New agriculture technology provides alternative bioenergy for the futureWritten by Saige
Laramie – Don Collins of the Western Research Institute (WRI) suggests that new technology that utilizes bacteria to create biodiesel could help the U.S. eliminate the need for petroleum imports.
Collins, Chief Executive Officer of WRI in Laramie, along with UW Extension Energy Coordinator Milt Geiger, spoke at AgriFuture 2011, providing student attendees with the opportunity to learn more about the nexus between agriculture and energy.
“The Western Research Institute is a research and development center,” said Collins. “Our objective is to help solve problems to make the world a better place. We take science, develop technology and seek for commercialization of those technologies.”
Some current research at the WRI focuses on bioenergy.
“Fossil fuels are just very old biomass,” explained Collins. “The objective is to really displace our dependency on petroleum fuels, but also the biomass.”
Collins added, “The largest growth is in the feedstock area. Projections say that cellulosic ethanol will be far cheaper than crude oil. We have a very competitive position for biofuels.”
He said biofuels have the potential to expand the agriculture industry, as well as the American economy.
“The projection is that there would be more than 400,000 jobs within the agriculture industry and nearly 1.9 million jobs in the American economy as a result of these biofuels,” said Collins.
Multiple aspects of renewable energy and biofuels are being pursued by the Department of Energy to increase chances at a viable, successful program.
“We always establish our goals to be commercially viable without subsidies,” said Collins. “One of the key things we really have been told is that we need to get very aggressive with research and take high-risk projects with high uncertainty, because those have the greatest benefits to society.”
Collins explained several technologies, including gasification and pyrolysis, that are being pursued. Gasification involves a heating process that produces hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
“We can make gasoline, diesel, ethanol and fertilizer,” explains Collins. “The process results in the formation of the essential building block molecules for these products. That is one of the motivators for gasification – there are more valuable products created than just electrons.”
With gasification, biofuels can be created for a cost of about 55 cents per gallon.
“It is a very involved process, but it provides flexibility,” said Collins. “We have a one megawatt gasifier in Laramie that allows us to operate on biomass, coal or blends of the two to produce the hydrogen and carbon monoxide.”
Pyrolysis can also be used, at the slightly higher cost of 68 cents per gallon, and Collins described the process as being a partial combustion. The partial burning of the biomass allows the products to be stored longer, however, the efficiency isn’t quite as high.
“Basically, we put a char on the biomass,” said Collins. “That gives it a stronger, firmer texture so it is easier to grind. It is also very attractive to the bioenergy industry for storage.”
“It is very suitable for small scale local use, as well as large scale processing,” continued Collins. “We have also found that if we take wood pellets or other biomass and run it through the system, it holds it together better, so there is some attraction to increasing the durability of other biomass.”
Another interesting project the WRI is working on involves the use of bacteria that consumes CO2, creating an oily substance that would be used as biodiesel. The bacteria do not require sunlight and can be grown in tanks beneath the ground.
“The idea is to produce more biodiesel than we can consume in the U.S. with these bacteria,” said Collins. “We would also use the carbon from coal twice – once in burning it and a second time for the creation of biodiesel.”
CO2 resulting from burning coal is captured and used to feed the bacteria. Collins explained this bacterium could also be used to reduce CO2 emissions in the United States and could lessen dependence on foreign oil. He said bioenergy industry and its connection to agriculture allows for potential developments and continued expansion of the industry long term.
Aside from biofuels, Geiger also looked at agriculture as a consumer of energy.
“Food is an important user of energy in the United States,” stated Geiger. “Ag has done a great job since about 1950 in reducing the overall energy intensity of the industry. We produce the same things with less energy.”
Geiger said that, according to the USDA, approximately 15 percent of total expenses on an ag operation are related to energy, only five percent of which is direct energy use. The remaining 10 percent is largely fertilizer use.
Volatility in the energy markets, including electricity, gas and diesel, provides instability for producers, he said, adding that there are opportunities to reduce energy use from these volatile sources, recommending producers start by assessing their energy consumption, then look at conserving energy on their operations. Next, producers should look to change technology and efficiencies and evaluate where energy is used. Finally, after looking at their operation, Geiger mentioned that alternative energy production should be considered.
“Producers would be doing themselves a great disservice by jumping to alternative energy before looking at their energy use or conservation,” said Geiger.
For alternative energy options, Geiger described geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind energies as viable sources. Geothermal energy looks at utilizing pumps based on the temperature gradient in the earth.
“Consumers can use that resource to heat or cool a structure,” said Geiger. “Hydroelectric can also be used on a small scale or a massive scale. Solar power can be used to create thermal energy and heat structures.”
In looking toward renewable energy, Geiger mentioned, “Small renewable energy systems are designed to reduce the costs. The goal is not to generate a revenue, but rather offset the costs.”
Geiger also mentioned that UW and Extension offer energy audits and renewable energy assessments to help producers look at their operation and energy consumption.