Saturday, September 20, 2014

A new Biofuels plant.


The following article should provide you with a glimpse of the challenges facing Biofuels of all sorts. It would be helpful to keep in mind that the US consumes every year over 135 billion gallons of fuel and that under 5 billion of them are biofuels.  Note also that Biofuels are not extracted from corn but that there is a controversy about whether using the "stover" affects the ferility of the soil.
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EMMETSBURG, Iowa — Charlie Kollasch, a farmer supplying raw material to a huge new ethanol factory here, stood inside a big red shed on his property, showing off the V-shaped metal frame studded with prongs that he and his son had installed on top of a flatbed truck.
The contraption — “our little Star Wars deal,” he called it — is meant to grip tightly packed bales of corn cobs, husks and leaves, known as stover, on their journey from field to refinery, one of the many logistical tasks that has proved unexpectedly difficult in transforming agricultural waste into biofuel.
“I hope it works,” he said with a shrug, laughing.
He could have been speaking of the industry as a whole. With three major commercial plants in some stage of opening, the business finally appears poised to take off.
For example, the factory that Mr. Kollasch is helping to supply, a joint venture between the ethanol producer Poet and Royal DSM, the Dutch life and materials sciences company, held its grand opening here this month, drawing the king of the Netherlands to this town of roughly 3,800 set among rolling fields of head-high corn.
But the industry still faces deep uncertainties.
The federal government is considering pulling back from an important mandate, one that producers say is necessary if their large-scale plants are to succeed.
At the same time, the market is struggling to absorb the ethanol already in production.
And many technical hurdles remain, which is where farmers like Mr. Kollasch come in.
It has taken years of expensive bioengineering to figure out how to break down tough natural material meant to give plants enough structure to stand upright and convert it to sugars that can be fermented into fuels.
Ethanol producers have also had to persuade farmers to accommodate the collecting and bundling of the agricultural waste they were generally accustomed to tilling under the field or leaving on top to help enrich the soil or control its erosion.
Feeding a new generation of factories that can consume hundreds of thousands of tons of biomass to produce 20 million to 30 million gallons of ethanol a year has meant new costs in labor and equipment.
“Farmers don’t give it away,” said Wallace E. Tyner, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue, and transportation and storage have added even more expense.
Early estimates put the cost of the waste material at $30 a ton, Mr. Tyner said, but his department now puts it closer to $80.
As a result, the first wave of plants is relying heavily on subsidies, and the Agriculture Department is helping pay some of the costs of obtaining the feedstock.
There are other supports as well. The recently opened Poet-DSM project, for instance, received roughly $20 million from Iowa and about $100 million in grants from the Energy Department.
Ethanol executives say they are working to reduce the costs to make their fuel economically competitive.
“We have to find efficiencies to get the costs in the area that they need to be,” said John Pieper, who manages feedstock operations at DuPont.
The company, he said, has been working closely with PacificAg, a leading biomass harvester, to develop and streamline the supply chain.
“I believe fully this is the way we’ll farm one day,” he said. “It’s just a question of how quickly will we grab that future and maybe bring it into today.”
Hundreds of farmers have signed up to supply the stover, though Mr. Kollasch said the refinery here might have trouble getting all it needs.
For him, the benefits include new income as well as better management of crop residue, which has been increasing over the years as farmers plant each acre of prized black soil here ever more intensively.
There is some debate over the potential harm or benefit of taking the stover away from the fields, and questions remain about how tilling, taking certain amounts of the material or leaving just the stalks and roots affects soil health and productivity.
Also up in the air is the best shape for bales — square or round — to ease transportation and storage and reduce the risk of fires like one that started at the Poet-DSM plant in July.
“We’re tackling a brand-new collection process, a brand-new feedstock, a brand-new production process, brand-new enzymes, brand-new yeast,” Jeff Broin, Poet’s founder, said at the refinery. “You can see, there’s a lot of learning going on.”
The uncertainties have some producers already looking to what’s next.
DuPont plans to market a cellulosic ethanol byproduct from its factory in Nevada, Iowa, as a solid fuel that could be used in place of coal. And it may move into making other products there as well, said Jan Koninckx, global business director of advanced biofuel.
Most of the companies making biofuel from sugars, including Beta Renewables, which operates a large cellulosic plant in Northern Italy, are involved in or are seeking partnerships to allow them to move into the chemicals market, said Andrew Soare, a senior analyst who leads alternative fuels and bio-based materials and chemicals research at Lux Research.
It is the same approach, he said, that many companies making other kinds of biofuel pursued when they shifted their focuses to chemicals that could fetch higher prices than fuel.
“They could just get much higher value for a gallon or a kilogram of their product,” he said.
And Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the Agriculture Department, recently urged a group of ethanol producers to focus their businesses on exports, the Defense Department and ethanol byproducts.
That shift is being driven partly by the ebbing demand for gasoline from consumers, who are driving more efficient cars, and industry, which is enjoying the benefits of surging domestic oil production. On top of this, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering cutting by more than 40 percent the amount of advanced biofuels that must be blended into vehicle fuel. A decision, which has been delayed, is still pending.
Still, executives like Mr. Broin are pushing ahead with their projects, expressing confidence that the technologies and processes they have developed over the years, at great public and private expense, will prevail.
In addition to Poet-DSM, giants like Abengoa and DuPont expect to start producing significant quantities of cellulosic ethanol, made from the nonfood parts of the corn plant, in the Midwest within months.
In an office at the Poet-DSM refinery in July, when smoke from the fire still shrouded the fields, Mr. Broin talked about the huge investment of money in explaining why, this time, the business would work.
“There’s, right out the window here, $250 million all ready to roll,” he said.(NYT)

24 comments:

Chelsea Dow said...

I think there needs to be much more conversation about bio fuels and renewable energy in the near future. Specifically, with bio fuels, it is a clear and obvious way to fuel cities and countries sustainably. I am 100% in favor of bio fuels over the current position the United States (and the rest of the world) has with the dependence on oil and natural gas. However, I think that this article touches on issues in which I too have some doubts. Specifically, with the issue of soil erosion and fertility. It is imperative to keep soils fertility and natural minerals alive and well. Once soil is over ridden, it takes a long time for it to revitalize. The idea behind sustainability indeed is to not run things down, but to keep them sustaining and functioning for future generations. However, from my experience in organic farming, I know that nurturing and working with the soil on a daily basis can stop this. There are also methods like introducing nitrogen fixing plants into the soil to help plants and soil thrive, such as lining the beds with the husk of cocoa beans. If we wanted to truly manifest bio fuels into the current system I believe it could be done, and I think that Earth’s survival may depend on it.

Anonymous said...

I believe Chelsea touched on many important aspects brought up when discussing biofuels, and I believe that this progression towards a dependency on biofuels and diversion from fossil fuels is imperative. Biofuel will allow our use to evolve into a more circular metabolism as opposed to linear and is fundamental too the likelihood of true sustainability.

I would like to see this biofuel industry in America thrive domestically as well rather than solely concentrating on exports.

- Elizabeth Eggimann

Anonymous said...

Personally, I agree with Chelsea as well with the idea of discussing the topic of biofuels more. I am also in favor of using more and more biofuels over oil and gas, especially if more use of biofuels helps to lead us into inventing more ways to use not just biofuel, but other renewable resources as well. I know that there are buses and such out there on the streets that run on biofuels such as soybeans, but I would also like to see buses and/or taxis that run on solar energy, seeing more skyscrapers in NYC with green rooftops and collect & purify rainwater, etc. and part of me would love to see biofuels as a baby step towards this.

-E. Piper Phillips

Anonymous said...

I think the concept of producing large quantities of bio-fuel is essential for our society in moving towards green energy. The bio-fuel market has many benefits including the conversion of waste products in the agriculture world into fuel. This allows farmers to make extra income, which hopefully persuades the farmers to use increased sustainable farming processes. I think its interesting that DuPont is trying to make an ethanol product that could be a substitute for coal. The result of this is directly cutting down on pollution (burning coal), while we continue to move towards cleaner energy (wind and solar).

-Frazer Winsted

Gian Joseph said...

Although I do believe moving towards renewable/sustainable energy is a great alternative, I do think that we should take caution. We should explore all possibilities and potentials for environmental destruction. Like the article states "There is some debate over the potential harm or benefit of taking the stover away from the fields, and questions remain about how tilling, taking certain amounts of the material or leaving just the stalks and roots affects soil health and productivity." Taking the crop waste to make fuel could potentially have an affect on soil health. Healthy soil depends on crop waste to gets its nutrients from and taking that away just might affect its fertility. On the other hand the production of biofuels will mean less production of fossil fuels used in cars and thus probably less greenhouse . But at the same time it is important for us ro know that these crops waste are essential in soil health and fertility.

Anonymous said...

I think that biofuels are a good idea, however, I don't necessarily think that they are the right answer. Yes, they do get us away from coal and oil which is definitely a good thing, but it also leads us into the realm of more mass production of plants that we already don't have a lot of room for. Soil depletion and desertification is already a problem, and if we are going to take the next step into mass producing biofuels, where are we going to put all of it? Taking away the "waste" that naturally revitalizes the soil isn't the answer either, because that will dry out the soil even faster. Biofuels also affect different parts of the world like in Indonesia where the palm oil industry is tearing forests apart. If we are going to dive into this, there needs to be a lot of research and planning, so as to not start another long-term problem like oil and coal.

Leanna Molnar

Ashley Unangst said...

Like every viable alternative the world comes up with to move us away from our dependence on oil and coal, biofuel obviously has it's pros and cons. While the idea of a clean cut diversion from coal and fossil fuels is so enticing, I do not at all believe we are ready for it, nor do we even want to really see it happen. Even if alternatives such as biofuel, solar, hydroelectric, etc. were to become the new goal to reach - to switch everybody in the world over to this energy source, it won't be instantaneous in any way shape, or form, and clearly the human race is far from impatient and I fear that the longer it would take, the more disheartened people would be, as they fail to see the big picture a majority of the time.

It is clear that the biofuel industry has a lot left to be perfected. Could it eventually be a new very viable alternative to gasoline? Sure. But we need to think about the soil, and we need to think about the negatives before we ever address the positives.

Anonymous said...

I found this article to be very encouraging. Bio-fuels are a very important in helping our planet becoming sustainable. This article made me realize that there are people out there looking to advance bio-fuels. The article kept bringing up the money and other problems that bio-fuels might have and lead to. What I found so encouraging is that these farmers, executives, etc are not being deterred by these things. They are still researching ways on how to make it possible.
Whatever alternative we start using should be completely and thoroughly researched and tested. We don't want to run into the same problems later on. So the fact that these people are really taking the effort to explore bio-fuels is great. I can't wait to see what will come out of it.

Mikayla Bonnett

Anonymous said...

So far I agree with what many people have been saying. I do believe that pursuing biofuel technology is a good direction to head in. It is certainly a better alternative than what we have now but it is not the finite solution to our energy problems. It has its share of complications and disadvantages but if we were to adopt new policies and invest some capital into projects like this, I believe it could benefit us in the long run.
- Emma Weis

Anonymous said...

I agree with many responses, in that biofuels are better than the gases we are using now, but should not be our end goal. To touch again on Leanna's point, to mass produce the plants we would need in order to replace the amount of natural gas we use today would be practically impossible. Room for farming is becoming scarce at the rate agriculture is being grown now, and to increase that amount so drastically would not be plausible. This is not only because of the world's increasing population but also for the fact that sustainable farming cannot just happen anywhere, it needs to be where a variety of key factors are in place. Also I believe more research should be done before implementing biofuels too much, because we want to make sure they are safe for all areas of our environment. We do not want to realize later that our soil is no longer fertile or regret the use of biofuels in any way.

Jennifer Hare

Anonymous said...

I dont agree with this. Biofuels are not the way to go. Yes, they could free us from foreign dependance but we would still be burning fuel and creating harmful emissions. We need to move away from this kind of technology completely. All gas is bad gas. this plane "waste" can be used to make all kinds of recyclable plastics.
Nick Stanton

Anonymous said...

I agree with what most everyone is saying about biofuels. While using biofuels is a great alternative to coal and oil we have already done a lot more harm than good to the planet and this is just a baby step in the direction we should be going. Not everyone is going to use biofuels. We shouldn't be taking a baby step towards a more sustainable future we need to be taking a leap.

- Juliana Cesario

Maria-Vitoria Bernardes said...

I agree with what many people have been saying about bio-fuels. I believe that bio-fuels could be a good change for out environment but there are still many unknowns in regards to the outcomes of bio-fuels. Because bio-fuels are energy sources made from living things, or the waste that living things produce it is a more conventional method. I believe that we are supposed to utilize and harness what nature provides, but then again I don't know because is it really that safe for us or the environment? They spoke about soil erosion and soil fertility, if this could have a negative effect on the soils health i think that it shouldn't be done. Yes, if we are sustainable with our resources it wouldn't be an issue but being sustainable sometimes is difficult for people to do. I do believe that we can exhibit bio-fuels into our current system, but it just needs to be done the right way, so that it helps the earth and the environment.

-Maria-Vitoria Bernardes

Brianna Connelly said...

From the way I see things, I am in favor of biofuels because I think it is a step forward in the right direction. We are to dependent on renewable recourses and we need that to be changed at least moderately. Biofuels are the perfect replacement for oil products such as petrol and diesel because biofuels are easily renewable and are very inexpensive to produce. However, the cons of biofuels and pointed out clearly. No one has all the answers on what the right thing to do is, no method of biofuels production has been found that doesn't cause any environmental issues. However, there is still work to be done, it gives me hope.

Brianna Connelly

Anonymous said...

Biofuels are still a new industry. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done in order to fully understand all of the implications associated with the usage of this new type of fuel. However, I agree that it could be a step in the right direction. We rely too heavily on non-renewable resources such as coal and oil to power our cars, which is not helping to reduce carbon emissions that lead to global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer. As a society, it's difficult to be completely sustainable. There are too many factors in play, the expense is often very high, and there often isn't enough research to make people believe that it's beneficial in the long-term. However biofuels, and other renewable resources, are a step in the right direction towards a more sustainable and healthy future. I think that although additional research needs to be done, biofuels could be the answer to many of our problems regarding non-renewable resources.

-Marrina Gallant

Maria Hernandez-Norris said...

Biofuel is an interesting topic and I definitely think there need to be more conversation about it. Such fueling and concepts are the epitome of sustainability.
I would like to know more about production and cost of it. Where else in the world is it used? How?

Apoorva said...

It is good to know that the production of biofuels has increased in innovation collectively after spending expensive research and its getting somewhere where we can utilize it on a much larger scale. It is important that we notice that the earth is not going to have its fossil fuels around much longer if we keep burning it up at the current rate. Everyday, our usage is increasing rapidly and so is the supply of resources. We need to realize this is going to be a problem because if not we won't even be living the comforts as people in the 1800's because for anything we need oil or fuels. Biofuels could be the next era of the green revolution as its much more bio-friendly product and also its renewable in abundance. If research can get as far as expanding the usage of biofuels, our future looks a lot brighter, literally.

Dylan Hirsch said...

Biofuels have a lot of potential to stray us from fossil fuels, but it has deep rooted problems that make it impossible to apply to an industrial scale. If this fuel would ever be produced for the mass market, it would require the strength of the industrial agriculture which is already being strained by population growth and the market in general. Saying this, there could be plausible In local energy sources. If biofuels were cheaper then conventional or renewable energies available on market, then why not? The real concern is the fact that most people - 89 percent - live in cities. Biofuel is simply not plausible for the vast majority of people.

Anonymous said...

This article caused me to think about the options we have for future fuels. Right now I think way too many people are focusing on the negatives associated with alternative fuels, hydro-fracking and nuclear power for example. However, not enough time and energy is spent on biofuels. There is massive amounts of potential to not only heat our homes, but run our cars with biofuels. I like that this article raised points on soil erosion, however as technology and research advances we may be able to find less land intensive sources of biofuel.

-Haylei P.

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