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Car parts from wheat straw?

FARGO, N.D. - North Dakota wheat fields soon could be taking center stage in a new high-tech market, thanks to recently improved opportunities for funding to develop a multiproduct biorefinery that could make, among other things, wheat-based poly...

FARGO, N.D. - North Dakota wheat fields soon could be taking center stage in a new high-tech market, thanks to recently improved opportunities for funding to develop a multiproduct biorefinery that could make, among other things, wheat-based polymers that may replace fiberglass in your family car.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced in February of this year funding for the first series of alternative fuels research projects, averaging $60 million for each of six projects. Born out of the 2005 energy bill, the backing represents a commitment to investing sizable amounts of money into research and development of alternative fuels.

Dr. Larry Leistritz, professor of ag economics at North Dakota State University in Fargo, cites global oil supplies and environmental concerns as the driving forces behind it.

"The interest in this thing has intensified with the increasing price of oil," Leistritz said in a 2005 Agweek interview. "There is a consensus that these technologies - when commercially deployed - might be a multiproduct biorefinery."

Leistritz is interested in the feasibility of a multiproduct biorefinery using wheat straw as feedstock to produce ethanol, electricity and cellulose nanofibers, or nanowhiskers.

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"One of the reasons Exxon is able to make huge profits is that the refineries extract about all of the value that can be had from a petroleum molecule," Leistritz says.

"The nanowhiskers would be used as reinforcement in a biobased nanocomposite material that could substitute for fiberglass in many applications," he says.

"The analysis indicates that, at 2005 prices and costs, the biorefinery would be marginally profitable," he says, adding that "anticipated advances in bioprocessing technology would enhance profitability."

The facility also would make a substantial contribution to the local economy surrounding the biorefinery as a high percentage of operating expenses would be in the form of payments to local businesses.

"The growth of a biobased industry could have major economic development implications for the Great Plains and Midwest region," Leistritz says.

Corn vs. wheat

In 2006, 4.86 billion gallons of ethanol were distilled from corn, according to industry statistics.

"This year, they will be adding 2 (billion) to 3 billion gallons of capacity," Leistritz says, "and it may be much more next year, based on projected (ethanol) plant building."

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But corn supply is limited, as well as being in demand in the food and livestock feed markets, he says. A substitute is needed in the ethanol industry that does not drain away resources from other markets.

Researchers already are at work on the next generation of ethanol feedstock: cellulose from residual biomass. Cellulose could be derived from wheat straw lying in fields after harvest, shifting the ethanol appetite from corn to residual wheat, which makes for a much less-expensive meal.

A production facility would require 900,000 tons of feedstock year, he says, which would translate into payments for the feedstock of $36 million a year at $40 a ton.

"We have enough wheat to provide feedstock to several commercially viable refineries, and (it) has considerably more nanowhiskers as opposed to cornstalks. The general consensus is that it's not a matter of if but when cellulose is coming," he says. "They've been working on it

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