NBPA to demonstrate cellulosic ethanol production

By Bryan Sims
As interest in the cellulosic ethanol industry increases, the National Biomass Producers Association plans to educate Midwestern farmers about the process of converting non-grain feedstocks to renewable fuel.

The Half Way, Mo.-based grassroots organization created last year by a network of producers, farmers, students and various other research entities intends to use a mobile trailer-mounted demonstration unit to demonstrate the thermochemical process that produces cellulosic ethanol.

According to NBPA President and board member Ed Cahoj, the organization will showcase the unit's performance in multiple locations throughout the Midwest and beyond as early as this summer. "The [demonstration unit] should help [farmers] make a more-informed decision on whether they want to use this type of equipment on their property," he said. "This unit will be able to process tons of biomass feedstocks compared with the ‘test-tube scale' that we're seeing in development now."

Although switchgrass will be the most likely feedstock, the thermochemical process will be able to take in other forms of agricultural biomass such as wood chips, sawdust, wheat straw and corn stover, Cahoj said. In addition, the unit requires minimal to no water with a clean water discharge. "The environmental impact is minimal," he said. "We'll show [farmers] how it works and what it can accomplish, and then they can make their own decisions. I can't think of a better approach than that."

The thermochemical process also produces a byproduct called biochar, which serves as a viable soil amendment with important fertilizer properties that could offset farmers' high fertilizer costs. Due to the mobility of on-site production, logistical issues associated with feedstock collection and transportation would also be eliminated. "It's what's going to work best for everyone involved, including the wildlife," Cahoj said. "It brings a lot of variables into the picture that people need to be thinking about, and the time to act is now."