The Biomass Program and Posibilities for the Future

By: Cem Ozcan

Researchers are working on new technology that will be able to do hydrolysis of cellulosic biomass to sugars and lignins and also the thermochemical conversion of biomass to synthesis gas for fermentation and catalysis of these platform chemicals to produce slates of biopolymers and fuels. To expand the role of biomass in America's future, the DOE Office of the Biomass Program fosters biomass technologies with a balanced portfolio of research and development. the following graphic shows the technology and anticipated process that the Biomass Program is concentrating on.

Biomass Feedstocks

The feedstocks are essentially the plant and plant-based material that are used to produce biomass energy. Currently, this consists mostly of easily processed agricultural crops and low- or negative-cost industrial residues. Future plans focus more on the use of agricultural and forestry residues. These can be used not just for power, but also for production of fuel, chemicals, and materials. Research is being done now to improve the collection, transportation and harvesting of these residues. It is estimated that there is about 512 million dry tons of biomass that is now available for less than $50 per dry ton. One of the major problems, however, is collecting and transporting the biomass. U.S. scientists are focusing on solving these problems with current and planned research. These feedstocks are then converted into either sugars or thermochemicals.

Sugar and Thermochemical Platforms

Most plant material is made up of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. The U.S. Department of Energy's Biomass Program is at the forefront of a national effort to develop technology to break cellulose and hemicellulose down into their component sugars. Anticipated biorefineries will then be able to biologically process these sugars to fuel ethanol or other building block chemicals. Lignin can either be burned to provide process heat and electricity or can itself be converted to fuels and chemicals.

Possibly the oldest way of converting biomass to energy was burning wood. Unfortunately burning wood is not very efficient. If this solid biomass is converted to liquid or gas before combustion, the process becomes much more efficient. This conversion is achieving by heating the biomass (wood in this example) with oxygen. Not only is the efficiency increased, but the biomass can alternately produce chemicals or materials. American researchers are hard at work perfecting this process.

Products

Renewable biobased products (bioproducts) are products created from plant- or crop-based resources such as agricultural crops and crop residues, forestry, pastures. Currently these bioproducts are created using petroleum, due to the hydrocarbons that exist in petroleum. If bioproducts were produced with biomass materials carbohydrates, proteins, and plant oils would be used instead of the hydrocarbons. Regardless of which are used, many products are produced in this manner. Some examples are paint, drugs, plastics, and solvents. With the continuous decrease of petroleum resources, it is becoming imperative to manufacture an increasing amount of these products with the plant and crop based materials. Today they account for about 5% of the bioproducts produced. It is estimated that about 12.4 billion pounds of biobased products are produced with renewable resources per year, out of the hundreds of billions of pounds that are produced each year. This discrepancy and the limited amount of petroleum reserves for the United States show that the potential for renewable bioproducts is basically limitless.

Biorefineries

In addition to reducing dependence on foreign oil, fostering a domestic biorefinery industry modeled after petrochemical refineries is a primary objective of the Biomass Program. Existing industries such as wet-mill corn processing and pulp and paper mills fit the multiple-products-from-biomass definition of a biorefinery, but the goal is to foster new industries converting lignocellulosic biomass into a wide range of products, including ones that would otherwise be made from petrochemicals. As with petrochemical refineries, the vision is that the biorefinery would produce both high-volume liquid transportation fuel (meeting national energy needs) and high-value chemicals or products (enhancing operation economics).

Possibilities for the Future

It has recently been announced that a $50 million biodiesel manufacturing plant will be built in North Dakota. It will be the largest plant of its kind in the United States, and produce about 100,000 tons of biodiesel each year.

Biomass is produced here in the United States rather than being imported from overseas. Since it is produced at home, new jobs will be created, and the agricultural market will be improved. The rural American economy will also receive a much-needed boost. As mentioned, increased biofuel production means reduced dependency on foreign oil. Also the use of toxic fuel additives is totally avoided. An increased role for biomass in America's energy landscape is an intriguing idea, and probably a good one. It can help to conserve what little fossil fuels we have left, while at the same time avoiding all the pollution problems that fossil fuels give us. The fields that biomass crops could use now lie fallow because of the decreased role of farming in today's economy. Biomass can revive the economy in rural areas. Unlike solar and wind power, these crops are not a sore spot in the landscape. Opponents of hydroelectric power claim that it disrupts the river environment, killing fish and marine plants alike. This problem does not exist with biomass. Biomass is quite possibly the best renewable source of energy this country has, and that is reflected by the fact that it has become the leading source of renewable energy in this new millennium.

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