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Published October 20, 2008, 12:00 AM

Brushing at biomass

FARGO, N.D. — While attending parts of a recent conference in Fargo, N.D., titled “Northern Plains Biomass Economy: What Makes Sense?” I thought — hey — this was the right question for a conference. I congratulate North Dakota State University for pulling this together. I think “what makes sense” is a complicated issue here because it’s like solving a math question with multiple unknowns.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — While attending parts of a recent conference in Fargo, N.D., titled “Northern Plains Biomass Economy: What Makes Sense?” I thought — hey — this was the right question for a conference. I congratulate North Dakota State University for pulling this together. I think “what makes sense” is a complicated issue here because it’s like solving a math question with multiple unknowns.

Biomass used to be so simple, didn’t it?

In the early 1970s, I was a high schooler in Brookings, S.D. Then, my two older brothers, Matthew and Mark, and I worked summers, throwing hay bales on a custom baling crew. Our jobs went from farm to farm, bale to bale. That kind of biomass I could understand — at least my small part of it. Gust Anderson and his little crews put in some hot, sweaty days out there in eastern South Dakota, accumulating alfalfa, flax and small grains straw.

We knew what biomass was for — livestock feed and bedding. We gathered it, and farmers stored it in barn lofts and stacks, waiting for winter use.

Now, we can only imagine and study how biomass can feasibly be converted to energy, or even how it will be grown, gathered and stored.

Researchers are working overtime on how to use corn stalks, crop byproducts or dedicated biomass crops such as switchgrass for the purpose. There is a stunning group of thinkers working on the task of what crops will work best for it, how to get the crops to processing plants, how to process it, how to move the finished product to market.

You have to be impressed with all of the research projects being undertaken at North Dakota State University, alone.

Here are some NDSU projects already under way:

n Preparation of plastic specimens from canola meal protein isolates. Here, part of the objective is the “use of plasticizers to improve mechanical properties of canola-based biocomposites.” That sounds impressive.

n Ethanol production from sugar beet pulp. Here, the objective is to determine the technical feasibility of sequential enzyme treatments to produce separate fermentable sugar streams to increase cellulose loading rates.

n Synergy of using field peas as an ethanol feedstock. Technical feasibility, agronomic and economic risk-returns and “synergies of vertically integrating pea fractionization with existing and potential ethanol production.”

You can see that is complicated stuff. It isn’t clear when or if we’ll have favorable outcomes.

I am neither a proponent or opponent of biofuels, but I have to say I’m truly mystified at covering about an industry that already has established national targets and so few answers. Nothing about biomass-to-ethanol — production, crop-gathering, processing, distribution, not even market acceptance and demand — seems to be demonstrated yet, or even completely figured out on paper. Never before have I seen such a government push for a category of technology that seems so nebulous.

Experience tells us this will not be a linear equation, even when we think we have the answers?

The first ethanol plant in North Dakota was supposed to be supplied by barley.

“You can make ethanol out of just about anything,” people used to say. Barley eventually was considered too abrasive and hard on the machinery to be used, so they converted the Walhalla, N.D., plant to corn.

Critics of corn ethanol talk about the food-vs.-fuel dilemma, but I wonder if some cross-over marketing hasn’t been as big a key to the industry’s success as any government subsidies. Farmers knew that if their crop wasn’t used for ethanol there was always a market for No. 2 yellow corn. They may not have the same assurance when it comes to switchgrass, or some other “dedicated” biomass crop.

With biomass-to-energy, we need to get past Step 1 — on everything.