Biomass Workshop: Diversify feedstock options

By Ryan C. Christiansen
Web exclusive posted July 17, 2008 at 3:12 p.m. CST

The need to diversify feedstock options for biodiesel and ethanol production and the feasibility of using crop residues to produce biofuels were central topics of discussion July 16 at the Biomass '08 Technical Workshop in Grand Forks, N.D.

On the last day of the two-day annual workshop, sponsored by the University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center, biofuels researchers and industry representatives urged an audience of 300 attendees from 30 states and six countries to consider non-food feedstock options for producing biofuels.

"We need to diversify our feedstocks (for biodiesel) to be able to absorb whatever the market hands us," said Duane Johnson, vice president for Great Plains Oil & Exploration in Bigfork, Mont., which is seeking partners to grow Camelina sativa or "false flax", an oilseed plant and member of the mustard family that is well-suited for growth in arid regions in the northern Great Plains and requires relatively less water, fertilizer, and pesticides to prosper.

Ethanol can be produced from corn stover the leaves, stalk, husks, and cobs of the corn plant. A University of Minnesota study has determined what might be the most economical locations for those ethanol plants in Minnesota. Brian Walseth, a research associate with the Industrial Ecology Laboratory at the university, displayed a map showing that seven or eight ethanol plants with a total capacity of 600 MMgy could be built predominantly along the Minnesota River valley in southwestern Minnesota. He said corn stover is a viable feedstock choice because "corn ethanol isn't going to go away."

Another crop residue to be considered for ethanol production is wheat straw. According to Nancy Hodur, a research scientist at North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D., the direct and secondary economic impact for producing ethanol from wheat straw instead of corn would be four times as great, mainly due to the business that would be generated for purchasing, baling, and hauling the wheat straw. She said considering current commodity prices, crop residues are an attractive choice for producing ethanol, because it would be difficult to get farmers to switch from growing a commodity crop like wheat to growing a non-commodity crop like switchgrass.

The total U.S. ethanol plant capacity is expected to reach more than 13 billion gallons per year in the near future, which will satisfy the nation's current demand for E10 and E85 ethanol-gasoline blends, according to Mark Yancey, vice president of project development for BBI International, which assists biofuels producers with project development.

This is why the ethanol industry must promote the wider use of mid-range ethanol blends, especially E30, which has been shown to increase gas mileage in some consumer vehicles, according to Brian Jennings, executive vice president for the American Coalition for Ethanol in Sioux Falls, S.D. He cited research conducted by the EERC in conjunction with the Minnesota Center for Automotive Research at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn.

"I don't think there is a more appropriate or more important time for you to be meeting and talking about these issues than now," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., speaking to conference attendees by recorded video. Dorgan is chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy for the Committee on Energy & Natural Resources, as well as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water for the Committee on Appropriations.

"The area of energy production is so critically important to our country if, in fact, we are to become less dependent on foreign sources of oil for the future of this country," Dorgan said. "I don't think there is a more appropriate or more important time for you to be meeting and talking about these issues than now when oil is bouncing around $140 a barrel, gasoline $4.00 or $4.50 a gallon, and about 70 percent now of our petroleum, our oil, comes from outside of our country, much of it from very troubled parts of the world.

"All of these issues, I think, are urgent right now because never in the history of this country have we seen a convergence of so many challenges in energy for a country that is energy-hungry and in need of energy to further its economic growth," Dorgan said.