Wood waste for ethanol may replace “food for fuel”

Feb 22, 2013

The technology for converting wood biomass into ethanol has advanced so successfully that it conceivably could reduce the vast volumes of corn now consumed for ethanol, giving livestock producers buying expensive corn feed a much-needed break.

Ethanol production now absorbs more than 40 percent of the annual U.S. corn harvest, or about five billion bushels a year, driving up the cost of corn. A federal Renewable Fuel Standard requires 10 percent of the nation’s gasoline supply come from ethanol.

Several companies have tested a newly patented process to make ethanol from waste wood. Front Range Energy plans to begin commercial production in 2014, signing a 15-year, $100 million contract with Sweetwater Energy to use a process to convert biomass into sugars distilled into ethanol.

The wood-to-ethanol technology could become a preferable option to the controversial “food for fuel” method of ethanol production. Front Range Energy plans to convert 7 percent of its ethanol production from corn to wood biomass next year, reducing its corn consumption by 1.2 million bushels a year.

Dr. Richard Hess, technical program leader for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) bioenergy programs, said INL is committed to developing biomass technology specializing in non-food sources. “The technology does work,” he told the Western Livestock Journal.

The new technology is in the formative stage, much like in the early days of corn ethanol technology when it marginally worked on a borderline basis, Hess said. Lignocellulosic biomass in the form of wood fuel is an excellent substitute for starch-based crops like corn, he noted.

Hess holds a doctorate in plant sciences from Utah State University. For the past 15 years, he has specialized in feedstock harvesting, handling and delivery issues associated with the cost-effective use of lignocellulosic crop residues for bio refining.

The feedstock system is starting to be logistically practical in quantity and volume, he said. Ranchers for many years have harvested “biomass” from fields so it doesn’t rot and decay, he noted.

The challenge is to move the technology from marginal profitability to viability as a feedstock, Hess said, noting that Dupont and Cargill are actively engaged in introducing such first-of-its-kind technology.

Some companies are opting not to rebuild older, less efficient corn ethanol processing plants, which are being closed, but corn ethanol volumes have not diminished because “new plants are pretty amazing,” Hess said.

While ranchers are worried about corn ethanol’s impact on the livestock industry, foresters are worried about the impact wood biomass will have on the timber industry, he said, stressing that biomass also includes crop residues and “energy crops,” such as willow and poplar hybrids.

Paper requires high quality chips or round white wood, while wood biomass uses lower quality “brown wood,” he said. “It should eliminate the competition for food and fiber.”

In the Midwest, corn often is grown from fence row to fence row, when up to 30 percent of the field should not be in corn, but energy crops such as sorghum, Hess said.

Entrepreneurs can create a viable mainstream bioenergy industry by effectively using a land’s resources without government subsidies, he said.

While nuclear energy anchors INL, the lab also is heavily involved in biomass, wind, renewable, geothermal, hydro and battery research and development. “This national lab right here in Idaho is right in the thick of it,” Hess said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent