CHP is an efficient system that uses 75 percent of the energy in biomass to produce electricity and heat for residences, industries and businesses. The 300,000 tons per year biomass plant was completed in 2007. The CHP system generates 25 megawatts of electricity that is sold to the grid. The waste heat is directed into the heating system. "There are a whole bunch of benefits," Smith said. "For our customers, we have been able to keep our rates competitive by using biomass. The cost of heat in St. Paul is very low compared to other cities around the nation. It's also a marketing opportunity because a lot of our customers can advertise that they use renewable energy," he said.

Utility providers, such as Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy Inc., have also begun to utilize biomass to produce electricity. However, with customers that span the Midwest, utilities still see a number of challenges related to large-scale development of biomass power, notably the availability and stability of the fuel supply, said Betsy Engelking, Xcel's manager of resource planning and bidding. Xcel has invested more than $20 million into research and demonstration by way of the Renewable Development Fund (RDF) to help alleviate the barriers and push biomass into the mainstream of the utility resource portfolio. The advantage of the RDF is that it enables the company to implement research into various fuels and conversion technologies, including biomass and solar projects. "One of the biggest barriers to using biomass in the electric power sector has been cost," Engelking said. Minnesota recently adopted a statewide Renewable Power Standard requiring that 25 percent of the state's electricity come from renewable power sources by 2025. Under the new standard, Xcel Energy is expected to meet a 30 percent renewable electricity standard by 2020-25 percent of which must come from wind power. The remaining 5 percent is where biomass will play a major role in the future of energy source distribution, Engelking said.

In an effort to encourage localized innovation, Minnesota's Community-Based Energy Project initiative will provide incentives to local developers looking to establish biomass-related projects within the state. "The whole idea behind it has been to encourage our local citizens to get involved in the development," Engelking said. "We found that communities are much more accepting of these energy projects when they share some of the financial benefits."

Several presenters talked about the tools currently or soon to be available for the biomass industry. One of those presenters was Spencer Swayze, manager of business development for Ceres Inc., who talked about how his firm's expertise in biotechnology was transforming the potential of biomass feedstocks. Ceres has identified traits that could be moved to crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus, energy cane and poplar trees to increase the productivity of those crops and their potential as biomass feedstocks.

Ceres has identified 75,000 genes and 10,000 gene promoters in many different plant species. The company has developed a high-throughput method of moving these traits into a model plant, Arabidopsis, for evaluation. The successful combinations are transferred to commercial crops to evaluate how the crops react in the field. Finally, the traits can be moved to energy crops.

"Our goal is to increase yield density, and to increase the number of acres where we can achieve that density," Swayze said. Traits such as drought and salt tolerance can expand the range of habitats where a biomass crop can be grown, while genes that control photosynthesis and reproduction can increase the number of tons of biomass that can be grown on an acre of land.

Commercial Biomass Trading
The use of biomass for power and heat generation isn't new, however, with the possible exception of wood and wood-derived products, the worldwide commercial trading of biomass is just emerging. Most attractive biomass sources are not easily accessible to users worldwide and because of its low-energy density long-range transportation is not economical. Luca Zullo, Cargill Inc.'s technical director for emissions reduction services in Wayzata, Minn., introduced the notion of using torrefaction to improve the transportation properties of woody biomass by way of gasification or combustion.

Torrefaction (or mild pyrolysis) consists of a slow heating of biomass in an inert atmosphere to a maximum temperature of 300 degrees Celsius (572 degrees Fahrenheit). The treatment yields a solid, uniform product with lower moisture content and higher energy content compared with the initial biomass. The torrefaction process enables the material to remain dry and repel water while retaining approximately 70 percent of the initial weight and 90 percent of the original energy content, thereby rendering it as a viable option to use in commercial trading, Zullo said.

However, the torrefaction process has drawbacks as it's expensive to perform and there are limited technologies available. The United States must play a key role in the establishment of energy densification if it is to contribute biomass as a commodity that can be traded around the world, Zullo added.

Financing the Growth
Although poised for growth, the biomass industry will require help along the way in the form of time, talent and financing.

"We can't rely totally on the industry and we can't rely totally on the federal government to [expand the industry]," Zygarlicke said. "It's got to be a combined effort. Research is our business and we see that as a driving force to chain the technology that will work."

Kevin Kephart, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at South Dakota State University (SDSU) in Brookings, echoed Zygarlicke's sentiments. Research efforts from land grant universities such as SDSU can play a vital role in contributing to the growth of the industry. "[Biomass] needs to grow in a concerted effort between private industry and the public sector in arenas such as research universities," he said. SDSU is a land grant university that also serves as an agricultural experiment station-one that is unique in that its academics conduct research on various forms of energy crops, such as switchgrass for biomass utilization.

In 2008, a national biomass conference, cosponsored by the EERC and BBI International, is scheduled for April 15-17 in Minneapolis. The Biomass '08: Power, Fuels and Chemicals Workshop will be held July 15-16, 2008 in Grand Forks.

Jerry W. Kram and Bryan Sims are Biomass Magazine staff writers. Reach them at, or (701) 746-8385.