Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo: addressing feedstock issues in the Northeast

By Ron Kotrba | July 13, 2010
The Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo, Aug. 4-6 in Boston at the Westin Copley Place, will feature a panel titled, "Working Out the Kinks: Addressing Feedstock Logistics in the Northeast."

The panel will feature David Dowler, extension director for the Penn State Cooperative Extension, who will talk about camelina as a new oilseed crop for permanent no-till systems in New England. After two years of growing camelina in northwest Pennsylvania-work funded by the Northeast Sun Grant program and a USDA/NRCS state Conservation Innovation Grant-Dowler said, "We have learned much about its potential as a major biodiesel feedstock for the northeast." According to Dowler, camelina yields of 1,200 pounds per acre are very achievable and yields of 2,000 pounds per acre, or more, have been obtained. The oil content of camelina is around 40 percent, twice that of soybeans. "We have accumulated field data on culture, production, harvesting, storing, processing, marketing of the seed and meal, and using the oil as a feedstock for biodiesel production," Dowler said. "Research data from PSU poultry trials have demonstrated that the Omega-3's from camelina do transfer into eggs and poultry tissue when chickens are fed camelina meal. The high level of Omega-3 fatty acids found in camelina meal makes it an ideal feed replacement for flax in poultry, and as a value-added protein feedstuff for other classes of livestock."

Dowler said he believes that successful camelina production will hinge on capitalizing on the crop's uniqueness and subsequent opportunities it will create for diversity, rotations, and significant cover cropping opportunities.

Crawford County Commissioners have signed a memorandum of understanding with Penn State University, according to Dowler, to use approximately 100 acres of their county farm ground to further this work. Dowler said joining PSU in this effort were three critical partners: Hero BX, formerly known as Lake Erie Biodiesel; Ernst Conservation Seeds, a local and nationally known seed producer for renewable fuels; and Northwest Grain Processors, a co-owned local soybean crushing plant that was setting idle but now has been converted into a crushing plant for camelina and canola.

Dowler also plans on discussing the challenges that lie ahead in commoditizing camelina.

Also featured on this panel is Randy Hill, head of Advanced Trailer. Hill said three years ago, Advanced Trailer began exploring use of its drying trailer to remove moisture from woody biomass. After a series of projects since then, Hill will present project results from this research at BBI International's Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo-what he said is the first public presentation of research related to transporting, drying and storing biomass while in a transport vehicle.

Maurice Hladik, president of Biomass4Energy, will discuss possible solutions to the serious potential of a feedstock shortage in trying to fulfill the RFS2 volume requirements, specifically the 16 billion gallons of advanced biofuel required by 2022 under the federal mandate.

"The challenge to meet this biomass requirement is as large as the opportunities that this presents for rural America," Hladik said. "These opportunities and challenges will be discussed from both the point of view of the biorefinery investor and the farmer/forest owner." Hladik will speak from his experience as the lead feedstock scout for Iogen Corp. for nearly 10 years in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Hladik said the low-hanging biomass fruit will be agriculture residues. "Forestry residue and new harvest trees are other biomass resources but again there are challenges regarding costs and the yields of cellulosic ethanol from softwoods," he said, adding that dedicated tree plantations also have their pros and cons for both biorefineries and landholders. Hladik said dedicated biomass crops remain the probable dominant source of biomass. "For most biorefiners, the preferred biomass source will be perennial grasses such as switchgrass or miscanthus," he said. "This preference is based on the security of supply which this presents because of the long-term commitment of the farmer with perennials and the lesser impact of climate on such crops."

There is understandable reluctance from farmers to make long-term commitments given the lack of knowhow to establish these grasses, the novelty of contracting a crop for years in advance and without a commitment by a biorefinery investor in the form of beginning actual construction. Hladik said the investor, on the other hand, does not want to risk the stranded asset of a cellulosic ethanol facility operating well below capacity if the local community proves to be reluctant to supply biomass and enter into long-term contracts.

Hladik said the national biomass requirement to achieve the 16 billion gallon advanced biofuel portion of the RFS2 alone will be 200 million tons annually. "Assuming that a typical biomass provider will supply an average of one thousand tons per year, this means that 200 thousand farmers and others must make long-term supply commitments," he said. "Clearly this requires a massive and early mobilization of biomass providers in the next 12 years leading up to 2022. By comparison, there are about 150 thousand wheat farmers in the U.S."

Qingzheng Cheng, a research associate with the Biomaterials and Wood Utilization Research Center at West Virginia University will discuss recent work in green pretreatments of woody biomass for ethanol production. Cheng said petreatment of biomass is the most costly single step-up to 20 percent of the total cost-of cellulosic ethanol production. It encompasses reducing biomass size, removing inhibitory lignin and enhancing conversion of cellulose and hemicellulose into fermentable sugars.

"Hardwood residues and three-year-old hybrid poplar of the third-generation progeny were examined as potential feedstock," Cheng said. "After debarked, dried, and milled to particles of different sizes, the samples were pretreated using environmentally-friendly pretreatment methods, including ultrasonication, homogenization, and hydrogen peroxide and ammonia fiber expansion at different pressures and temperatures in a pressure reactor." Cheng said the particles were characterized using optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy and water retention value. The particle size was reduced, surface area was increased, and lignin content was dramatically decreased through the pretreatment processes. Cheng said the trademarked Accellerase 1000 enzyme was used to further evaluate the pretreated samples for sugar production. "The sugars produced were evaluated with high-performance liquid chromatography," Cheng said. "The results could potentially help lower bioethanol production cost with environmentally-friendly pretreatments and improve utilization of woody biomass for bioenergy production."

BBI International Program Manager Tim Portz will moderate this panel. Click here to register for the Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo.
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