Imperium CEO: Use biomass for liquid fuels and chemicals, not power

By Luke Geiver | November 17, 2010
Posted Dec. 3, 2010

The number of biomass applications might be massive, but for some, there's one approach that offers the best long-term value of all-liquid renewable fuels. In support of that view is John Plaza, president and CEO of Imperium Renewables Inc., which owns the 100 MMgy biodiesel production facility in Grays Harbor, Wash. According to him, the best use for biomass relates to getting from point A to point B. "Our perspective is that biomass is much better suited for liquid conversion then electricity due to the multiple solutions for renewable electricity, and the very limited solutions for liquid transportation replacements," he said.

We cannot assume that total electrification of our transportation system is a viable option, especially for aviation, Plaza said. "We need significant biomass resources to make a meaningful biofuel impact on offsetting carbon-based liquid transportation fuels, and biomass is the only real solution to this," he said. During the 2011 Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show Jan. 10-12 in Seattle, Plaza will argue this perspective, explaining that there will always be a need for liquid transportation fuels and "if we use biomass for electricity, it threatens the viability of biomass to accomplish both." In terms of biomass-to-liquid fuels production, it doesn't matter what form of biomass is used either. The key however, is remaining feedstock-flexible by utilizing a technology that can convert various low-cost biomass sources, Plaza said.

A strategy based on feedstock and technology flexibility is the new approach for Imperium Renewables, according to Plaza, due to lessons learned by having only once source of feedstock "that our current biodiesel business is controlled by, with respect to food-based oilseed crops." For Plaza, however, biomass utilization isn't just about supply for liquid fuels or based on the limited solutions for liquid fuel production. "Biomass-based chemicals also offer a higher value for the biomass in the long run, leading to new biomass development around dedicated bioenergy crops, more efficient biomass growing systems and many other benefits due to this higher value," he said, adding that all of this cannot be captured by a pure play in electricity generation.

Accompanying Plaza's presentation regarding the best application for biomass will be another perspective that points to the benefits of converting low-value biomass into high-value coproducts. Eini Lowell, a research scientist for the USDA Forest Service, will speak about a process Lowell calls a hot water-based biorefinery. "At the chosen working temperature of 160 degrees Celsius," Lowell explained, "a significant fraction (50 to 75 percent) of the hemicelluloses can be hydrolyzed with the moderately acidic environment that occurs without added acid, in a moderate excess of water." At the specified temperature and pH level, Lowell said, little happens to cellulose and only a moderate amount of lignin is soluble, providing a dilute solution dominated by low molecular weight oligomeric and monomeric sugars with other low molecular weight products from wood and ash. "The soluble components are recovered for sale and the extracted wood is improved for utilization in a number of products," Lowell said.

Lowell's presentation will include a look at a study currently underway at State University in New York. Using a sample of Ponderosa Pines from the Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon, the university is currently using a hot water extraction approach and recording the findings. "This study shows that the proposed process is applicable to small diameter Ponderosa Pine from the western U.S," Lowell said. "Uniqueness of this technique is controlling the processes to yield desired chemical coproducts while still maintaining the physical structure of the biomass for further processing into a variety of other products."

To attend the 2011 Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show, January 10-12, and learn more about Plaza's thoughts on biomass utilization, Lowell's reactions to the hot water based biorefinery concept and other progress reports on converting residual forest materials into bio-based fuels and chemicals, click here.
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