Despite low levels of publicity, North Dakota and Montana are making great strides in bioeconomy development – with a combination of strong R&D, feedstock abundance and some hot processing technologies.
The Dakotas used to be best-known, in billboard lore, for the 300-or so highways signs promoting Wall Drug that stretch several hundred miles in either direction from Wall, SD along Interstate 90.
Today, the billboards that run along Interstate 94 in North Dakota are just as striking. They’re promoting the state’s livability, and advertising good-paying jobs in the energy industry. Rare stuff, in these nefarious times.
Shows how the shale oil boom associated with the Bakken oil formation, among other factors, has changed things.
North Dakota’s bioeconomy
The bioeconomy has been getting a move on in the Peace Garden State, too. To date, North Dakota has developed 370 million gallons in ethanol production capacity – almost exactly the state’s motor gasoline usage. Given that ethanol has lower BTUs, that’s not quite transport energy independence on its own, but the state’s oil production puts it miles over the top. Last year, the state GDP grew at a 7.6 percent clip, and 7.1 percent in 2010. It’s been the fastest-growing state the past two years – rising crop prices haven’t hurt either.
Overall, biofuels demand is strong. Ethanol-blended fuel sales nearly doubled in 2011 over 2010. Data from the State Tax Department shows that the number of barrels sold has gone from 663,000 to 1.3 million in the last year. This jump correlates with a program run in North Dakota whereby retailers have been provided with a $5,000 grant incentive for each blender pump installed.
One of the more ambitious schemes is focused on the development of energy beets.
Earlier this year, Green Vision Group of Fargo, Heartland Renewable Energy of Muscatine, Iowa, and North Dakota State University have partnered in a $1 million R&D project to produce advanced biofuels from energy beets. The $1 million phase II project includes $500,000 in funds from the North Dakota Renewable Energy Council, with approval from the North Dakota Industrial Commission, plus cash-match funds from industry partners Betaseed and Syngenta, and other in-kind contributions.
The project seeks to establish a crop insurance program for energy beets; engineer and evaluate new front-end energy beet processing methods; expand regional energy beet research trials; scale up whole-energy beet and juice storage technology to enable year-round processing; and inform producers, community developers and the biofuel industry of the emerging opportunity. In addition, the group has applied for classification of energy beets as an advanced biofuel feedstock from the EPA.
On the drawing board for the future – up to twelve 20 million gallon sugar beet ethanol facilities, and there’s been feasibility work on developing cellulosic ethanol at the Spiritwood complex, cellulosic biomass (primarily from wheat and corn residues). The first part of the facility to be completed by January 2012, will use a mixture of 10% biomass and 90% coal to produce 99 MWe, requiring 70,000 tons of biomass annually. In 2010, the project developers said that they intended to build a 20 million gallons cellulosic ethanol plant to start in late 2014 or early 2015, partnering with Inbicon and utilizing wheat straw.
In addition to fuels, NDSU researchers have developed a family of resins from renewable raw materials, creating resins that eliminate hazardous components such as formaldehyde and bisphenol-A. The resins are based on sucrose and vegetable oils, and can be varied to perform in many applications and industries. The resins developed can be made from from sugarbeets, plus oils from soybeans, flax and sunflowers. When cured, the patent-pending resins show improved properties over current biobased materials and processes, mechanical properties comparable to petrochemical-based materials, and increased renewable material content.
Over in the Treasure State, growth has been harder to come by – just 1.1 percent growth in 2010 and flatlining for 2011, with agriculture, forestry and fishing industries all down slightly for the year.
Accordingly, efforts to build a biobased economy are just as urgent as in the Corn Belt – and one of the more interesting developments has been the growth of a Butte-Missoula biotech corridor.
The activity really got underway in 2008 when AE Biofuels (now Aemetis) built and commissioned a 9,000-square foot integrated cellulose and starch ethanol commercial demonstration facility to optimize its Ambient Temperature Starch/Cellulose Hydrolysis technology. The ATSCH process utilizes consolidated bio processing (CBP) technology to simplify the enzyme pre-treatment and yeast fermentation processes at existing ethanol plants into one step that eliminates the up-front cooking process and reduces water usage.
More recently, Rivertop Renewables and Blue Marble Biomaterials have emerged and exemplify the trends in renewable chemicals.
In May, Blue Marble Biomaterials’ natural flavor and fragrance facility in Missoula achieved kosher certification and food grade quality control for its natural ester, thioester, and extract products. Blue Marble Energy manufactures renewable specialty chemicals for the food, fragrance, cosmetics, and personal care industries – and in the past year announced a partnership with Anheuser-Busch, after developing the capability to use spent beer waste – not to mention used coffee grounds, which the company has also utilized in its process.
Meanwhile, Rivertop Renewables announced in March that it has scaled its patented process technology from the lab to pilot manufacturing.
Rivertop has contracted with DTI, a custom manufacturer of fine and specialty chemical products based in Danville, Virginia, to pilot the manufacture of Rivertop’s sustainable, high performing, cost-competitive, glucarate-based products. Commencing in February 2012, Rivertop’s pilot manufacturing has produced numerous batches of glucarate-based products at approximately 850 pounds per run.
Meanwhile, Rivertop was awarded a contract from the Montana Department of Transportation to supply 110,000 gallons of bio-based corrosion inhibitor for use with liquid deicers on the state’s snowy and icy roads this winter. Rivertop’s “Headwaters” inhibitor will be mixed with MDT’s salt brine deicers to prevent the corrosion of bridges and vehicles. Derived from renewable corn sugar, Headwaters is a completely biodegradable, cost-effective inhibitor. Rivertop’s Headwaters is derived from sodium gluconate.
On the feedstock side, the project that has attracted the most attention has been the efforts surrounding the development of camelina as a new oilseed crop.
Last summer, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today the creation of a Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) project area in California, Montana, Washington and Oregon, to grow camelina on 51,000 acres. The project sponsors are Beaver Biodiesel and AltAir Fuels.
One of the hallmarks for both Montana and North Dakota have been strong R&D capabilities. In the past year, Montana State researchers have been making some remarkable discoveries in fungus – in one case, tapping extremophiles in Yellowstone. In that case, what was discovered was a fungus, fond of eating algae, that oozed an oil of high percentage lipids contained a ratio of oleic and steric acids that’s nearly ideal for biofuels. Already Cargill and BP are showing interest.
Last year, a Montana State research team, publishing in Micobial Ecology, reported that a fungus of Persea indica is producing cineole, benzene, naphthalene and 1-methyl-1,4 cyclohexane. Cineole – also known as eucapyptol – can be used in an 8:1 blend with gasoline, while all four molecules can be used as diesel fuel additives. The researchers said that the ability to produce this rare compound from a fungal source “greatly expands their potential applications in medicine, industry, and energy production.”
The activity – especially in tapping extremophiles, reminds us how much there is to be learned from the microbes yet to be discovered in Yellowstone. About a generation ago, researchers discovered one of the foundational molecules of modern synthetic biology there, the Taq polymerase enzyme, critical to DNA replication, and a molecule which is estimated to have earned Hoffman-LaRoche some $2 billion in royalties over the years.
Why extremophiles? For one, they can tolerate high temperatures that kill off competing organisms, and also can release biofuels producers from a requirement to cool down biomass for certain transformation steps – reducing energy consumption and speeding up reactivity.
For example, who knows what can be done with Aquifex bacteria, that were discovered in 205 degrees Fahrenheit (96 degrees Celsius) hot springs at Yellowstone? or the Chloracidobacterium thermophilum bacteria that not only tolerates oxygen, but produces chlorophyll.
The Bottom Line
North Dakota and Montana – they are the Land of the Overlooked. There’s been so much going on with other feedstocks, in the traditional corn belt, and in the technology havens of Silicon Valley and Boston – there often isn’t much mental bandwidth left to take the Northern Tier into consideration.
But the states are, in fact, though smaller in population, developing strong capabilities in novel feedstocks, organisms, processing technologies, and have attracted some signature partners like Budweiser.
Small wonder there’s so much hiring going on along Interstate 94.
Category: Top Stories