Ahead of the curve
One of the most-asked questions at agricultural shows and seminars this winter is, "How long will corn and ethanol reign in the biofuels industry?" Conducting studies on the newest industry trends, the Energy and Environmental Research Center in ...
One of the most-asked questions at agricultural shows and seminars this winter is, "How long will corn and ethanol reign in the biofuels industry?" Conducting studies on the newest industry trends, the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D., has some answers.
"First of all, the corn debate is certainly a valid one," says Chris Zygarlicke, deputy associate director for research at the EERC. "Right now, all of our ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn, for the most part from corn grain starch."
Zygarlicke says that to understand corn demand, it's important to take a close look at nationwide fuel consumption and renewable fuel goals. For instance, if all gasoline were mixed to a 10 percent ethanol blend, we would need 14 billion gallons of ethanol a year.
Given the number of ethanol plants currently under construction, Zygarlicke says most experts think we'll be able to meet that mark by 2010.
"I think we have the acreage, and with improved genetics, probably the yield, to meet that 14 billion-gallon mark, no problem," he says.
"But then, we're saturating the market, and we'll need cars that can burn higher levels of ethanol. The automakers are not producing nearly enough E85 vehicles for people to even start consuming the extra ethanol."
Zygarlicke estimates some 50 million flex fuel vehicles will have to roll off automobile assembly lines to meet new, higher goals for biofuel consumption. While the actual components required to make a vehicle flex fuel are not necessarily cost-prohibitive, it would be expensive for automakers to change their assembly process.
When energy experts look further into the future, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles often are mentioned as a promising long-term solution to the fossil fuel problem. Researchers currently are working on ways to reduce the high cost of hydrogen fuel cells, but the actual feedstock that goes into them has surprising ties back to ethanol.
"Ethanol is a premiere feedstock for making hydrogen," Zygarlicke says. "And it's renewable. You can make hydrogen from coal and oil, but if you want to make renewable hydrogen in large quantities, ethanol provides a nice, dense feedstock material that can be pipelined and shipped and converted right on site to hydrogen."
Since ethanol likely will play a significant role, even in future energy developments, research institutions such as the EERC continue to explore ways of producing it from sources other than grain starch.
The president's mention of switchgrass in his 2006 State of the Union address started a buzz about biomass as an energy feedstock. In the year since then, Zygarlicke says the EERC has made important progress.
"There's actually been research going on in this area for almost 30 years, and it's certainly going to continue. I think we're getting real close to the first couple of pilot plants, or small plants, that will convert cellulose to ethanol, but these will be $250 million ventures."
Today's fermentation plants use water, a little heat and microbes to break starches into sugar and eventually alcohol. Zygarlicke says the water part of the equation has been a problem in some cases.
"It's 3 gallons of water to every gallon of ethanol for your conventional corn ethanol plant," he says. "We get inquiries every week from people looking to build ethanol or biodiesel plants who don't have enough water.
"With thermochemical, you don't have to use as much water, and water's going to be a major issue. It is right now."
Zygarlicke says there are no commercial thermochemical biofuel plants in the U.S. yet, but oil refineries already are using some variants of the process.
Thermochemical processing uses higher heat than fermentation, creating what Zygarlicke calls a "low-oxygen burn." That provides a more complete breakdown of the hydrocarbon structure, using all of the biomass, not just the starch.
Better than ethanol?
Ethanol's strong foothold in the biofuels industry someday may be eclipsed by other forms of renewable fuels.
"We don't think we can stop with ethanol," Zygarlicke says. "It's a good fuel, but it's not the magic elixir.
"If we really want to improve efficiency in our automobile engines, then we should be using more compression fuels, like diesel. Immediately, with a diesel engine, you get 30 percent better engine efficiency. You'll go 30 percent farther."
Zygarlicke says other countries are researching a number of ethanol alternatives, including dimethyl ether, which already has been used as an aerosol propellant.
More than 50 years ago, the German war machine used the Fischer-Tropsch gasification process to make diesellike products, and that method is being used today to find new fuel sources and technologies.
In Europe, where gasoline is more expensive than in the U.S., big companies are investing heavily in new biofuels such as biobutenol, which Zygarlicke expects Europeans to start blending with gasoline by the end of this year.
"Again, it's a grain-based alcohol, but it's more of a 1-to-1 comparison to gas, so you don't lose any of your mileage efficiency."
Researchers and entrepreneurs from this region and beyond will gather May 15 and 16 for Biomass '07 at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. It's the fifth such conference hosted by the EERC.
Speakers will discuss the latest developments in biodiesel production, fuels and chemicals from biomass and economic opportunities in the renewable fuels industry. For information or to register for the conference, go to www.undeerc.org/biomass07 .