Randy Duffy, research associate, University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus, sees potential for corn stover beyond bedding and feed.
Photo by Janet Kanters.
Innovators within the manufacturing industry are getting back to nature and the door is open for farmers to take part. While the production of biofuels remains a popular example of green chemistry, ethanol is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to industrial products that are being designed to include more renewable resources. As governments start to wean ethanol companies off of subsidies, Murray McLaughlin, the executive director of the Bioindustrial Innovation Centre in Sarnia, Ont., says farmers can expect to see some positive changes.
“Biofuels are important, but the challenge with biofuels is slim margins,” explains McLaughlin. “On the chemical side of things, as long as oil stays above $80 per barrel, we can be competitive with any of the companies in that space and don’t need subsidies.”
In the petroleum industry, it’s not uncommon for companies to direct 75 per cent of raw materials into fuel production, but these often account for only 25 per cent of annual revenue.
The rest of their income is generated by higher-end products, such as succinic acid, and it has made these products major targets for green chemists. Succinic acid is a specialty chemical used to make automotive parts, coffee cup lids, disposable cutlery, construction materials, spandex, shoe soles and cosmetics. It is usually made with petroleum, but BioAmber, a company that hopes to finish building North America’s largest bio-based chemical plant in Sarnia next year, has found a way to make succinic acid using agricultural feedstocks.
By using agricultural feedstocks instead of petroleum in its process, BioAmber produces a product that is not only more environmentally friendly but also, critically, costs less than petroleum-based succinic acid. In some applications, it performs even better than its petroleum-based competitors. Babette Pettersen, BioAmber’s chief commercial officer, explains how the new technology is outperforming its traditional competitors.
“Succinic acid offers the highest yield on sugar among all the bio-based chemicals being developed because 25 per cent of the carbon is coming from CO2, which is much cheaper than sugar,” says Pettersen. Assuming $80 per barrel of oil and $6 per bushel of corn, BioAmber’s product pencils out at more than 40 per cent cheaper than succinic acid made from petroleum. “Our process can compete with oil as low as $35 per barrel,” Pettersen adds.
The increased efficiency of the company’s process reduces the need for raw product, for example, from two kilograms of sugar to make one kilogram of ethanol to less than one kilogram of sugar to produce one kilogram of succinic acid.
The new plant is projected to purchase an annual quantity of liquid dextrose from local wet mills, which is equivalent to approximately three million bushels of corn. BioAmber’s yeast, the organism that produces bio-based succinic acid, can utilize sugar from a variety of agricultural feedstocks (including cellulosic sugars that may be produced from agricultural residuals such as corn stover when this alternative becomes commercially available).
Randy Duffy, research associate at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus, co-authored a recent study on the potential for a commercial scale biorefinery in Sarnia, Ont. The idea of producing sugars from agricultural residuals is attractive to companies like BioAmber, which faces public pressure against converting a potential food source into an industrial product, but also to farmers looking to convert excess field trash into cash.
“We’re at the point where some fields probably have too much corn stover and this is an opportunity for farmers if they want to get rid of their stover,” says Duffy. “Some farmers are using it for bedding and feed, but there’s a lot of potential corn stover out there not being used or demanded right now.”
In fact, the report estimated that more than 500,000 dry tonnes of corn stover are available in the four-county region of Lambton, Huron, Middlesex and Chatham-Kent, and the refinery could convert half of it into cellulosic sugar annually, at a relative base price for corn stover paid to the producer of $37 to $184 per dry tonne, depending on sugar prices and sugar yields. McLaughlin says that with more and more companies look into building facilities like biorefineries, the potential benefits for farmers multiply exponentially. At the Bioindustrial Innovation Centre alone, McLaughlin says, there are three green chemistry companies already working in pilot demonstration scale operations to produce ethanol from wood waste, butanol from fermented wheat straw or corn stover, and plastic pellets with hemp, flax, wheat straw or wood fibres in them. On a full-scale basis, any one of these has significant potential to help farmers penetrate entirely new markets.
Although these green products are exciting, McLaughlin strongly believes green chemistry is not going to completely replace oil and he tries to impress this on others. “There are such large volumes of these chemicals produced from oil, I don’t think we ever will get to the point where we can displace these chemicals,” he says, “but we can complement them.” He says Woodbridge’s BioFoam, a soy-based foam used in automobile interiors as seat cushions, head rests and sunshades, is an excellent example of a hybrid product that uses green technology and petroleum technology. In order for the green chemistry industry in Ontario to realize its maximum potential, he believes everyone involved needs to consider the oil industry as a potential ally rather than the enemy. “The petroleum industry already knows the chemical markets and they’ve got the distribution,” he says, “so, who better to partner with?”
What, exactly, makes some chemistry ‘greener’?
Green chemistry is a relatively new concept, but rather than simply claim to be more environmentally friendly, the philosophy is defined by structured principles. Put simply, these technologies, processes, and services are required to prove safer, more energy efficient and environmentally sustainable. In 1998, Anastas and Warner defined the 12 principles of green chemistry.
Prevention – Avoid creating waste rather than treating or cleaning it up after the fact.
Atom economy – Synthetic methods must maximize the incorporation of all materials.
Less hazardous chemical syntheses – Design synthetic methods that are least toxic to human health and the environment.
Designing safer chemicals – Chemical products should be designed to be effective but with minimal toxicity.
Safer solvents and auxiliaries – Avoid the unnecessary use of auxiliary substances and render harmless when used.
Design for energy efficiency – Energy requirements of processes should be minimized for their environmental and economical impact.
Use of renewable feedstocks – Raw materials should be renewable whenever technically and economically practical.
Reduce derivatives – Use of blocking groups, protection/deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes, etc., requiring additional reagents should be minimized or avoided if possible.
Catalysis – Catalytic reagents are superior to stoichiometric reagents.
Design for degradation – Environmental persistence of chemical products should be minimal.
Real-time analysis for pollution prevention – Real-time monitoring and control of hazardous substances must be developed.
Inherently safer chemistry for accident prevention – Substances used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize the potential for accidents.
“In the short term, we’re working with others to generate a market for low-quality canola. So if a grower has a bin that overheats or a canola field that gets caught under a snow bank, we can at least redeem some value for that material for them by having an industry that is receptive to frost-damaged, heated and field-damaged materials,” explains Dr. Martin Reaney, research chair of Lipid Quality and Utilization at the University of Saskatchewan.
“In the longer run, we are identifying added value in the crop. In my experience, when somebody discovers an added value opportunity, it doesn’t typically result in a much higher price. But it does tend to stabilize the price. We’re introducing technology that may lead to a more stable price by adding another market to the meal and oil markets for the canola crop.”
Reaney has been investigating opportunities for using damaged canola seed for many years, including research when he was at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and now at the University of Saskatchewan. He and his research team have tackled the topic from a number of angles.
“When we first went into making canola into biofuels, [Canada] didn’t have the subsidies that were available in the United States and Europe. So we needed to take advantage of low-cost materials. For that purpose, we looked at seed that had been damaged either in the field or in storage,” he says.
“First we studied how to get the oil out of the seed. A lot of damaged seed has lost its structure, and it is not efficiently pressed to recover oil. So we developed more efficient pressing and extraction technology.”
Another early issue was that sources of damaged canola seed tend to be scattered all over the place, with amounts varying from year to year and place to place. Reaney says, “So we came up with the hub-and-spoke approach, to collect and bring the seed to some common locations for processing.”
The researchers also improved the process of converting the oil into biodiesel. “Damaged seed produces quite low-quality oil with lots of different problems. So we had to figure out a very robust way of making biodiesel so that, no matter what, the biofuel would have good quality,” notes Reaney.
Although canola biodiesel has advantages over biodiesel made from products like tallow and soybean oil, its properties are still somewhat different from petroleum-based diesel. So Reaney’s research group has developed processing technologies to improve such canola biodiesel properties as oxidative stability and low-temperature performance. He notes, “Low-temperature performance hasn’t turned out to be a big problem with canola mainly because when you blend it with other diesel fuel, like with a Canadian winter diesel fuel, it takes on the performance of that fuel.”
One of the overarching themes of Reaney’s research is to develop techniques that are practical on the Prairies. “A lot of researchers will grab the latest technology, a ‘super-’ this or ‘ultra-’ that, and the equipment is very expensive. In my experience, western Canadian biofuel producers usually can’t use that kind of technology,” he explains. “So we look for the best biofuel properties – we can’t ever compromise on the properties of the material – that can be produced with rather conventional, simple, low-cost equipment.”
Along with using damaged seed to reduce input costs, the researchers have been exploring other ways to improve the economics of biodiesel production. “[For example,] the catalyst for making biodiesel is actually quite expensive. We came up with a technology to lower the cost of that catalyst to about one-third of its original cost,” he says.
They are also developing a novel approach that turns a biodiesel processing waste into a valuable byproduct. “We developed a special lithium-based catalyst for biodiesel production, and we’ve developed a method of converting the leftover catalyst into lithium grease [a heavy-duty, long-lasting grease],” says Reaney. “Lithium grease is broadly used all over the world – in heavy equipment, trains, planes, automobiles.” They are now scaling up the process for use at a commercial scale.
Another current project involves making biofuels that are “drop-in” fuels. “Right now, biodiesel still has to be handled somewhat differently than [petroleum-based] diesel,” he explains. “But there are approaches to make it into a drop-in fuel. A drop-in fuel means it would have exactly the properties of diesel. You would be able to use it as is and it would require no special handling.”
As well, the researchers are exploring motor oil technology that uses vegetable oils. “We have been working on trying to get the stability of these oils high enough for use in motor oil applications. We think we have some really good technology for this goal as well.”
Reaney’s research on industrial uses for lower-grade canola has been supported by many agencies over the years such as Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. His research also has received support from such agencies as GreenCentre Canada and from such companies as Milligan Biofuels Inc. (formerly Milligan Biotech).
Opportunities and challenges
The Canadian biodiesel industry has encountered a number of hurdles and has not grown as quickly as some people had hoped it would. For instance, the industry is still working towards meeting the increased demand arising from the Canadian government’s requirement for a minimum of two per cent renewable fuel content in diesel fuel. This requirement came into effect in 2011.
According to Reaney, one of several issues hampering the Canadian biofuel industry has been the contentious food-versus-fuel debate, about the issue of using farmland to produce biofuel feedstocks. Reaney’s group was ahead of the curve on this issue by focusing on the use of non-food grade canola to make biodiesel. But beyond that, his opinion is that food production and fuel production are not mutually exclusive.
“It isn’t food versus fuel; it is food and fuel,” he says. “All these biofuel industries actually produce more food than would have been produced had they not entered the biofuel industry, because they are always producing a side stream that is edible. So I think that issue has been addressed by the biofuels industry, but I don’t know whether the public has caught up.”
Milligan Biofuels, based at Foam Lake, Sask., is one of the companies managing to weather the ups and downs of the Canadian biodiesel industry. Along with making its own improvements to biodiesel production processes, the company has adopted some of the advances made by Reaney’s research group.
“Their research proved the ability to produce consistent biodiesel from damaged seed, and that’s our business model,” says Len Anderson, director of sales and marketing for Milligan Biofuels. The company manufactures and sells biodiesel and biodiesel byproducts, and provides canola meal and feed oil to the animal feed sector. All of its products are made from non-food grade canola, including green, wet, heated or spring-threshed canola.
“Milligan Biofuels is built in and by the ag community for the ag community,” notes Anderson. “That’s why it is where it’s at and why it’s doing what it’s doing.”
He outlines how this type of market for damaged canola helps growers. “It’s giving them an opportunity for a local, reliable, year-round market. It creates a significant value for damaged canola because we aren’t just using it for cattle feed; we’re using the oil to produce biodiesel. So we’re probably on the higher end as far as value created for damaged seed. It creates value for what was once almost a waste product, is what it boils down to.”
The facility will be Canada's largest biodiesel plant, producing 170 million litres of biodiesel annually, according to a press release from Grain Farmers of Ontario. The feedstock for this facility will be sourced primarily from processors who currently crush soybeans grown in the province of Ontario.
Grain Farmers of Ontario and Soy 20/20 have worked together to complete research to encourage the Ontario government that a made-in-Ontario biodiesel mandate is good for the provincial economy and good for the environment. Nationally, Canada has a two per cent biodiesel mandate, and with the expansion of production in Ontario, Grain Farmers of Ontario hopes to see the implementation of a two per cent provincial biodiesel mandate.
The Eastern Canada Oilseeds Development Alliance (ECODA) will receive an investment of up to $3.3 million from the AgriInnovation Program's industry-led research and development stream under Growing Forward 2 to conduct research focused on increasing the successful and profitable production of high-quality canola and food-grade soybeans on eastern Canadian farms, Ritz announced. This project builds on a previous investment of $3.1 million under the first Growing Forward's Developing Innovative Agri-Products and $747,000 under the Agricultural Innovation Program.
ECODA is a not-for-profit organization based in Charlottetown, P.E.I., that works with producers, processors, exporters, researchers and governments to increase the economic value and export potential of the canola and soybean industries in Eastern Canada. One of the alliance's objectives is to make Eastern Canada a bigger player in the European and Japanese markets for food-grade soybeans and in producing high-quality canola to supply Canadian and international markets.
"The ECODA model is focused on gaining international market share by linking growers, processors and exporters to the scientific research they need to win on competitiveness, productivity and uniqueness in those markets," said Rory Francis, president of ECODA, in a press release.
Feb. 25, 2013, Ottawa, ON - The federal government is formally shutting down its controversial biofuels subsidy program, saying companies producing biodiesel have failed to meet ambitious production targets.
Sept. 21, 2012 - Tried-and-true techniques could help optimize oilseed yield for biodiesel production, according to studies conducted by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists.
For more than 30 years, near infrared (NIR) reflectance spectroscopy has been used as a rapid and nondestructive method for measuring protein, moisture, and oil levels in whole grains. Now Agricultural Research Service (ARS) research leader Dan Long is studying how to use remote sensing tools to quickly assess seed oil quality and quantity before and after harvest.
ARS is USDA's chief intramural scientific research agency, and this research supports the USDA priority of developing new sources of bioenergy.
Long, who works at the ARS Columbia Plateau Conservation Research Center in Pendleton, Ore., used a special NIR sensor to assess seed oil content in 226 canola samples from Montana, Washington and Oregon. Seed oil concentration is used to estimate extraction efficiency, which is the percentage of oil recovered in relation to the amount of oil in seed.
Using this technique, Long was able to determine that oil concentrations in the samples ranged from 32 percent to 46 percent, and that the NIR sensor estimated seed oil content with an average error of 0.73 percent. A bout of abnormal weather affected results from one group of seeds in this study. If this group had been excluded from the analysis, the overall error rate would have been less than 0.5 percent.
Long believes that NIR sensors could be installed in seed crushing facilities to rapidly and continuously measure the oil content of clean seeds flowing into the expeller, where they are crushed to obtain the oil. Using NIR to monitor extraction efficiency might enable workers to adjust the choke setting on the expeller to compensate for oil loss in meal.
This would boost profits associated with seed processing, and lower the costs of the oil feedstock that is converted into fuel. NIR measurements might also help reduce the number of acres needed for oilseed feedstock production by maximizing seed oil extraction rates in the seed crushing facilities.
Findings from these studies were published earlier this year in the Journal of Near Infrared Spectroscopy.
Read more about this and other bioenergy research in the September 2012 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.
June 8, 2012 - Scientists from over 12 countries in South and North America will come together to discuss progress toward sustainable fuels from a federal and industry perspective. The 3rd Pan American Congress on Plants and Bioenergy encompasses genomics, genetics and plant breeding, advances in plant biology and biochemistry for improved bioenergy and biofuels production and quality, and mitigating the environmental impacts of bioenergy production. Many of the major public and private initiatives in biofuels are represented. The conference will be held July 15-18 at the I-Hotel and Conference Center of the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill., U.S.
Stephen Long, professor and director of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) at Illinois said, "This will be a great opportunity to discuss the explosion of research and development on plant and algal bioenergy production that has occurred over the past five years and its implications from business opportunity to environment. Further, it will be an opportunity to understand how this is being implemented by the world's two largest biofuel producers, Brazil and the United States, and indeed to see the cutting edge of that production on a site visit."
Keynote speakers will be Dr. Sharlene Weatherwax, Associate Director of Science for Biological and Environmental Research (BER) within the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and Dr. John Pierce, Chief Bioscientist for BP. The speakers will address how research has broken the barriers and taken on challenges to rapid expansion of cellulosic ethanol production from a federal and industry perspective, respectively.
Over 250 participants representing academia, industry, and government from North, Central, and South America are expected to attend the congress, which is being held in association with the American Society of Plant Biologists. Attendees will also have the opportunity to visit the adjacent 150-hectare EBI Energy Farm and the nearby ADM bioethanol plant, one of the largest in the United States.
The meeting will offer plenary sessions, with presentations and short talks chosen from submitted abstracts, and poster sessions. Some of the invited speakers include Dr. Marcos Buckeridge and Dr. Antonio Bonomi from the Brazilian Bioethanol Science and Technology Laboratory, Professor David Zilberman from the University of California at Berkeley, Professor Jeremy Woods from imperial College in London, and Dr. Richard Sayre from Los Alamos National Lab.
The $275 standard registration covers the costs of attendance and meals for the conference. Participants can tour the ADM ethanol production facility for an additional $25. There is a discount for early registration. To view the speakers, register for the meeting, or to submit an abstract, please visit http://conferences.igb.illinois.edu/panamerican
ASPB is a professional scientific society, headquartered in Rockville, Maryland, devoted to the advancement of the plant sciences worldwide. With a membership of nearly 5,000 plant scientists from throughout the United States and more than 50 other nations, the Society publishes two of the most widely cited plant science journals: The Plant Cell and Plant Physiology. For more information about ASPB, please visit http://www.aspb.org/. Also follow ASPB on Facebook at facebook.com/myASPB and on Twitter @ASPB.
May 3, 2012, Thousand Oaks, CA - Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. announced its improved sweet sorghum hybrids were successfully processed into renewable diesel by Amyris, Inc. under a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant. Amyris is expected to present a summary of the results this afternoon at the 34th Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The pilot-scale project evaluated both sugars and biomass from Ceres’ sweet sorghum hybrids grown in Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana and Tennessee. To process the sugars that accumulate in the plants, known as free or soluble sugars, the sorghum juice was first extracted from the stems and concentrated into sugar syrup by Ceres. The syrup was then processed by Amyris at its California pilot facility using its proprietary yeast fermentation system that converts plant sugars into its trademarked product, Biofene, a renewable hydrocarbon commonly known as farnesene, which can be readily processed into renewable fuels and chemicals.
The inedible plant fibers of the sweet sorghum, known as cellulosic biomass or bagasse, provided an additional source of what are called cellulosic sugars. The DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), at its Colorado pilot-scale biochemical conversion facility, converted the biomass from Ceres’ hybrids into cellulosic sugars, which Amyris subsequently fermented into renewable farnesene. The joint evaluation project was funded in part by a U.S. Department of Energy Integrated Biorefinery grant awarded to Amyris. The grant included a sub-contract award to Ceres.
“We believe that sweet sorghum could be an important and complementary source of fermentable sugars as the U.S. expands the production of renewable biofuels and biochemicals through the use of non-food crops outside of prime cropland,” said Spencer Swayze, Ceres director of business development. He noted that the free sugars in sweet sorghum are readily accessible, and with new technology as demonstrated by NREL, larger quantities of low-cost sugars could be made available. “As an energy crop, sweet sorghum is an impressive producer of low-cost, fermentable sugars. A second stream of sugars from the biomass would be highly compelling,” Swayze said.
“The results from these evaluations confirmed that the Amyris No Compromise renewable diesel production process performs well across different sugar sources. Ceres’ sweet sorghum hybrids produced sugars that yielded comparable levels of farnesene as sugarcane and other sugar sources Amyris has utilized,” said Todd Pray, Amyris director of product management. “Sweet sorghum can provide timely feedstock flexibility with environmental benefits. We look forward to utilizing Ceres’ sweet sorghum in our commercial-scale production facilities,” Pray concluded.
As a dedicated energy crop, sweet sorghum has a number of advantages. It is fast-growing and can efficiently produce both large amounts of fermentable sugars and biomass. The plants require substantially less fertilizer than sugarcane, and can be grown in drier areas since they utilize water more efficiently.
Ceres first commercialized its improved hybrids in Brazil this season. This spring, Ceres also introduced its first two hybrids to supply larger-scale evaluations in the United States. Ceres anticipates Florida and the Gulf Coast as well as California’s Imperial Valley, Arizona and Hawaii could be markets for sweet sorghum production.
Ceres, Inc. is an agricultural biotechnology company that markets seeds for energy crops used in the production of renewable transportation fuels, electricity and bio-based products. Ceres combines advanced plant breeding and biotechnology to develop products that can address the limitations of first-generation bioenergy feedstocks, increase biomass productivity, reduce crop inputs and improve cultivation on marginal land. Its development activities include sweet sorghum, high-biomass sorghum, switchgrass and miscanthus. Ceres markets its products under its Blade brand.
New canola biodiesel plant to open in Alberta
US processor Archer Daniels Midland has announced that it will build the largest biodiesel plant in Canada, to help the company meet its mandate for increasing renewable content in fuels.
Mar. 3, 2010 -New regulations handed down by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) call for an expanded Renewable Fuels Standard, requiring 1.15 billion gallons of biodiesel to be used in the US by the end of this year. READ MORE
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