EERC's Biomass '10 Workshop Discusses Breakthrough Technologies

By Chris Zygarlicke
Biomass '10: Renewable Power, Fuels, and Chemicals Workshop was held in Grand Forks, N.D., on July 20 and 21. This was the eighth such event hosted by the Energy & Environmental Research Center with sponsorship support from the EERC Centers for Renewable Energy and Biomass Utilization, the North Dakota Department of Commerce Division of Community Services and the U.S. DOE. The goal of the workshop has always been to provide a forum to discuss breakthrough technologies regarding the conversion of biomass to liquid fuels, energy, and chemicals. More than 300 registrants, including 40 speakers, from 26 states, seven countries and more than 160 organizations, engaged in lively discussions throughout the technical sessions and networking venues.

Gerald Groenewold, EERC director, kicked off the event and spoke of the transition between fossil energy and renewable energy and how it needs to be done right for sustainable energy security, economic growth and greenhouse gas emission control. With a strong Canadian delegation in the audience, Groenewold noted that the U.S. can never be truly energy independent because it must retain the long-standing trade relationship with Canada and other allied nations.

Keynote speaker, N.D. Gov. John Hoeven, repeated the theme of transition and highlighted North Dakota's unique blend of expanding oil, gas and coal in the west and expanding bioenergy development in the east. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who made comments via video, spoke of legislation and seed funding intended to promote technologies that curb global climate change and improve energy security, while maintaining prudent fossil energy growth.

Biomass energy could experience significant growth of 5 to 10 percent of electricity and 10 to 20 percent of transportation fuels in the next 30 years. Several speakers, such as Bill Berguson from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, showed data on the cost-effective supply of biomass feedstocks, both residues and energy crops, which lends support to the case for growth in bioenergy.

Several discussions centered on the future of ethanol as well. Brian Jennings from the American Coalition of Ethanol and Chris Marshall from Argonne National Laboratory sparred over water consumption, field-to-wheels energy issues, and pipeline and blending infrastructures for ethanol versus hydrocarbon biofuels such as green gasoline components. Corn ethanol has, in a sense, blazed a trail for these upcoming biofuels by establishing public interest, financing scenarios, transportation infrastructure and plant construction.

Several presenters, such as Jennings, Randall Goodfellow from Ensyn Technologies Inc., Adam Wirt from Poet LLC, and Robert Wooley from Abengoa Bioenergy New Technologies, made the case that demonstration projects are revealing the economics for converting cellulosic biomass into liquid biofuels.

Ted Aulich, senior research manager at the EERC, spoke of the reality of 50 cents to $1 a gallon green diesel from nonfood crop oil, and Tom Allnutt of Phycal LLC described a 40-acre algae plant being built now in Hawaii to produce more than 100,000 gallons per year of renewable jet fuel. In the next few years, Poet's 25 MMgy ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa; the EERC-Tesoro 1 to 3 MMgy renewable jet fuel system in North Dakota, and others will prove the economic competitiveness of biomass-derived liquid fuels. Projects are definitely not stuck in the boardroom.

For biopower production, several speakers emphasized the need for brokers and proven methods for supply of densified biomass to power plants. Several vendors and researchers at the workshop displayed new approaches to chop, shred, grind, bale, pulverize, pelletize, torrefy or pyrolize herbaceous and woody biomass into denser fuels conducive to introduction into an energy system.

In stark contrast to processing typical terrestrially grown biomass, a panel discussion was devoted to algae as a feedstock for bioenergy. Dave Haberman from IF LLC argued that native algae species exist for bioenergy purposes and genetically modified algae is not worth the risk. Allnutt countered that genetically modified strains can be controlled given the proper safeguards.

In summary, Biomass '10 was a success, and the status of new technologies and commercial business was updated thoroughly. Consistently higher fossil fuel prices are making biomass a competitive resource on an energy-content basis in some cases. Large amounts of funding from both federal and private sectors have resulted in the construction of several demonstration plants.

Chris Zygarlicke is a deputy associate director at the EERC. Reach him at or (701) 777-5123.