Regional Work for Global Change

Local feedstock opportunities mean a diverse, ever-promising biorefining industry
| December 02, 2010

The idea of growing a bioenergy-based industry, complete with region-specific biorefinieries exploiting geographic location with other environmental attributes makes perfect sense—almost. There’s one problem though, and it has to do with the root of the issue. In the Iowas and Minnesotas of the world—places that year after year pump out agricultural products well-suited to producing energy in the form of biofuel or biopower—growing crops is essentially routine, a way of life. The evidence can be seen from the windows of almost any Midwestern farmhouse, where fields of corn, wheat, soybeans or an array of other crops well-suited to the region, stretch from horizon to horizon.

But what about the dry, arid regions of the Southwest, or the coal-rich states in the Southeast, where the prospect of growing is much more complex than the plant, water, fertilize and wait process virtually perfected by farmers in the Midwest? A look out the window in those regions shows a different scene entirely, including white, cracked soil and sagebrush, or clear-cut mountain tops surrounded by dense, dark forest. Fortunately for the bioenergy industry, many believe that the future of the country’s energy needs can be met by biorefineries spread throughout the nation, regardless of what the view outside the window is.

A Coal-State Combination
“In West Virginia, we have abundant coal resources and a huge Appalachian forest to supply large amounts of biomass for biorefining and biopower applications,” says Dr. Kaushlendra Singh, an assistant professor for the Davis College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Design at West Virginia University. “We are in perfect shape to take advantage of our existing resources.” And to take advantage of those resources, Singh and his team of researchers are working to make something that, he says, looks a lot like a piece of M&M candy. That “candy” could also be described as a hybrid feedstock that combines two unlikely energy sources, coal and woody biomass, into one form (an outer shell and an inner shell, like the M&M) that could be used in a wide range of energy operations.

“Coal and biomass are like two opposite poles of the earth and generally do not go along with each other,” Singh says. Coal is an energy-rich fossil fuel, processed at very high temperatures producing large amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG), mercury and sulfur emissions. On the other hand, he says, biomass is comparatively low in energy content, and uses low temperatures for processing. Someone asked Singh why they would want to add biomass to coal, which would mean putting a lot of GHGs into a renewable source. “I said, ‘I was thinking the other way around,’” Singh says. According to him, the U.S. consumes nearly 48 percent crude oil and close to 28 percent coal to meet its energy needs, and the U.S. is the second largest producer of coal in the world. “Why can’t we substitute coal? If you add 20 to 30 percent biomass, you are tapping into that 28 percent consumption and you will reduce GHGs by the percentage (of biomass) you put in. It’s just another way to look at things,” Singh says.

Singh, who has experience working on biorefining and biomass gasification and biomass liquefaction, has teamed up with Dr. John Zondlo, a chemical engineer with experience working on coal liquefaction research, and Dr. Jingxin Wang, an associate professor of forestry and wood science, who has worked with harvesting forest residues.

The team’s efforts, which began in September, are showing that innovation in the bioenergy industry can, and will, happen anywhere; and, the regional approach seems to be a great place to start. “We’ve been working with coal for the past 30 years,” Zondlo says, “so a lot of the equipment that we have for coal can translate to processing biomass and coal together.” This should sound familiar to those in the Midwest who are utilizing existing infrastructure and equipment to gather and process corn stover, or other agricultural residue. “This is very feasible,” Zondlo says. “The obstacles are going to be in gathering, transporting and treating the wood so it is compatible with coal, but I think the opportunity is tremendous.”

To capitalize on the opportunity, the team is working to develop a process to combine the coal and woody biomass into that candy-like format. The team plans to find that process through two separate projects. In the first, Singh says, the group is trying gasification to transform the coal-biomass combination into a Fischer Tropsch liquid fuel. The second project involves liquefaction where the team directly liquefies the combination to get a liquid fuel. The researchers are working on a process that heats the wood particles first, then adds coal directly to the mix, and lets it cool. This, Singh says, may bind the wood particles and coal together that will make the new particle possible for either method of fuel production.

While the end-product would be a hybrid feedstock to create a hybrid fuel, the process to make that concoction is what the team is really after, Singh says.  With a successful process, the end results could vary depending on the needs of the user. “If you want to feed it through a coal-based system, the biomass content would be around 20 to 30 percent. But, when you are talking about a biomass-based system, you are talking about 80 percent biomass.” At this point, the team has not calculated the GHG reduction levels of the hybrid feedstock or fuel, but Singh says for each percentage of biomass used, the GHG levels will go down. Wang is securing the woody biomass from WVU-based mills and Zondlo is providing the coal used for the research. The team hopes to complete its work in roughly a year and, although it is hesitant at this time to reveal any findings, they have formed a few combination feedstock pieces. “I can tell everybody is very, very excited about the research,” Wang says. “Possibly, we can create a new industry of bioenergy.”

Everyone Wants In
WVU is not alone in its approach to utilizing locally available resources, or in its support of building out the bioindustrial sector. “There has been over a billion dollars of economic development energy incentives that have been approved initially, and if all of those happen it would mean more than $17 billion of capital construction investment for new energy technologies of the future,” says state Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Ky. “We want Kentucky to be looked at as the place to come to have your research and development done in the energy field,” he says.

What Adkins says about utilizing the state’s resources may sound familiar. “We are an agriculture state, and we are a coal state. And when we combine these two industries to complement each other, I can assure you that it is going to build a strong economy.” And if it’s not a coal-agriculture combination, it’s something else. Eastern Kentucky University officially opened its Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technology, where a process is being developed that starts with feedstock well-suited for the region such as switchgrass or Miscanthus, and then seeks to use that feedstock to feed a heterotrophic algae strain for eventual use in biofuel production. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., says the CRAFT center is one of the nation’s best kept secrets and that the work being done at EKU is helping to form the region’s new economy.

“This is an investment in our state,” he says. And like Adkins powerful words that seemingly endorse the idea that anywhere in the country a biorefinery can create, produce and provide for a region’s energy needs, this is what Chandler says: “Consider for a moment what our region would look like if, right alongside our beautiful horse farms, our beef cattle farms, our crop land, we had farms producing feedstock for next-generation biofuels,” he says. “Now to me, that is a pretty picture.” And that pretty sight Chandler is talking about isn’t from a farmhouse in Minnesota or a grain operation in Iowa. This, remember, is a different region but, if coal-woody biomass works or algae development in the Southeast is any indication, the industry will grow—no matter where one looks.

Author: Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Biorefining
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