Below are some perspectives from the recent 2009 Northern Plains Bioeconomy Conference, as attended (and prepared by) my colleague, Joel Dahlgren.

According to Dr. Bruce Dale, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University (MSU), in a carbon-constrained world, cellulosic biomass is the cheapest energy per dollar of gigajoule (GJ) of energy produced. At $60 per ton paid for biomass material, cellulosic ethanol costs $4 per GJ of energy produced, which compares to $6 per GJ for sugarcane purchased for $93 per ton, $9 per GJ for petroleum for $50 per barrel for crude oil, or $6.50 per GJ for coal purchased for $150 per ton (this price per ton includes the cost of carbon capture).

Until recently, I was under the impression that cellulosic ethanol was facing difficult obstacles. But that perception was challenged when I heard Dr. Dale’s presentation at the 2009 Northern Plains Bioeconomy Conference in Fargo, North Dakota, sponsored by North Dakota State University (NDSU). Now, I will not be surprised if within five years companies whose plans to produce cellulosic ethanol have been frustrated by the difficulty of breaking down cellulose will successfully produce cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass, corn stover, miscanthus, DDGs and other cellulosic material as well.

Dr. Dale is developing a biomass pretreatment process called AFEX (batch process) or FIBEX (continuous process) that may revolutionize the production of cellulosic ethanol. The ethanol yield from pretreated biomass is an estimated two-and-a-half times that of untreated biomass. Dr. Dale’s objective is to produce clean, fermentable sugars for an estimated six cents per pound. These pre-treatment processes are expected to be commercialized within five years if the Department of Energy (DOE) grant that these universities have applied for is approved.

AFEX/FIBEX employs a reactor to treat and explode biomass with hot liquid anhydrous ammonia for five to 10 minutes. One key advantage of the AFEX/FIBEX pre-treatment process is that it can be used to co-produce animal feed. Co-producing animal feed with cellulosic ethanol reduces the break-even point by up to 50% over a single-product approach.

Dr. Dale stressed that we are not faced with the choice of food or fuel; as a society, we can have both reasonably priced. Our society can also enjoy rural economic development, less expensive food, improved environmental conditions and a declining reliance on petroleum.

Dr. Dale is also working on a densification process that produces material that is three to five times as dense as untreated biomass and pelletizes the material for transportation and storage. A densification process allows for larger, centrally located biomass refineries with outlying pretreatment facilities. The densified biomass material is more economical to transport, and it stores more easily, much like corn or soybeans.

This project is a joint effort of NDSU, South Dakota State University (Brookings, SD) and MSU (Lansing, MI). MBI International is a member of this group as well. MBI is a 501(c)(3) that is owned by the MSU Foundation. These participants have applied for a DOE grant, and they intend to build a large biorefinery if the grant is approved by the DOE. 

For additional information on this conference or on any topics discussed in this posting, please contact Joel or any of our other biofuels attorneys.