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Biofuels face research, image challenges

FARGO, N.D. -- They're still asking, "What Makes Sense?" when it comes to biomass fuel and byproduct manufacture, and it may take big investments in research to know whether megabuck manufacturing will work.

FARGO, N.D. -- They're still asking, "What Makes Sense?" when it comes to biomass fuel and byproduct manufacture, and it may take big investments in research to know whether megabuck manufacturing will work.

And that was the theme of the third annual conference under this title sponsored by the North Dakota State University's Bio Energy and Product Innovation Center. It drew about 100 officials to offer industry updates.

Part of the conference involves bio-fuels proponents shoring up ethanol's image as a viable economic and environmental player in the fuel market.

Biofuel defender

Bruce Dale, a distinguished professor of chemical engineering and former department chairman at Michigan State University, was one of the speakers for the conference. He offers a defense for biofuels and their efficiency, compared with the traditional petroleum-based industry. Dale is co-director a Department of Energy Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, which has received $135 million to develop cellulosic ethanol and other bioenergy.

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Dale developed what is known as an Ammonia Fiber Expansion pretreatment process, using hot, concentrated ammonia water to break down some biofuels feedstock.

NDSU is working with Michigan researchers to create a regional biomass processing supply chain, with regional pre-treatment centers to "densify and homogenize" biomass materials into "AFEX biomass pellets," which later would be made into ethanol and other products.

The AFEX system offers a "dry-in, dry-out" system to make the pellets three to five times as dense as "baled biomass" and would be "scalable" down to 250 tons per plant per day.

He says the process could cut the cost of pretreated biomass by $20 to $30 per ton.

Using wheat straw, such a process possibly could allow for the recovery of "nanofibers" as a byproduct, for use in making bio-composite materials.

Bernie Steele, director of operations for MBI International of Lansing, Mich., says research is needed to determine the feasibility of such a system. He and Larry Leistritz, an NDSU professor, say they are anxious to find out whether a partnership between the two entities will acquire a Department of Energy grant -- pending for announcement in the next weeks and months -- would be enough construct a 1 ton-per-day pilot-scale plant in Michigan. Construction cost would be $11.3 million. The total research project cost would will be $23.5 million for four years.

If the DOE grant doesn't come through, other sources will be sought. Contributions of $800,000 a year ago by the North Dakota Industrial Commission helped get information for the DOE application.

If successful, the pilot-scale plant could lead to construction of a commercial-scale plant that would produce 120 million gallons of ethanol a year. Such a plant would cost $379 million, with operations beginning in 2015, Leistritz says, noting that current projections show a 20 percent "plus" return on investment. Presumably, that plant would be in North Dakota, although private investment would be needed.

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Dale says the system conceptually has the potential to replace 100 percent of U.S. gasoline with ethanol on current cropland while maintaining the current food or feed production. There would be no indirect land use change at all, if the land is used more efficiently.

Dale blames the news media for swallowing whole the criticisms of the energy balance of ethanol. Some, including from Cornell University, have criticized ethanol, but don't apply the same analysis to petroleum, which he says also has a negative Btu balance.

One of the tough new issues is "indirect land use" claims against biofuels, and Dale is one of the industry's defenders in debates on the topic.

The indirect use argument says that when U.S. land is placed into biofuels, this means people in places like Brazil clear rain forest land to grow soybeans to fill the gap. That means U.S. biofuels industry can be assessed a "carbon debt" in environmental regulation, as a result of the resulting greenhouse gas emission.

Dale says the indirect land use argument is intellectually and ethically weak because it implies that any increase in ag prices is bad and that conservation programs that remove land from production also are bad because they increase ag prices and change land use elsewhere.

Flaws in the theory

Among other things, he says the theory makes U.S. industries responsible for environmental performance of worldwide competitors. He also says it assumes any land use changes are driven only by the agricultural factors, which isn't true.

He says the Environmental Protection Agency uses a "life cycle analysis" system to compare systems unequally. The EPA fails to allocate environmental costs to all products in a multi-product system. He says that while costs of using an existing forest or grassland can be counted, it's not always considered whether that land was cleared to make furniture or flooring, or simply burned down.

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In its analysis, the EPA also is "predicting agriculture in 2022 using economic models," which is too far on the horizon. Meanwhile, it compares biofuels with petroleum production in the 1999 to 2005 range.

Dale says the new ethanol and other biofuel plants are being engineered for better environmental performance.

Despite its mixed image, North Dakota is moving ahead with biofuels.

North Dakota's EmPower ND Commission continues to have a goal of producing 450 million gallons per year of ethanol in the state by 2011 and to "become a national leader in the development of economically viable, production-scale cellulosic ethanol production facilities," says Shane Goettle, North Dakota commerce commissioner.

The Spiritwood Industrial Park east of Jamestown, N.D., is evaluating the prospect of integrating 10 percent biomass supply into Great River Energy's Spiritwood Station to cut carbon emissions.

State-supported biofuels

The 2009 North Dakota Legislature passed nine pieces of energy legislation regarding biofuels. Among them are these five:

- Tax breaks for renewable energy devices.

- Income tax credits for soybean and canola crushing equipment costs.

- Combined Renewable Energy and Biomass Incentive and Research Programs with $3 million in funding.

- Biofuels Blender Pump incentive program with up to $2 million in funding.

- A $400 million comprehensive tax relief package.

Source: EmPower ND Commission

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