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MU professor helps to plant seeds for an advanced biofuel economy

Thursday, July 28, 2011 | 6:14 p.m. CDT; updated 10:35 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 29, 2011
Ray Glendening, left, shows Shibu Jose how tall the new willow plants should grow in one year at the Horticulture and Agroforestry Center on Wednesday in New Franklin.

COLUMBIA — Shibu Jose and his team believe that today’s soggy river bottoms could be untapped grounds for the largest advanced biofuel economy in the nation. 

Jose, director for MU’s Center for Agroforestry, is proposing to cultivate and harvest biomass crops along the floodplains of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. He said converting less than 1 percent of the 116 million acres of “marginally productive” cropland in that region could create a corridor of sustainable biomass and biofuel production.

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Because of the land’s proximity to the rivers, food crops cultivated here — typically corn and soybeans — are prone to failure because of flooding and soil erosion. Much of his proposed harvest would be immune to both.

His proposal involves replacing the food crops along the rivers with seven types of plants:

  • cottonwood and willow trees,
  • switchgrass and miscanthus grass,
  • energy cane, and
  • sweet and biomass sorghum.

 All except sorghum are perennials, meaning farmers wouldn't have to replant year after year.

Jose, whose background and advanced degrees are in forestry, said this is perhaps the most productive use of some of the flood plains. 

 “If you plant the trees or grasses, it keeps the soil in place for 10, 15, 20 years,” he said. “Even if there is a flood, they stay in place.”  

But the project also represents a more realistic approach to expanding the advanced biofuel economy, which has been stymied by financial shortfalls and unrealistic expectations. 

Getting people together

The backbone of the proposal lies in a marriage of environmentally sound land usage and economics. Refineries are currently able to convert just about anything pulled out of the ground into fuel, he said.

“The technology is there, but no one is producing advanced biofuel at a commercial level," Jose said. 

Jose is leading the development of a consortium in the biomass and biofuel industry. More than 50 partners are on board representing every major segment in the supply chain, from education to production to consumption.

Under Jose’s plan, area farmers would cultivate and harvest one or many of the proposed crops.

Small, advanced rural biorefineries would then collect the biomass, grind up the feedstock, and make pellets or extract sugar out of them. The product would then ship to "hubs," larger plants that ferment the pellets into electricity or biofuel, such as butanol, green diesel and jet fuel. This end product would be sold to consumers.

This producer-to-consumer scheme seems simple enough, but other promising companies have foundered when trying to ignite the commercial market for advanced biofuels. 

In 2007, Range Fuels promised it would become the first commercial cellulosic plant; it had planned to use wood chips to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2008 with an end goal of 100 million gallons per year. The company received $76 million from the Department of Energy. Former President George W. Bush said it would help break America’s “addiction to oil.” Today, the company is no more.

Peter Nelson, co-founder of Memphis-based advanced rural biorefinery Biodimensions Inc., said large companies such as Range Fuels broke ground on unrealistic expectations. “The technologies weren’t well-vetted,” he said.

As Range Fuels planned, most big companies intend to build a huge factory to convert thousands of farmers’ harvests into commercially available biofuel, he said. A common problem is that farmers aren’t ready to produce the necessary feedstock, and that creates a strain between the companies and the rural communities.

In general, “there were unrealistic expectations on the part of the biofuel companies that the feed stocks were going to be cheap," Nelson said.

"The large petroleum companies and the farmers just didn’t speak the same language,” he said.

A smaller start

Nelson said small advanced rural biorefineries act as an intermediary between farmers and large petroleum companies. They help farmers have a seat at the table by doing the first step of processing.

“It puts the region in control to work with the large biorefinery,” he said.

Jose said advanced rural biorefineries are central to the consortium concept. They will eventually contribute to biofuel production. In the meantime, other byproducts can keep farmers profitable.

Show Me Energy in Centerview, southeast of Kansas City, is an example. It is a farmer co-op that collects biomass from neighboring farms and produces pellets that help heat homes. Eventually, these pellets could be made into butanol, a drop-in biofuel.

Founder Steve Flick said Show Me Energy is starting small and building a foundation. 

“You have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run,” Flick said. “What we’re doing is cutting-edge, for the next generation to learn.”

Bringing parties together

Jose said just bringing the diverse stakeholders to the table would help break the vicious chicken-versus-egg cycle that has plagued biofuel technologies in the past: Can’t create biofuel without technology. Can’t develop technology without funding. Can’t get funding without investors. Can’t get investors without political support and infrastructure. Can't get political support and infrastructure without demand for biofuel. 

Jose and his team envision a “farm-to-fuel” team that places different parties shoulder to shoulder, moving forward at the same time for a common goal: a biomass- and biofuel-based economy using the Mississippi and Missouri river corridors.

Rather than building a basic supply chain, Jose said the teams have learned from others’ mistakes and have added bankers, transportation experts and equipment manufacturers to the mix.

“There is no existing model that brings every player together like this in the region,” he said.

Advanced biofuels on the market

The term “advanced biofuel” generally means a renewable fuel that is derived from fast-growing crops, agricultural or forestry waste or other sustainable biomass feedstocks other than corn starch. Various low-input, high-yield crops such as tree and grass varieties can be converted into liquid transportation fuels. 

Logistical issues such as availability of sustainable biomass feedstock, transportation costs and a lack of venture funding have stunted the growth of many of these technologies.

There are a number of pilot-scale refineries in the U.S. that have the capabilities to produce advanced biofuel, but very few are able to take the steps to commercial-scale production, said Joanne Ivancic, executive director for Advanced Biofuels USA.

“We have (solved) most of the technical challenges at least on a bench scale," she said. "But it costs a lot to move these projects from a bench scale ... to a commercial scale.”

Jose said 70 to 80 of the small advanced rural biorefineries in the Missouri and Mississippi river region, or seven to eight per state, would work together to ship their products to five or six large refineries.

Moving away from corn

Underlying the push for a U.S. biofuel economy is the belief that decreasing the nation's dependence on fossil fuels would help disengage the nation from unstable Middle Eastern economies, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower prices at the pump.

However, Ivancic said government support for advanced biofuel commercialization has been small.

“Political will has not really been created to support it,” she said.  

Despite meager government funding, ambitious mandates have been set for fuel producers in the future. Under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the amount of U.S. biofuel use must increase from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

The catch is that 21 billion gallons of that fuel blend must be gleaned from non-cornstarch, or advanced biofuels, which currently are quite scarce.

In the U.S., corn ethanol is the reigning king of the biofuel industry. It is currently the most readily available biofuel on the market. In Missouri, for instance, the Missouri Renewable Fuel Standard requires the sale of 10 percent ethanol blends when ethanol is cheaper than gasoline.

By producing corn ethanol, manufacturers have been able to drop in a gasoline additive that may soon account for as much as 15 percent of the fuel pumped into automobiles.

Pump prices fall considerably when gasoline is mixed with ethanol.  According to the Missouri Corn Growers Association, the use of the 10 percent blend amounted to $285 million in statewide savings in 2008.

Corn advocates such as TheCropSite point to studies that show direct-effect greenhouse gas emissions are reduced 48 percent to 59 percent in comparison with gasoline.

But critics say the immediate benefits are superficial and act as a glossy PR distraction from corn ethanol’s expensive side effects. Some, such as the Environmental Working Group, say the decrease in prices at the pump is offset by grocery costs, since the production of fuel competes with food for corn. The group also says the toll corn ethanol production takes on the environment cancels out the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Most cars manufactured before 2008 aren’t able to handle fuel with more than 10 percent corn ethanol, and even that, some say, burns faster than regular gasoline anyway. Ivancic said that because car engines are designed for optimal gasoline performance, drivers experience a "mileage penalty" when using ethanol-laced fuels.

What could happen 

Jose can't suppress his excitement when he talks about the project, which is still in its developmental stages. He speaks of the plants with the adoration of a parent when visiting one of the research farms in New Franklin. He brags about how fast his crops are growing.

He has been awarded a small grant from the Mizzou Advantage Program but says it will take millions of dollars to keep the consortium and its activities alive and billions in private investments to bring the biofuel economy to fruition. 

He says if all goes as planned in the next five to 10 years, the Mississippi and Missouri river corridor could see:

  • 1 million acres of biofuel crops.
  • The creation of 70 to 80 advanced rural biorefineries in the region (seven to eight per state), creating jobs and economic benefits in the states.
  • A healthy, advanced biofuel industry producing 20 percent to 30 percent of the national goal of 21 billion gallons a year.

His team is applying for several federal grants worth millions of dollars, but the programs are highly competitive.

 “We’ve decided as an institution to move forward with the consortium one way or another,” he said. “That’s our strategy.”

 

 


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Comments

Mark Foecking July 29, 2011 | 3:22 a.m.

The critical question that needs to be asked about any biofuel is the level of petroleum input. All biofuel is mechanically harvested, transported, and processed, and all or this is currently done using petroleum (or natural gas). If the energy input from fossil sources is a large part of the energy yield from the biofuel, than that biofuel is not a viable fuel. You might as well just use the petroleum.

It's been estimated that if corn ethanol had to be used to produce corn ethanol, that over 5000 gallons would have to be produced to make just 500 gallons (the amount of fuel a typical driver uses in a year) of ethanol for sale.

DK

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 29, 2011 | 3:45 a.m.

And, Mark, I would (as I usually do) add that in addition to the situations you've cited we need to ask what the caloric values of these fuels are. Where caloric value is low, it means we need to use more of the fuel to get the effect we'd get with a fuel of higher caloric value. Burning more fuel means we create more carbon dioxide, as a product of combustion.

Where fuel combustion is concerned there is no free lunch.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 30, 2011 | 11:05 a.m.

For the sake of discussion, let's assume Mark's concern is unfounded. I don't think it is, but let's pretend it is.

How much of this huge acreage being talked about would result in "displacement" of traditional agricultural crops? Would the amount of land devoted to growing present cash crops be reduced? Farmers tend to grow and harvest whatever pays the most.

If the answer is that there will be "displacement" then wouldn't we expect prices of traditional crops to rise as availability is lessened?

A major problem with the energy situation is that some sources operate as if other sources of energy and other energy problems don't exist.

(Report Comment)
Troy Norton July 30, 2011 | 12:53 p.m.

Mark, I have to hand it to you. Your post may be the most unintelligent statement I've ever seen on a news piece. In fact, it caused me to register and post a comment for the first time ever. Lets do some math checking on your claim about hypothetical ethanol use to produce ethanol. The standard conversion rate for corn is 2.8 gallons of ethanol per bushel. So to get 500 gallons you would need 178 bushels of corn. The average yield per acre of corn is about 180 bushels, so let's round and say it takes one acre to make 500 gallons of ethanol. According to Iowa State University, diesel fuel consumption is on average 6.85 gallons per acre of corn. If you assume some mileage loss for ethanol (which is debatable), at a 30 percent loss that would be 9.8 gallons of ethanol to grow and harvest an acre of corn. For the conversion to ethanol, I'm going to have use very rough assumptions based on an energy equivalent basis using dollars, because I'm not a scientist or engineer. Converting power (electricity and natural gas) used by an ethanol plant the cost to an ethanol equivalent - $2.5 million for a 50 million gallon plant divided by a $2.65 average ethanol price results in an energy usage of .019 gallons of ethanol consumed for every gallon manufactured. Round that to .02, multiply by 500 gallons, and you get 10 gallons of ethanol to manufacture 500 gallons. Add the 9.8 gallons needed to grow and harvest the corn, and you get 19.8 gallons of ethanol to produce 500 gallons of ethanol. I'm sure that number is not entirely accurate, but it is not in the same country as the claim that it takes 5,000 gallons to make 500. I understand we all have personal biases that affect the reliability or relevance to posts about a story, but personal opinions should not be 'supported' by outlandish 'facts' or 'estimates' when they have no semblance of accuracy.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks July 30, 2011 | 3:00 p.m.

Mileage loss with the use of ethanol vs regular is not debatable. Well I guess it could be if one decides not to use math or recognize that the energy output from ethanol is less then that of oil.

Tony: There is probably not another guy on these boards that defends alternative ways more then Mark. From his solar house to personal garden to riding his bike everywhere. He is just pointing out that all is not always what it seems and like most stories in the Missourian these young reporters do not have the education or life experience to know what questions to ask or to do a little investigating into the science of it all. They are still young and naive and see rainbows and unicorns whenever someone comes along and promises them the world. From the looks off the money spend by Power and Light on the Solar panels by Westlakes and the set on the Career center there are a few that never grew out of it.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 30, 2011 | 5:55 p.m.

Troy: Ethanol thermodynamics is certainly difficult, but your numbers are undoubtedly too low. I don't know how low, tho.

First, your calculations assume a corn field ready for planting and all machinery/seed is in place. But, that's simplistic, isn't it? You've forgotten the ethanol cost to manufacture fertilizer (150-200 lb N/acre, in addition to K and P and trace elements). Machinery made from steel, rubber, and electronics does not grow on trees free of energy costs for manufacture and maintenance. There are also energy costs associated with pesticide use, transportation costs, drying costs, bin storage, and, in some cases, irrigation. Energy inputs for growing corn include much more than driving a tractor around the field a couple of times, then the dried corn magically appears at a plant where the starch is converted to ethanol which then magically appears at the pump.

As stated, I don't know how low your numbers are. I'm guessing an order of magnitude at a minimum....

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 30, 2011 | 6:11 p.m.

Troy: Here's a USDA report from 2002 that says the energy output/energy input for ethanol production from corn is ca. 1.34.

http://www.usda.gov/oce/reports/energy/a...

That would mean it would require an energy input of 370 ethanol equivalents to make 500 ethanol equivalents.

I'm still reading the report, tho.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 30, 2011 | 6:46 p.m.

As near as I can tell, the USDA report did NOT include energy input costs for equipment and maintenance.

I think that's bad news for a product claimed to yield 0.34 units more energy above the 1.00 unit expended. That's too close of a ratio.

For example, let's take a combine/corn head. It can cost up to $500000, but let's assume $250K for grins. That $250K includes all costs for the manufacture of steel, rubber, electronics, salaries for the guys/gals who made it and drove however miles to-and-from work each day, lighting for the manufacturing plant, etc. 'Tis true, in calculating per-bushel input costs, we have to divide however many BTUs it took to make the combine by the useful lifetime (8-10 years?) and also have to include however many bushels of corn that machine harvested each year. Probably have to include other stuff I haven't thought of.

I don't know....it just seems to me that a +0.34 return for a +1.00 input isn't much leeway for the margin of error when you start to consider ALL the input costs....including equipment. I'm guessing it's actually negative.

BTW, that USDA report gives a good breakdown for other input costs that I had not considered. The tables are a good read just for that info alone, even if you do or don't believe the numbers.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz July 30, 2011 | 10:02 p.m.

Hmm, a little Googling makes me think Troy has a bit more involvement with ethanol than your average Missourian commenter...

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 30, 2011 | 11:59 p.m.

JohnS: Well, that's interesting. If that's him, he certainly should have stated as such.

Nonetheless, I have NO problems with proponents of various projects, even those with a financial interest, stating their views here. After all, if they didn't believe, they wouldn't be involved.

If it's him, I am surprised that someone involved with ethanol would present such a simplistic analysis of the energy costs. The energy input for growing corn is vastly more complex than driving around a tractor and fermenting glucose/fructose.

If it's him, he didn't help his case one whit. If it isn't him, I hope he corrects the situation...or the real one does.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking July 31, 2011 | 5:44 a.m.

Troy Norton wrote:

"you get 19.8 gallons of ethanol to produce 500 gallons of ethanol."

Um, the heat of vaporization of ethanol is about 40 kJ/mol, and the heat of combustion is about 1200 kJ/mol. This means that to distill 500 gallons of ethanol, you would have to burn 17 gallons. Just to distill it. Once.

Michael Williams wrote:

"it would require an energy input of 370 ethanol equivalents to make 500 ethanol equivalents."

Here's where the arithmetic of a low net energy gets problematic.

Having to use 370 gallons of ethanol to make 500 means you have 130 left over to sell. Since the goal of ethanol manufacture is to make fuel for sale, this means that to produce 500 gallons for sale, one would have to produce (500/130) * 500 or just shy of 2000 gallons.

If the net energy is lower, it gets uglier faster. If it's 1.2 that means 2500 gallons total production, l.1 means 5000, and 1 means there is none left to sell and no reason to make it at all.

Net energy is not a consideration with conventional fossil sources. It becomes significant for tar sands and oil shale, and as we see, really significant for biofuels. Hopefully more legislators and other policymakers will give net energy the consideration it deserves when charting our energy future.

DK

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 31, 2011 | 6:35 a.m.

"Hopefully more legislators and other policymakers will give net energy the consideration it deserves..."

I hope so too, but I'm not optimistic.

At the risk of being totally redundant (see my post above) I again want to voice my concern about possible "displacement" of normally grown agricultural crops in an attempt to produce biofuels. We need to maintain production of the normal mix of crops, for both domestic consumption and export. I'm sure the Department of Agriculture has information on the relevant crops and the desired quantities of each.

If growing crops for the purpose of making fuel reduces normal agricultural production that's not a good thing.

(Report Comment)
Joanne Ivancic August 1, 2011 | 10:41 a.m.

I'm glad to see interest in this topic. Shibu Jose's efforts to bring those representing the full suppply/value chain together is worthy of applause and support. As is his example of learning from others' mistakes.

The displaced crops discussion here is exactly what he is trying to avoid--if food crops don't grow well here any more due to flooding, then find crops that are beneficial to the land and have commercial value--energy crops provide a sustainable option.

In general, for more background on the underlying question, go to http://advancedbiofuelsusa.info/category...

On the question of more efficient use of ethanol in internal combustion engines and how we can make more effective use of our resources by using ethanol (including the advanced ethanols that could result from Jose's vision), see: http://advancedbiofuelsusa.info/advanced... and http://advancedbiofuelsusa.info/advanced...

(Report Comment)

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