Biomass ’11 Delivers a Stunning Update

By Chris Zygarlicke | August 23, 2011

Biomass ’11 was held for the ninth time in Grand Forks, N.D., on July 26–27. The 250 participants from 26 states, Washington, D.C., and 11 foreign countries were provided with an eye-opening revelation: biomass industries are going to have to compete hard with other energy industries over the next few years. Of course, anyone associated with biomass utilization in the past decade knows that it is no easy task to produce renewable energy, fuels or chemicals from plant or animal matter. An overriding theme seemed to be that the United States just doesn't have the impetus and incentives for biomass to thrive, but research and demonstration are an absolute must to position biomass technologies into competitive niches.

Gerald Groenewold, director of the Energy & Environmental Research Center, kicked off the event and extended gratitude to the major sponsors of the event: his institution, the EERC; the North Dakota Department of Commerce; and the U.S. DOE. Groenewold stated clearly that game-changing biomass research at the EERC began with pioneering support from U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan more than a decade ago. This led to critical advances such as 100 percent renewable jet fuel, distributed-scale biomass gasifiers and renewable ammonia fertilizer. As important as these types of advances and many others are, the toe-to-toe ability for biomass technology to compete in U.S. markets is still lacking. Biomass industries need to be patient and continue to find those competitive or complementary niche markets. EERC research is all about finding those commercial footholds.

One of the niche areas that has some competitive assistance in North Dakota was described by N.D. Gov. Jack Dalrymple. Dalrymple described North Dakota as the ethanol blender pump capital of the world … per capita, that is. Adding to the U.S. picture on incentivizing biomass, Corinne Valkenburg from the DOE Office of Biomass spoke of the tremendous investment by the federal government to spur viable technologies in producing biofuels and the grants and loan guarantees that have been provided for small commercial demonstrations.

Margo Shaw, a senior biologist with Golder Associates Ltd., in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, reiterated the theme of niche opportunities in the United States but showed that many other places around the world have tremendous incentives that provide for greater biomass promotion. Her statistics showed only 1 to 3 percent biomass electricity in the United States, with a predicted growth of 3 percent in the next 20 years. In contrast, European policies such as a 20 percent renewable energy directive, feed-in tariffs that guarantee renewable energy access to the grid at higher prices, grants and loans, and other tax incentives have created a thriving business environment, at least for biobased power and heat generation.

With too many technical presentations to mention, this year’s program emphasized development and processing of biomass feedstocks. Varieties of methods were reported to chop, shred, pelletize, bale or liquefy using a method called fast pyrolysis. Fast pyrolysis uses low-oxygen heating of lightweight, low-density biomass to convert it to a mostly watery mix of low-grade organic tars and acids, with 10 to 20 percent each of char and gaseous matter. I have always liked the fast-pyrolysis process as an on-farm method of densifying straws and agricultural residues, so the work presented was quite encouraging.

In summary, it was quite apparent that biomass industries are indeed up for the fight: ready to go head-to-head in hard competition with fossil energy to at least carve out a significant role in America's diverse future energy portfolio.

Author: Chris Zygarlicke
Deputy Associate Director for Research,
 Energy & Environmental Research Center
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