The Biorefinery Project of the Future – Part 6 of 10 – Adding Bioammonia

September 29, 2010 |

In our Bioenergy Project of the Future, our goals continue to be not only to increase income, but the sustainability of the project and the carbon impact of our community. Within our slipstream of corn or sugarcane feedstocks, one of the quick wins in terms of producing income while reducing carbon intensity is to add a bioammonia production capability.

The Backstory.

In part I of our series, we outlined the beginnings of the Bioenergy Project of the Future, based on dozens of interviews on the future of technology, policy, rural communities, finance, and the demand for bio-based products and renewable fuels.

We outlined three principles for development:  First do no harm. Less is more. Add ingredients slowly and stir.

In Part I, the product goal is to make and distribute ethanol (butanol is fine too) or biodiesel through the acquisition or construction of a first-generation ethanol (or biobutanol) plant.  We not only have to demonstrate technological prowess in bioprocessing, we have to demonstrate financial and management acumen to all our stakeholders – the community, policymakers, lenders, and customers. As well as to begin to establish that eco-system of relationships in our community that will serve us later on, when we add-on riskier and more advanced second-generation features.

In Part II, the Bioenergy Project of the Future began a graduated series of bolt-ons, beginning with the collection of cellulosic biomass. No, we won’t aren’t adding the capacity to convert that into fuels just yet. That would be getting ahead of ourselves. First, we have to demonstrate that we can build a sustainable ecosystem around the harvest and delivery of biomass.

Part III: Add renewable chemicals. If we have learned anything from the stories of hot companies like Amyris, LS9, Gevo, Solazyme, ZeaChem, Algenol, or Cobalt Technologies, as well as exciting pure-plays like Segetis, Elevance, GlycosBio or Rivertop Renewables, it is the importance of producing chemicals or other bio-based materials first to generate revenues, before taking the company further down the cost curve and up in scale in order to make competitively-priced renewable fuels.

Part IV,  adding renewable fuels. No longer are we producing advanced biofuels “because we can”, as a demonstration of technology. We are demonstrating the power of our network of relationships in the community, and the power of our growing balance sheet. Now that capacity expands and we begin to saturate some of the market we developed in high-value organic acids, we turn to the fuel market with a capacity expansion effort.

Part V, adding algae. We started to add even more exotic technologies when we look at algae-based options, and other CO2 munching technologies that will help us create renewable fuels from the CO2 we are producing as a byproduct, adding economic strength as well as reducing our carbon footprint.

Adding bioammonia – the why and how

In proposing a system for producing bioammonia, SynGest CEO Jack Oswald said, “We intend to use each and every component in an ear of corn. The cob and bran are gasified into hydrogen for ammonia synthesis, while leaving biochar as residue.  The germ is separated into food grade oil and protein, and the endosperm/starch is converted into butanol and animal feed.” As one example, Syngest’s process, utilizing the cobs and bran, realizes 200 pounds of anhydrous ammonia per year, per acre of corn, and produces a transportation fuel that can be used in fertilizer application.

How much cost and carbon are avoided?

In the SynGest system, the production rate of anhydrous ammonia is sufficient to replace the typical high-intensity farming fertilizer application rates – of around 180 pounds per acre – associated with fossil-based anhydrous ammonia.

The cost can vary from $47 per acre this year as much as $104 per acre in the height of the oil price bubble in 2008. Given that we are producing about 10 percent surplus bioammonia per acre, we are producing between $50 and $110 in new value per acre.

In addition, with the SynGest process, which produces biochar as well as anhydrous ammonia, our community of farmers can move from using a carbon-bleeding source of fertilizer (fossil fuels), to a carbon-negative source.

Impacting our community of growers in 4 ways

That impacts our community of growers in four ways. One, it reduces cost. It reduces the impact of oil price volatility – farmers are depending on their own community resource and a fixed-capital cost system for producing fertilizer. Three, it reduces carbon intensity, something worth pursuing for its own end, but also potentially relevant to the Renewable Fuel Standard should corn’s GHG emission reductions rise above 50 percent and qualify corn ethanol as an advanced biofuel. Four, it keeps money in the community, that used to leak out of the community with each purchase of fertilizer. There is something as powerful as avoided cost and that is beneficially re-directed cost – as anyone knows who has ever bought Girl Scout Cookies as a way of investing in young people.

Fertilizer is fertilizer, and until genetic modification allows us a new way of feeding nitrogen to plants rather than impregnating the soil with it, we will still have the associated problems of nitrogen runoff. But we can mitigate those impacts through the production of a stream of bioammonia from our renewable resource of the crop itself.

Adding bioammonia can add to profitability as well as sustainability

In the SynGest system, its important to note that the value stream associated with the remaining germ of the corn plant doesn’t decrease because we are producing bioammonia. Actually, it increases. According to the SynGest research team, fractionating the germ into food grade oil, protein and starch prior to fermentation can increase fuels yields from fermentation by up to 20 percent.  In short, the existing value in distillers grains and corn oil is preserved, the fuel yield increases, and the $50-$110 in avoided cost created through production of bioammonia represents new value to the grower.

By utilizing cobs for bioammonia, we limit some of the biomass sources for cellulosic ethanol, but we still have the distillers grains as an excellent source of biomass for the development of fuels and chemicals, plus our corn stover.

Further, we are making even more substantial progress in reducing the carbon intensity of our farming process. That protects our community just as much as generating profits.

Part VII tomorrow – adding cellulosic diesel

In Part VII of our series tomorrow, we will look at the addition of a diesel-producing magic bug, of the type produced by Amyris, LS9 – or utilizing the catalytic bio-forming process under development at Virent. Our goal: the production of even more diesel fuel to replace the fossil-fuels utilized in the farming practices of our community of growers. We started with them as our suppliers – and we are also making them our customers for our renewable fuels. Their fuel purchases, thereby, will become a form of investment in the community. Communities that embrace our model become exporters of energy – and our diesel-producing magic bug will provide a means of distributing more fuels from the stream of cellulosic sugars produced by our ecosystem.

The complete Bioenergy Project of the Future series

PART IX – Adding other renewables is here..
PART VIII – Adding lowest-cost feedstocks is here..
PART VII – Adding cellulosic diesel is here..
PART VI – Adding bioammonia is here..
PART V – Adding algal fuels is here..
PART IV – Adding cellulosic biofuels is here.
PART III – Adding renewable chemicals – is here.
PART II – Adding cellulosic  biomass is here.
PART I of the series – Ethanol as a Base is here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tags: ,

Category: News Analysis, Producer News

Thank you for visting the Digest.