Soak up the Sun: The USDA invests $25M in new fuel-focused, crop-based technologies

January 14, 2013 |

It’s showtime for drop-in fuels, oils in a wave of USDA co-investments — and a shift in philosophy to from “Make New” to “Make Do”.

On Friday, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $25 million in R&D grants via the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and its Biomass Research and Development Initiative, established in the 2008 Farm Bill.

The backdrop he chose for the announcements? The commissioning of Renmatix’s BioFlex Conversion Unit, a multiple-feedstock processing facility in King of Prusssia that will convert hardwood, perennial grasses, agricultural residues, softwoods and waste streams into cellulosic sugars for Renmatix’s downstream fuel and chemical strategic partners.

Renmatix CEO Mike Hamilton referred to a new wave of “farmistry” — reflecting a complimentary interest in agriculture and chemistry — driving the creation of added value for many types of locally grown biomass.

Let’s look at that how that wave is shaping up.

The grants

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First, the four awardees.

Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., $5.08 million. The goal of this project is to make the oilseed crop camelina a cost-effective biofuel and bioproduct feedstock.  Camelina production will be incorporated into a cropping system with wheat-based crop rotations in Montana and Wyoming. Once harvested and processed, camelina oil and meal will be chemically converted to a variety of adhesives, coatings and composites. A life cycle analysis from agronomic production to end products will assess the feasibility of a nonfood oilseed as a sustainable resource with minimal negative impact on food crop systems or the environment and will provide needed information for decision-making on camelina production as a replacement for fallow in wheat-based systems.

Ohio State University, Wooster, Ohio, $6.51 million. This project will result in an anaerobic digestion system for the production of liquid transportation fuels and electricity from animal manure, agricultural residues, woody biomass and energy crops.  The novel anaerobic digestion system will be integrated with partial oxidation and Fisher-Tropsch technologies to produce gasoline. A life cycle analysis will incorporate thermodynamic principles to assess the resource use, energy/fuel production and the environmental impact of the conversion technologies.

Ceramatec, Inc., Salt Lake City, Utah, $6.60 million. This project will convert lignocellulosic biomass to infrastructure-compatible renewable diesel, biolubricants, animal feed and biopower. New hybrids of energy sorghum will be developed, and other biomass resources include switchgrass and forestry residues. The biomass will be converted to hydrocarbons (molecules that are just like petroleum based hydrocarbons but derived from biomass) using innovative pretreatment, fermentation and electrochemical technologies. These hydrocarbons will be finished into premium synthetic bio-lubricants and biofuels via commercial petroleum refinery processes. A life cycle analysis will include energy efficiency impacts and assessment of impacts on rural development.

USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Eastern Regional Research Center, Wyndmoor, Pa., $6.87 million. ARS scientists will develop an on-the-farm distributed technology for converting forest residues, horse manure, switchgrass and other perennial grasses into biofuels and high-value specialty chemicals. The process will be implemented at on-the-farm scale using a patent-pending unit that will mimic the petroleum industry’s catalytic cracking process. The project integrates a life cycle assessment from collection and handling of the biomass to end products and will use thermodynamic principles to assess its sustainability.

Analysis

For all the considerable interest in, and excitement about, the new wave of technologies surrounding cellulosic sugars — the kind that Renmatix has made great strides in producing — this wave of grants is all about oils. More specifically, pathways to affordable drop-in petroleum substitutes.

But – there’s more to it than just a round of grants to accelerate drop-in fuels. The USDA, in this round, is attempting to push production systems down towards the farm, down in scale — and embracing a new frugality.

Was it Sheryl Crow who first coined the phrase “It’s not having what you want
It’s wanting what you’ve got,” but she sure popularized it in her hit single “Soak Up the Sun.” It’s a concept at the heart, ultimately, or the concept of cooking or buying local, or the premise of the well-known cooking show The Frugal Gourmet, from days gone by: Make do; use resources at hand.

A philosophy that sees the act of importing, say, energy — not as a rational economic choice given the alternatives, but as a failure of imagination and know-how.

Something that the USDA has long advocated when it comes to feedstocks (“use domestically-grown crops to replace imported foreign oil”) – but is now increasingly embracing all the way downstream. Existing engines? Let’s use ‘em. Existing refineries? Those too. Known molecules? Like ‘em.

Addressing limitations and risk

Take for example the largest grant in this round — $6.87 million to the Agricultural Research Service group in Wyndmoor, PA – specifically to the Pyrolysis unit there led by Akwasi Boateng. At first glance it is simply an effort that fits well in the range of “Pyromanaiax” projects funded elsewhere in the R&D phase or heading now towards commercialization.

(BACKGROUND: In flash pyrolysis, the biomass is rapidly heated and cooled — generally, these days, cooled as it passes over a catalyst — becoming bio-oil, natural gas and char in the process. The bio-oil fraction, which can be used immediately as boiler fuel, can be subsequently upgraded into a crude petroleum substitute which can then produce transportation fuels.)

But the ARS project is definitely aimed at on-farm scale – a distributed technology.

In its own way, the Renmatix project — which is all about converting cellulosic feedstocks into renewable sugars — is chasing the same goal: the production of an intermediate, liquid feedstock that can be affordable transported over large distances — that can vastly extend the radius from which biomass can be collected for a given refinery.

You see — while there has been a revolution in processing biomass into energy — less innovation, to date, in the science of moving biomass around.

No matter how transformative the project, biomass had to be collected over a 25 mile or so radius — and that meant limitations in scale, the specter of weather risk, and generally a narrow range of feedstocks. All of which made it tougher — way, way tougher — to finance commercial production.

For sure, crops themselves are more powerful. Over time, they yield more per acre, withstand weather better and can grow in a more diverse set of geographies.

But you can accomplish much of the same by creating farm-scale technologies that produce biomass intermediates – dense liquids that can be cheaply transported to second-stage refineries. That’s where the ARS project comes in.

Or, alternatively, you can develop technologies that use existing intermediates — for example, anaerobic digester gas — as a feedstock for a secondary process. That, in a nutshell, is the Ohio State project that landed $6 million in this round.

Or, as a third alternative, you can develop intercropping or rotation crop strategies to add diversity and increase yield. For some time, we have tracked the promise of camelina as a wheat rotation crop — and we have noted that, in some trials, switching from a wheat-fallow-wheat to wheat-camelina-wheat rotation actually improves wheat production, as well as providing a new biomass oilseed source.

The bottom line

In all, NIFA is working on drop-ins and, especially, supply chain these days. Focusing less on novel molecules, novel distribution, or novel end-markets in this round. It’s the old markets in drop-in transportation fuels, the old distribution systems such as crude oil pipelines, and the old molecules like gasoline and diesel.

It’s Making do – writ large.

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