The Feedstock Puzzle

By Alan Weber | May 11, 2009
If you have ever had the pleasure of tackling a puzzle with a child's "help," you know the agony of watching a four-year-old take a random puzzle piece and attempt to fit it with another random piece. As adults, we are more likely to look at the picture and work to construct the puzzle using the finished model as a guide. Working with NBB's feedstock effort has been, in some ways, like working on a puzzle with my daughter. There are dozens of puzzle pieces to work with, but we don't necessarily have the benefit of knowing what the final picture will look like. This makes for a slightly frustrating endeavor intermingled with euphoric achievements.

Some of the puzzle pieces are known. We know that feedstock supplies have been one of several obstacles to potential growth. We know that in 2007, soybean oil was used to generate approximately 80 percent of production while in 2008 soybean oil represented less than 60 percent of production. Now don't get confused by this statistic. As an industry, we used roughly the same amount of soybean oil both years, however, the use of animal fats, yellow grease and other oils were largely responsible for the increase. We know that in the near term, we will continue to rely on existing feedstock sources and must find ways to create "virtual acres." Finally, we know we must invest in additional puzzle pieces to ensure future growth.

One potential piece is algal biomass. Microalgae have the capacity to be 10 times to 30 times more productive per acre than current feedstocks, can potentially be harvested every day and some strains contain more than 50 percent oil. Although algae are potentially one of the largest pieces of the feedstock puzzle, many research issues remain to be tackled before commercial scale production. NBB was among those representing the biodiesel industry at the U.S. Department of Energy's algal biomass roadmapping meeting last fall. The meeting proved valuable as hype gave way to realistic assessments of the research challenges that must be addressed. Dewatering and oil extraction challenges are considered to be two of the most significant economic barriers to the proliferation of algae as a viable feedstock.

This year NBB will fund an effort with Richard Sayre, director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Plant Science Center, to further develop a non-destructive oil extraction process, sometimes referred to as "milking the algae," which is capable of continuously removing oil from living algal cultures. Our program will consider which strains perform best and how the process may benefit production efficiency by removal of contaminants in the growth media.

If algae is a large piece of the puzzle, then existing feedstocks represent the borders-the place where I tell my daughter to start building our puzzle. After years of research investments by life science companies, new yield technologies have reached commercialization and are set to have a meaningful impact on soybean yields next year. Adopting this technology will enable increased production without crowding acreage in the U.S., however, realization of this benefit will be dependent upon an expansion of oilseed processing capacity. In other words, protein demand will need to increase to create an economic incentive in order to expand processing capacity needed for additional bushels.

The same benefit can be achieved by increasing oil content. Previous efforts focused on increasing the flow of carbon into the oil biosynthesis pathway. Downstream bottlenecks, however, appear to reduce the value of this approach. NBB has partnered with DPCS to identify novel approaches to enhance oil production in camelina and soybeans. This work centers on the hypothesis that these crops' inability to efficiently utilize available carbon limits oil production. Therefore, the second year DPCS' work will focus on engineering carbon sinks that will pull metabolites through the oil production process in plants.

Understanding that private firms are best positioned to deliver technology to the marketplace, NBB's focus on near-term feedstock sources is centered on risk management issues for new oilseeds as well as those being grown in new regions. Every biodiesel producer knows the value of mitigating risk for their operation. In meetings with current camelina growers in Montana, access to crop insurance was one of two primary concerns voiced. NBB has offered to assist camelina leaders in developing insurance options. In the same manner, producer surveys indicate a perception that expansion of winter canola acreage involves more risks compared to growing wheat. NBB is working with the U.S. Canola
Association to educate growers on how winter canola can be included in crop rotations and to start the process of data collection for expanded county coverage for crop insurance.

In addition, NBB continues to be a strong advocate in Washington, D.C., for increased investment in feedstock research. In the end, all puzzle pieces will be important to the overall feedstock picture.

Alan Weber is a Partner at MARC-IV Consulting and advisor to the National Biodiesel Board.
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