Biomass as a Medicine for Recovery

By Bruce Folkedahl and Chris Zygarlicke
The U.S. economy is in need of recovery, and biomass may be part of the remedy. The government is pouring millions into biomass as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The stimulus dollars are intended to supercharge new ways to convert biomass into electricity, heat, fuels and other consumable products. The Energy &

Environmental Research Center has been advancing the same goals for the past 10 years, investing in biomass research and development and also in the next essential step: getting the technology out of the laboratory and into the commercial marketplace.

Through the EERC's Centers for Renewable Energy and Biomass Utilization, several biomass technologies are being advanced that coincide with the ARRA's goals. For all of these EERC technologies, federal dollars are being matched with private industry dollars to increase the utilization of biomass in the emerging renewable energy industry. The goal is to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate economies, especially in rural agricultural areas, by using domestic biomass as an energy resource. A few of the topics to be carried out this year include:

Developing economical technologies for refining domestic biomass to clean renewable fuels, including ethanol, biodiesel, butanol, higher alcohols, Fischer-Tropsch distillates or 100 percent renewable diesel, jet fuels, and hydrocarbon fuels such as renewable gasoline: This is the most exciting area of biomass technology development. Pilot-scale and small commercial plants for biofuels that use cellulosic biomass or other nonfood-grade feedstocks are being designed or built, with two to four years to either make it or break it. Many of us have heard for more than three decades that biofuels are only five years away. Current activities by many, including the EERC, are narrowing in on that five-year window.

Producing hydrogen from biomass and ethanol using advanced gasification and reforming technologies: Although hydrogen seems to have been left out of ARRA, the EERC and others think it has to become a player in the development of the new high-efficiency power systems of the future. Biomass provides a key sustainable renewable feedstock from which hydrogen can be produced.

Developing distributed biomass power systems in the less than 20-megawatt range: Both conventional biomass stoker or fluidized-bed power systems and advanced biomass gasification systems are components of EERC project development. Every biomass type is unique because of different plant species, natural and artificial soil constituents, geography, and climate; therefore, conventional biomass power systems often still require research. Gasification technologies for ultraclean syngas production are still in the infant stages and will require more vigorous testing.

Integrating biomass with fossil fuels in large-scale utility systems: Utilities have tried biomass before-with little success. The reason is that the cost for implementing cofiring strategies is expensive and risky. New legislation and incentives are inevitable, and the cofiring climate is changing; therefore, conventional cofiring strategies will require research and testing to optimize efficiency and costs, ongoing activities at the EERC.

Processing biomass feedstocks for use in integrated biorefineries and conventional and advanced integrated power systems is an unheralded step in producing economical feedstocks for bioenergy and biofuels. Before biomass is converted, it has to be transported and processed via shredding, chopping, pulverizing, pelletizing, torrefying, or hydrolyzing. The EERC is working on fast pyrolysis as a means to circumvent the plethora of methods to transport and process biomass.

The jury is still out on whether biorefineries for cellulosic biomass feedstocks will produce economical biofuels and bioenergy, but not for long. Two decades from now, the U.S. hopes to have replaced 30 percent of its liquid fuels with biofuels. That's a short time relative to the first uses of gasoline in the late 1800s. With respect to research, the timeline shrinks dramatically, since we are definitely in the midst of a two- to four-year window where technologies and economics are being proved. The EERC sees great successes from research projects already ongoing. ARRA funding for biomass research can only help to magnify the success of other biofuels and bioenergy efforts. Whether we reach 30 percent or not, there appears to be momentum toward replacing a significant portion of our energy resource base with biomass.

Bruce Folkedahl is a senior research manager, and Chris Zygarlicke is a deputy associate director for research at the EERC. They can be reached at, (701) 777-5243, and, (701) 777-5123.