A new source of biomass

Feb 8, 2012

Corn has been the engine behind the ethanol industry for years, and that food vs. fuel debate doesn't look to end anytime soon.  But as researchers work to unlock the biofuels potential in crop residue and other biomass, a refinery is being built in Kansas may help take the industry to another level.

Drive by a field that’s ready for biomass harvest and you’ll think you’re too late. It’s just broken stalks and leaves everywhere.

“To the general public, they may think that you’ve taken the grain off and so all that other stuff out there, that’s just, the old term we might have used was trash. Well it’s not trash, we know there’s a lot of value to that.” 

That’s John Holman, an agronomist with Kansas State Research and Extension. In western Kansas, crop residue has a lot of value in preventing soil erosion. But it’s also a biofuel source. Holman points out the corn stalks, leaves and cobs that can all be used to produce ethanol.  But it’s tricky science. Ethanol producers have been working on developing a biomass-to-ethanol conversion for more than a decade.

“Certainly there are no operational commercial scale cellulose facilities today. There’s no doubt we will be one of the first, whether we are the first or not is not critical to us as long as we complete it within our time frame.” 

That’s Chris Standlee, executive vice president for Abengoa Bioenergy’s U.S. division.

The energy company expects to open a commercial scale cellulosic plant in southwest Kansas, in 2013. Rival POET is developing a similar plant in northern Iowa, also with a 2013 target year.  Construction has recently begun on the two facilities.  Each are expected to produce around 25 million gallons of ethanol a year.

For ethanol from biomass, it’s about following the crops. Iowa is the national leader in corn, while Kansas brings together a substantial amount of corn, wheat and sorghum.  Standlee says that’s what attracted Abengoa to southwest Kansas.

“That area of the country is kind of a convergence of multiple feed stock.” 

In 2011, Abengoa was given a $132 million dollar federal loan guarantee. That money will help finance the refinery construction, costing more than $400 million dollars.  With government support however, comes expectations. And the cellulosic ethanol industry has yet to meet the yearly production levels set by the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007.  That forced the Environmental Protection Agency to considerably slash the standard to less than 9 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel in 2012. Many analysts believe that even that is too high.

Standlee says that with Abengoa and POET soon to come on board commercially, the industry is moving in the right direction.

“We certainly believe that cellulose will continue to grow and will be able to meet the expected levels within just a matter of a few years.” 

In preparation for the Abengoa operation, agronomist John Holman and his colleagues are studying the effects of removing biomass from the Kansas soils. Historically he says, farmers either graze cattle on their harvested cropland, or leave the residue be to retain moisture for the next planting season.

“Not removing all that residue, just removing enough to get some benefit and not cause detrimental harm. I think that’s a good approach to take.” 

Many other projects across the country have received government support to convert such things as wood and solid waste into fuel. That’s critical because the Renewable Fuel Standard sets an annual goal of 36 billion gallons from all renewable fuels by the year 2022.  The cropland is there for cellulosic biofuel, but the next couple years will determine whether the infrastructure can meet that demand.