Universities shed light on latest bioenergy developments

By Kansas State University | September 25, 2014

Though it sounds relatively new, we humans have been using bioenergy since we first burned wood to warm our families and cook our food. Now, ethanol made from corn is available at service stations across the country and scientists continue to study plant- and animal-based materials to do everything from fuel our cars to power our factories and skyscrapers.

Bioenergy is energy derived from biological sources, such as plants or animals or their waste. Wind and solar energy are sometimes included.

A group of university engineers and scientists is spreading the word about work being done in bioenergy and its potential to reduce climate impacts linked to fossil fuels, increase the value of agricultural products, revitalize rural communities, bolster national security and curb U.S. reliance on imports.

“Midwest Bioenergy Outreach – A Land Grant Initiative” found at http://cropwatch.unl.edu/bioenergy is an ever-expanding collection of short recorded webinars,  videos and other resources on topics ranging from plants being studied to create bioenergy such as soybeans, switchgrass and crop residues, to detailed information about ethanol production as well as solar and wind energy. 

“Biofuels are quality fuels, but they do have different properties that consumers need to be aware of,” said Ed Brokesh, Kansas State University instructor in biological and agricultural engineering. “All fuels change over time. The fuels you can buy today are very different than what you could buy 10 years ago. Both gasoline and diesel fuel formulations have changed and will continue to change dramatically. Engine and material technology has changed and will continue to change and that impacts how fuels can be formulated and what is possible to use as a fuel.”

“My personal belief is that bioethanol from corn is very well developed,” Brokesh said. “Cellulosic ethanol – made up of wood, grasses or the inedible parts of plants -- has a distance to go yet, before it is as developed as corn-based ethanol.”

K-State, along with Michigan State University, Iowa State University, University of Nebraska, North Dakota State University, University of Missouri, Ohio State University and Penn State University are collaborating on the Midwest Bioenergy Outreach project.

Brokesh will give a presentation on ethanol and its impact on small and legacy engines and the harvest costs of biomass at the Extension, Energy and Environment Summit in Ames, Iowa later this month.  

Brokesh said that when it comes to converting plant materials such as switchgrass and corn stover (leaves and stalks of corn left after harvest) into cellulosic ethanol, the conversion process and the development of infrastructure both still need work.

Lignin, an organic polymer in the cell wall of some plants that makes them rigid and woody, makes up about a third of corn stover, grass and straw, he said. “We really don't have a good way to break it apart for conversion to ethanol or other uses. About all we can do right now is burn it.” 

There is also work to be done on developing the supply chain for biomass, Brokesh said, “First, we need a stable supply of material and a market for that material. This is a chicken or egg discussion that will take time to solve. Producers will not commit to producing the biomass until there is a market. The market for the material will not develop until there is enough material available to justify building a 100-million-gallon cellulosic ethanol plant.”

He noted that many will be watching the Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas plant in Hugoton when it goes into production later this year. It’s the first-of-its-kind commercial scale biorefinery that will use its proprietary technology to produce renewable liquid fuel from cellulosic biomass, or plant fiber, according to the company’s website.  

“Everyone in the biofuel world is watching this venture closely to see how it works out,” Brokesh said. 

The second aspect of the cellulosic bioethanol equation, he said, is the infrastructure necessary to move the biomass around.  

“We have great infrastructure for corn, not so much for hay-type materials, though we are not without some of the basic tools. The roads, equipment and processes still need a lot of work,” he said, including the ability to move “unit train” level quantities of biomass from one place to another.

Even with the strides the United States has made in developing bioenergy, Brokesh said other countries are ahead of us.

“Brazil in particular, in my opinion, is light years ahead of us.  As I understand it, they have greater availability of ethanol at all filling stations as well as a lot more vehicles which can utilize higher blends of ethanol (flex fuel-type vehicles). They have the advantage of a large supply of sugar cane which makes it much easier to generate low cost ethanol. Further, there were some policy decisions made in the 70's as a result of the oil stocks that have put them on a path to greater use of ethanol fuels.”

European countries have focused on biodiesel deveIopment and are also trying different alternative energies such as wood pellets, wind and solar power, he said. 

“England has just converted a power plant to burn only biomass – wood pellets, grass bales, and ag waste — for the generation of electricity. I believe this plant accounts for 10 percent of electricity generated in England,” Brokesh said.

When it comes to different sources (feedstock) of bioenergy, every researcher has a favorite, he said.

“My favorite is sorghum, or energy cane,” he said, but other feedstocks such as corn stover, miscanthus, switchgrass, Indian grass, willow trees, wheat straw, big blue stem, little blue stem and others all show promise too.

Kansas is the perennial leader when it comes to U.S. sorghum production. In 2013, Kansas produced 165 million bushels of the 389 million bushels produced across the United States. Texas was second at just under 129 million bushels.

“The thing is, feedstocks are going to be regional. What feeds Abengoa's plant in Hugoton is going to be a different mix than what feeds DuPont's facility in Iowa. One feedstock is not going to fit every region. Just as crops vary from region to region, so will feedstocks,” Brokesh said. “Over time we may see genetic development that can adapt a single feedstock to wider regions, but that could take decades.”