Biomass' Role in the Energy Future

The current state and future challenges of the biomass industry were addressed at the Energy & Environmental Research Center's Biomass '09: Power, Fuels, and Chemicals Workshop.
By Anna Austin and Lisa Gibson
Although the future of the global and U.S. renewable energy industry is hazy, one thing is clear-biomass power will play a significant role. What exactly that role will be, however, is unknown and depends on several factors.

Presenters and attendees at the Energy & Environmental Research Center's Biomass '09: Power, Fuels, and Chemicals Workshop discussed the current state of the biomass power industry, as well as future challenges and possibilities. More than 300 people from 25 states and three Canadian provinces attended the two-day event, which was held July 14-15 at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. During four main sessions, 30 different speakers focused on trends and opportunities in power utilization, biofuels, feedstocks and the use of biomass to generate heat and power.

The EERC is a research, development, demonstration and commercialization organization on the University of North Dakota campus. The center has nine primary areas of focus including renewable energy, waste utilization and management, and site remediation and environmental control technologies.

In his opening address, EERC Director Gerald Groenewold said there is much confusion in the world right now regarding energy. "Some people think there are silver bullets that will solve all of the energy issues and that is not true," he said. "There is a major portfolio of energy technologies that are going to address the needs of this world. Biomass is part of that. I don't know how big it's going to be; a lot of that is dependent upon political decisions and regulatory decisions, cap and trade, and carbon management. Frankly there's a lot of frustration out there right now because we don't have a good sense of where the road map is."

The EERC is conducting several research projects on renewables, according to Groenewold, including the production of biomass-based jet fuel under a $4.7 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "We've got a major breakthrough here and are moving toward using algae," he said. He added, however, "I'm very, very concerned with genetically modifying something that we have thousands and thousands of strains of and don't know much about many of them; certainly not thousands of them. They produce half of the oxygen on this earth and we want to genetically modify them. I'm very worried about that."

Change is Necessary

U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., addressed Biomass '09 attendees via video. Since 2001, Dorgan has provided nearly $9 million to the EERC for biomass utilization projects, and has included another $7 million in legislation this year, which would be the largest annual federal investment ever made in the program.

Dorgan pointed out that some things have to change so the U.S. can have a stable, reliable energy source in the future. "My father spotted an old Model T in a grainery that had been parked there for decades, I bought it for $25 and restored it," said Dorgan, who grew up in a small town in southwestern North Dakota. Although the car dated back to 1924, he said he filled the tank with gasoline the same way that we still put gasoline in vehicles today. "Nothing has changed at all," he said. "But it must."

Dorgan said the U.S. faces many energy challenges. "We want to be able to expand our capabilities to produce home-grown energy right here from a range of feedstocks," he said. "We'll migrate from corn to other cellulosic feedstocks and we'll use biomass from landfills. These ideas have been ignored for decades, but not any longer. Congress, and I, believe that it's long past the time to get busy and create a different energy future."

North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture Doug Goehring reminded the audience about the influence agriculture has on job creation, statewide and on a national level. Agriculture is responsible for directly and indirectly employing 25 percent of North Dakota's population, he said, adding that 90 percent of the state's total acreage is utilized for agricultural purposes. Nationally, agriculture accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. economy, or about 19 percent of the indirect and direct jobs, according to Goehring. "One of every five people [in the U.S.] is employed by agriculture," he said.

Goehring, who operates a 2,000-acre, no-till farm near Menoken, N.D., strongly supports increased research into cereal grains and biofuel crops. He said farmers are interested, yet skeptical, when it comes to learning more about the next generation of energy production, primarily biomass. "What will those feedstocks be? Can I grow them on my farm? If it's a perennial crop, how can I incorporate that? If it's annual, how does it fit within my crop rotation? I don't have those answers," he said. "Research is being done, and much more has to be done."

One of the biggest hurdles/challenges that remains in advancing the bioenergy crop industry is attitudes, according to Goehring. "Attitudes in general toward renewable energy and biocrops have taken a turn for the worst in the past year or so," he said. "We need more communication with the public and quite frankly, when we talk about biomass, we need more communication with the farmers. We can educate the public, but we really have to engage farmers, because otherwise all they see are limited benefits and more questions."

Anna Austin and Lisa Gibson are Biomass Magazine associate editors. Reach them at [email protected] or (701) 738-4968 and [email protected] or (701) 738-4952.


What's Ahead for Biomass

The pieces are all in place to make cellulosic 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 Biomass '09.

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 said. Success will depend on government policies, incentives, the development of sustainable biomass feedstocks and proving new conversion technologies in near-commercial-scale biorefineries and bioenergy systems, he added.

Cellulosic biomass must become a major, if not the primary, source for biobased fuels, he said. Oil-bearing, non-food crops such as jatropha and oil from new strains of algae appear to be on the verge of becoming important 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 upon 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 are 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.

In the area of bioenergy, the U.S. has few 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 down the biomass road before us. 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.

Agricultural Anaerobic Digestion on the Rise

National trends in anaerobic digestion of agricultural manure have increased between 2000 and 2007 from fewer than 50 million kilowatt hours (kWh) per year to more than 200 million kWh per year, according to Dan Stepan, senior research manager with the Energy & Environmental Resource Center in Grand Forks, N.D., and a presenter at the organization's Biomass '09.

A key niche for the process is converting biomass materials to methane gas. In the U.S. this year, 98 anaerobic digesters are using dairy farm manure, 19 use hog manure, three use manure from caged layers, two from ducks and one each from boilers, beef and mixed manure, Stepan told the crowd.

"But there's still potentially a large untapped resource," he said. The potential biogas-to-energy production from swine farms is more than 3.1 billion kWh per year, he showed in a graph, and the potential from dairy farms is more than 3.3 billion. About half of the country's wastewater treatment facilities have anaerobic digesters, but only 19 percent use the biogas, Stepan said.

Anaerobic digestion is an old technology. "By �old,' I mean really old," Stepan said. The process was used in Assyria in the 10th century to heat bath water and has been used in the U.S. for the past 100 years to treat municipal and industrial waste and wastewaters. According to Stepan, it's an attractive solution for several reasons: the high water content of many biomass materials makes them impractical for combustion; drying costs to achieve a combustible condition exceed the value of energy recovered by combustion; and anaerobic digestion produces a valuable fuel gas.

But the process has challenges when it comes to processing different feedstocks, Stepan said. "Siloxanes are a unique attribute of municipally-derived biogas," he said. The volatile silicon-based compound is used today in personal care products and paints, among other products. It can be found in municipal digester and landfill biogas at high concentrations and forms silica, or glass, when it's combusted. Accumulated silica damages engine cylinders, turbine blades, exhaust heat exchangers and piping. The typical processes to control Siloxane include refrigeration at less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit followed by activated carbon; advanced refrigeration to minus 25 degrees F; and selexol liquid absorption, Stepan said.

Hydrogen sulfide is another gas produced during anaerobic digestion and control techniques include chemical, physical and biological processes. EERC has developed a proprietary sulfide control process with a blend of ingredients that minimizes the production of hydrogen sulfide, kills the bacteria that produces it, and scavenges any that is produced. It also possesses long-term control effects and comes at a low cost, Stepan said. EERC will demonstrate its sulfide control technology capabilities in anaerobic digestion of dairy manure on the Haubenschild Farm Dairy in Princeton, Minn. The project will take place over the next 2� years and consists of three phases: lab screening experiments, bench-scale testing and pilot-scale demonstration, Stepan said. Lab screening experiments are taking place now and bench-scale digester design activities have been initiated.

Haubenschild Farm has a 500,000-gallon digester that uses the manure from 850 cows, Stepan said. The process produces 72,500 cubic feet per day of biogas with a methane content of 60 percent. The combined-heat-and-power unit, made with a diesel engine and an electrical generator, generates enough electricity for the farm's operations plus 60 homes and enough heat for the digester and all other buildings on the farm, Stepan said. The digested manure is used as fertilizer, which saves an estimated $40,000 a year, he added.