Biomass '09: Workshop addresses the road ahead

By Lisa Gibson
Posted July 14, 2009, at 3:55 p.m. CST

The pieces are all in place to make cellulose biomass a viable part of the U.S. energy security puzzle, according to Chris Zygarlicke, deputy associate director for research at the Energy & Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D. He spoke about the current state of biomass and where it's headed at EERC's Biomass '09: Power, Fuels, and Chemicals Workshop on Tuesday.

Cellulosic biomass meets the carbon dioxide emission life-cycle targets, it's sustainable, has growing incentives and support, has an established window for demonstration of viable technologies for production and conversion and is gathering significant business investment, he wrote in a presentation abstract. Success will depend on government policies, incentives, the development of sustainable biomass feedstocks and the proving of new conversion technologies in near-commercial-scale biorefineries and bioenergy systems, he added.

Cellulose biomass must become a major, if not the primary, source for biobased fuels, he said. Oil-bearing, non-food crops like jatropha and oil from new strains of algae appear to be on the verge of becoming major players as resources for liquid biofuels.

Zygarlicke addressed policy and incentives, feedstocks, biofuels and bioenergy. "Policy and legislation are crucial in moving forward," he said, citing the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided $72 billion for clean energy projects and $20 million in clean energy tax incentives, and the 2009 Climate Bill. It could be the first legislation to limit carbon dioxide, he said of the Climate Bill. "This will be a huge factor, one way or the other."

Biomass feedstock availability and sustainability is largely dependent on commodity crop prices, he said. Biomass is also highly susceptible to climate and climate change. Right now, fewer than 1 billion dry tons of biomass is available, but that number could climb to just over 1 billion with modest changes and higher yields, he showed in a bar graph. Feedstocks can include agricultural and wood residues, municipal solid waste, triacylglycerides and energy crops.

"The days of corn ethanol only are gone," he said as he began to discuss biofuels. Emerging thermal and fermentation technologies are moving along in the cellulosic biomass to biofuels sector. Hydrocarbon fuels also are emerging, according to his presentation.

In the area of bioenergy, the U.S. has little incentives for large utility cofiring of biomass, Zygarlicke said. "But we are starting to see a positive slope." Distributed biomass gasification is one good solution, he said. It requires low water consumption and simple gas cleanup, among other positive aspects.
In conclusion, Zygarlicke took the crowd of more than 300 down the biomass road that's before them. Sustainable feedstocks must not compete with food, and agricultural processes must minimize water consumption, he said. Opportunities abound for commercialization. "Technology has never been more poised, I don't think, to determine a future for renewable biomass resources," he said.

The workshop was held July 14-15.