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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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It's a Good Day for Biofuel Enthusiasts

Observers, journalists and investors don’t always know the finer details of the qualities of biomass destined for making fuel.  The question of how much useable starch and sugar there is in batch is quite significant to the cost basis of raw materials.

Seed companies are already coming out with hybrids of plants that are much better at producing the most desired traits.  But the starting problem is testing in time, lab and personnel expense.

Last week researchers at U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced development of an inexpensive way to grade the ethanol potential of perennial grasses at the biorefinery’s biomass unloading dock.  The new method also can be used to find ways to grow grasses for the highest ethanol yields. Not all government expenditures are a waste.

A team of scientists at the USDA’s chief intramural scientific research agency, Agricultural Research Service (ARS), includes Ken Vogel, Rob Mitchell, and Steve Masterson at Lincoln, Neb.; Hans Jung at St. Paul, Minn.; Bruce Dien at Peoria, Ill.; and Michael Casler at Madison, Wis. This research project supports the USDA priority of developing new sources of bioenergy.

Grading Ethanol
ARS geneticist Ken Vogel helps develop a way to grade the ethanol potential of perennial grasses at a cost of only about $5 a sample.

The research team developed the first use of near-infrared sensing (NIRS) to measure 20 components in switchgrass biomass that determine its potential value to biorefinery operators. These components include cell wall sugars, soluble sugars and lignin. With this information, 13 traits can be determined, including the efficiency of the conversion from sugars to ethanol.  The test gets much closer to a value of a load of biomass than supposition and allows immediate valuation and processing. No multi hour, day or week wait is needed to assess a farmers produce.  And much of the risk is eliminated and the farmer gets much closer to a true valuation for payment.

The new test is a catch up.  The capability of NIRS is already at work for corn grain.  The new technology goes much further with a more difficult product.  It’s the first use of NIRS to predict maximum and actual ethanol yields of grasses from a basic conversion process.

The new application of NIRS is in one way future ready.  Predictions of actual ethanol yields have been based on hexoses, or six-carbon sugars, in the plant cell wall and as soluble sugars. Since additional ethanol could be produced from pentose or five-carbon sugars as conversion technology improves, the NIRS method can be used to estimate what the total potential yield of ethanol or other biofuels would be if all sugars in the plant were converted.

That makes the new test of notable importance.

The scientists tested switchgrass varieties and experimental lines adapted to the Midwest using the new NIRS analyses and found significant differences for actual and potential ethanol yield per ton and per acre.  That’s the surprise for observers, journalists and investors.

Now the price – the study shows it is feasible to use NIRS to estimate ethanol yields of switchgrass at about $5 a sample, instead of $300 to $2,000 per sample using conventional analytical methods.

Those prices may surprise, as some loads of biomass aren’t worth the price of the lab fees to assess the value.

In a situation of a maximum road capable load of 30 tons, or 80,000 pounds gross with the truck and trailer, $5 and a few minutes to get a value is practical.  It’s even practical to sample a crop and test before the harvesting.  The information will allow calculating how small a load makes economic sense, how far a load can travel, and many other calculations that are important to economic viability.

It’s just a test, but it means so very much more.  Testing has been a barrier to biomass to fuel production that has now been cut down.

The calibrations developed in this study – and improved future versions – can be used in all aspects of plant research, including basic genetics and harvest and storage research for a variety of perennial grasses beyond switchgrass. The NIRS equations are already being used for developing new cultivars in ARS breeding programs in Nebraska and Wisconsin.

The new test is major cut in biomass to fuel collection expense and makes much more development possible and practical industrial development at scale more predictable.

It’s a good day at the USDA and for biomass to fuel enthusiasts.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Source: How Good Is That Biomass?


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