It won’t singlehandedly solve the complex energy problems plaguing the United States, but new research at Eastern Kentucky University has the potential to make a significant dent in the need for imported oil. That according to Dr. Bruce R. Pratt, chair of the EKU Department of Agriculture and director of the university’s Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technology (CRAFT).
Boosting a research relationship with a California high-tech defense corporation, EKU recently received $220,000 through the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund and $10,000 each in Clark and Madison County Agricultural Development Funds to evaluate biofuel production potential in Kentucky. The goal is to establish algae feedstocks that could grow the raw material to produce diesel and jet fuel. The project also will evaluate the on-farm economics of transitioning from traditional ag production to biofuel feedstock production in Kentucky.
“It is exciting to be at the forefront of a potentially groundbreaking industry that can help solve a national problem,” Pratt said. “In 2008 our country spent approximately $328 billion on imported oil. That money left the country. If we could take care of 10 percent of this in our country, it would be significant. We could keep the money and the jobs here.”
Biofuel basics for business execs
Biofuel, Pratt explains, is fuel derived from something that was alive at one time: something that can be grown. Biofuel is joining many U.S. energy options such as coal, petroleum and natural gas, hydro-electric, nuclear, wind, captured methane, solar and geothermal.
There are numerous ways to produce biofuel, including the first humans ever used to produce energy – simply gathering cellulose (trees) to burn for heat. The list now features newer technologies such as fermenting corn starches to make ethanol, converting plant oils such as soybeans into biodiesel, and capturing and utilizing methane gas emitted during organic decomposition.
What these methods have in common is biomass – a natural substance from which energy can be stored and harvested. According to the USDA, biomass includes all plant and plant-derived materials, including animal manure. There currently are three broad types of biomass: crop residues (corn stover, tobacco stalks, wheat straw and cover crops), wood products (bark, sawdust, recycled paper, dedicated wood crops), and dedicated biomass crops (perennial grasses such as switchgrass, miscanthus and big blue stem).
EKU’s research into jet fuel derived from algae will use switchgrass in the initial biomass step. Pratt and his team are evaluating its nutritional content for use in feeds and supplements also.
To understand the process of transforming biomass into biofuel, consider the cow. Cows consume a biomass – forage – that their digestive system breaks down and converts into glucose (energy) for their use. Pratt said faculty and students will mimic this process in part.
Researchers at EKU will use what is basically a three-part process. The first step is to grow the biomass. Switchgrass is, in effect, a living storage tank to hold energy from the sun until it is needed. This energy is then converted to glucose, which is fed to the algae, which grows and produces an oil. The final step is extracting that natural oil and refining it into biodiesel or JP8 jet fuel.
“We’re going to be using sunlight, capturing energy from sunlight in the biomass and using it as we need it,” Pratt said. “We can utilize vast amounts of land resources that are unused now to grow biomass. We can then store it and use it year-around.”
The Billion Ton Study
Pratt and his team will work under the auspices of CRAFT. Created in December 2008, CRAFT was using internal EKU funds to get the biofuels program started before receiving external funding.
“We were looking at this energy issue in the summer of 2008 when a barrel of oil was selling for $150 and gas at the pump was over $4,” Pratt said. “All energy is interrelated. If oil prices go up, then coal goes up and electric rates go up. If something happens in one oil-producing area of the world, it affects all the rest.”
In the meantime, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Energy (DOE) had hired Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee to study how much U.S. biomass is available to make biofuel, where it is located and what would be required to use it. The study, “Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply,” soon became known as the Billion Ton Study for its conclusion that the United States would need and could produce a billion dry tons of biomass feedstock annually.
That, it concluded, could replace 30 percent of our national petroleum usage.
The key needs for producing biomass are a temperate climate, abundant sunlight and land that is not environmentally protected. Great news for Kentucky: The state has plenty of all three.
Enter San Diego-based General Atomics, a company involved in energy-related issues since 1955, initially with atomic energy but having expanded into electromagnet systems, remotely operated surveillance aircraft (including the Predator now used in the Middle East), airborne sensors, and advanced electronic, wireless and laser technologies. The company already had a presence in Madison County through a contract to dispose of chemical weapons at the Blue Grass Army Depot. And it was looking for a partner for a biofuels project.
General Atomics’s Business Development Manager Jim Elliott found what he was looking for when he spoke with EKU President Doug Whitlock, EKU Vice President Harry Moberly (who is also a state representaive), and Pratt.
“Eastern had the capability and the fire in the belly,” Elliott said.
Elliott said the ultimate goal of their work is energy independence for the United States. In the meantime, however, they would like to build stepping-stone technologies that will get the country there.
Step by step to energy independence
Many believe biofuels could be one of those stepping stones.
“Any strategy to reduce U.S. reliance on imported oil will involve a mix of energy technologies, including conservation,” concluded authors of the Billion Ton Study. “Biofuels are an attractive option to be part of that mix because biomass is a domestic, secure and abundant feedstock. In addition, fuels from biomass are the only renewable liquid-fuel alternatives to today’s petroleum-based transportation fuels. Global availability of biomass feedstocks also would provide an international alternative to dependence on an increasingly strained oil-distribution system as well as a ready market for biofuel-production technologies.”
Biofuels specialists also point to the environmental benefits.
“Perennial grasses and other bioenergy crops have many significant environmental benefits over traditional row crops,” the report states. “Perennial energy crops provide a better environment for more-diverse wildlife habitation. Their extensive root systems increase nutrient capture, improve soil quality, sequester carbon and reduce erosion.”
This promising technology remains mostly a gleam in the eye of scientists, however.
“It is going to be an evolving process,” Pratt said. “We have some initial funding and some more funding streams pending. But it will be a five- to- 10-year period before commercialization. Just to build the pilot facility to produce large enough volumes to be confident the system works will take $25 million. General Atomics has started the engineering work on such a facility.”
The research will not be limited to switchgrass either.
“Other biomass sources that can feed into this system – wood waste, bark and crop residence such as corn stover,” Pratt said…. “What about recycled paper? Is there something in the paper like ink that would cause problems? Would glossy paper work the same as newsprint? There are still a lot of unknowns.
“There are other land resources in other parts of state, former tobacco land and pastures and other ground that is fallow, such as reclaimed strip mines. We need to do the research to see how different types of biomass work in our system. Not all biomass is created equal.”
Meeting future challenges
At this stage, the project is equal parts potential and unknowns. What is known is that it fits nicely into Gov. Steve Beshear’s seven-point energy policy. In September, Beshear established the Task Force on Biomass and Biofuels Development in Kentucky. The 21-member group is charged with facilitating the development of a sustainable biomass and biofuels industry in Kentucky.
Pratt is a member.
No later than Nov. 30 the task force is supposed to evaluate Kentucky’s biomass production capabilities and the state’s potential demand. Members will assess required support services such as transportation and available business structures, provide for an economic impact analysis and recommend legislative action to support development of this industry.
It’s a lofty challenge that will lead to the even loftier goal of making algae the new symbol of American energy independence. It’s certainly possible. A century ago, how many of us would have believed the untold fortune, both monetary and political, that was underneath all that sand in the Middle East?
Biomass to Biofuel
Research involving the EKU Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technology
Solar: Biomass cellulose stores solar energy. It is processed into glucose
Algae: Glucose fed to heterotrophic algae grown in bioreactors
Oil: Algae produce oil that is extracted and refined into biodiesel and JP8 jet fuel
Biofuels Also Focus of UK Research
Biofuels hold big promise in the quest for a cleaner environment. The University of Kentucky is conducting research on this important science from an array of perspectives, according to Mark Crocker, associate director of the biofuels and environmental catalysis group at UK.
“We are focusing more on the CO2 capture aspect,” said Crocker. “This is important because most of Kentucky’s electricity is generated from coal. If one of the climate bills (there are currently two versions in Congress) passes, emissions would be capped at a certain level. If you were able to use less than permitted, you could sell your remaining allocation as a credit to someone using more CO2 than permitted. This would create a market for methods that capture CO2. One option is carbon capture using chemical means. An alternative is a biological method using algae.
Crocker said this project also includes exploration into ways to make the algae into a product with appreciable value, such as biogas (methane).
“Another UK project concerns liquefaction of biomass in a novel conversion process that is relatively simple to operate,” Crocker said. “Using this method, the conversion process could be performed on site (at the point of biomass collection, i.e. farm or sawmill or forest) and these residues converted onsite into a crude bio-oil. It looks like petroleum crude and would greatly decrease the transportation costs of connected with biomass because part of the problem with biomass is that it is not very dense and costs a lot to transport.
In yet another project, UK scientists are taking vegetable oils and algae oil and deoxygenating them. Once deoxygenated, the resulting hydrocarbon distillates can be blended into fuels such as diesel fuel and jet fuel.
Find out more about this UK research at caer.uky.edu or contact Mark Crocker [email protected]