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Published August 04, 2011, 01:57 PM

Role of biomass grows, experts say

The people who know most about biomass don’t think it will replace fossil fuels or other energy sources. But the experts all agree that biomass has a role to play.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

The people who know most about biomass don’t think it will replace fossil fuels or other energy sources. But the experts all agree that biomass has a role to play.

“Biomass is in the mix,” says Gerald Groenewold, director of the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota.

The center, along with the U.S. Department of Energy and several other organizations, sponsored Biomass ’11 July 26 to 27 in Grand Forks, N.D.

The conference, billed as “as the premier biomass event in the Midwest,” attracted more than 250 registrants from 26 states and 11 foreign countries.

Biomass is organic material made from plants and microorganisms, including corn and other crops, wood and garbage.

Energy uses

The conference looked at how biomass can be used, often as a substitute for petroleum and other fossil fuels, to produce fuels, power and chemicals.

Even so, fossil fuels will continue to play the dominant role for the next few decades, says Chris Zygarlicke, the Grand Forks center’s deputy associate director for research.

“Oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear — all working together to supply this huge demand we’re going to have for electricity and fuels,” he says.

The growing use of natural gas, in particular, will impact biomass development, he says.

Renewable energy sources, including solar, wind and biomass, currently provide only a small portion of energy needs, but their use will grow, he says.

The extent of that growth will hinge on several factors, including:

n The cost and availability of feedstocks, or the type of biomass being used.

n The availability of brokers, or people who can identify feedstock streams and markets for these streams.

n Federal and state incentives.

n The ability to process biomass.

Algae’s fuel future

Zygarlicke put in a good word for algae, which has received growing attention among biomass supporters.

“Algae is a feedstock of the future,” he says. “There’s a huge potential there.”

However, “It’s something that’s probably a little bit more down the road,” he says.

So far, biomass development has focused largely on ethanol as a gasoline replacement, says Corrine Valkenburg, technical advisor with the Office of Biomass Programs, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington.

But gasoline is just one of the products made from petroleum. With ethanol replacing gasoline, refineries eventually will need “to focus their product slate on lower-value products, which then likely will increase the price of those products,” she says.

So her Office of Biomass Programs is taking the approach of what it calls “displacing the entire barrel of oil. We do this by taking on the entire supply chain,” she says.

Wheat straw is a player

Biomass can be used to produce energy as well as fuel.

Europe, which has emphasized renewable energy development, has made much more progress in this area than the United States, says Margo Shaw, senior biologist with Golder Associates in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she manages a broad range of renewable energy and environmental impacts.

The European Union receives three times as much power from biomass as the United States does, she says.

For instance, Denmark uses a million metric tons of wheat straw annually to produce power, she says.

“They’re at the forefront of technology development and expertise in this area,” she says.

That technology has obvious potential in Manitoba, where cereal grains are grown, she says.

Heard of levulinic ketals?

Levulinic ketals isn’t a term that’s likely to pop up in casual conversation.

But Segetis, in Golden Valley, Minn., near Minneapolis, already is making commercial use of this chemical building block and sees even more uses ahead for it, says Brian Mullen, principal scientist and research and development leader at Segetis.

The company, founded in 2007, has come up with a way to turn biomass into levulenic ketals, which, in turn, can be converted into chemicals such as solvents and plasticizers (additives that make the material to which they’re attached more flexible.)

Using biomass to produce these chemicals saves the petroleum that otherwise would be used in their production, Mullen says.

A third-party analysis found that two gallons of gasoline are saved per gallon of Segetis product, he says.

He notes that one of the company’s products provides the active ingredient in Method detergent, which is sold at Target.

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