North Carolina explores biofuel feedstock options

By Lisa Gibson | August 10, 2009
Report posted Sept. 10, 2009, at 11:06 a.m. CST

The Biofuels Center of North Carolina, Oxford, is investigating the potential for in-state biofuels production from energy crops and forest biomass. Industry leaders, elected officials and others recently toured the center's 4-acre plot of more than a dozen energy crops and fast-growth trees as part of the North Carolina Grows Biofuels event.

The North Carolina General Assembly established the non-profit center in 2007 to address strategies outlined in the North Carolina Strategic Plan for Biofuels Leadership, created by policymakers to develop a homegrown industry. The state allocated $5 million to the center to fund research and development in three main areas: agronomics, conversion technologies and workforce development, according to Norman Smit, director of communications and education for the center. Grants have been awarded to several companies and liquid biofuels projects. "The biofuel center's goal is to replace 10 percent of all fuel used in the state with homegrown and produced biofuels by 2017," Smit said. North Carolina buys 5.6 billion gallons of liquid fuels annually, according to the center.

Energy crops have been planted at 20 sites around the state in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and North Carolina State University. They include miscanthus, switchgrass, sweet sorghum, grain sorghum and tropical sugar beets, along with fast-growth trees such as sweet gum and cottonwood, Smit said. The center will use the data collected to determine which crops grow best in certain types of soil around the state. The center will also determine the markets for the crops, ensuring they are economically sensible for farmers. "We want to be able to talk to farmers and say, ‘This is what you need to look out for'," he said. "We want to look for crops that will provide farmers with income." While the Midwest can sustain one crop per season, North Carolina can support two, he added. This is the first year the center has planted energy crops for its project.

Besides energy crops, the center is looking into the potential of renewable biomass for biofuels in the state's 17 million acres of trees. "The vast majority of that is in managed forestland or private ownership," Smit said. "This is the feedstock that shows the most promise. Unfortunately, wood is the most difficult feedstock to convert into biofuel." The center has invested some of its funds in the acceleration of wood-to-biofuels conversion technologies. "Ideally, we would like a result that can be commercialized," Smit said. The center is also researching algae feedstocks with the help of a few universities and companies.

A timeline for the project has not been established, as the crops and trees mature at different rates, Smit said, adding that the trees can take four to six years. A multi-million dollar in-state biofuels industry would benefit the state's farmers, agroforesters, biofuels manufacturers, biofuels workers and consumers, according to the center.