July 11, 2016 - According to a new study from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and Michigan State University, the use of nitrogen fertilizer on switchgrass crops can produce a sharp increase in emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas up to 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide and a significant driver of global climate change.

Switchgrass is one of several crops poised to become a feedstock for the production of “cellulosic biofuels,” fuels derived from grasses, wood or the nonfood portion of plants. Though touted for being a clean energy alternative to both fossil fuels and corn ethanol, cellulosic biofuel comes with its share of complexities. Many of its environmental benefit depends, for starters, on how its crops are grown.

“We’ve established that the climate benefit of cellulosic biofuels is much greater and much more robust than people originally thought,” said Phil Robertson, University Distinguished Professor of Ecosystem Science at MSU and coauthor. “But what we’re also seeing is that much of that climate benefit is dependent. It’s dependent on factors such as land use history and – as we’re seeing with these results – it’s dependent on nitrogen fertilizer use.”

Led by former MSU graduate student Leilei Ruan and published this week in Environmental Research Letters, the study reports nitrous oxide emissions from switchgrass grown at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station when fertilized at eight different levels.

“What we discovered is that there’s not a one-to-one relation between adding fertilizer and producing nitrous oxide,” Ruan said. “It’s not a linear relationship. After a certain amount of fertilizer is added, there is, proportionately, much more nitrous oxide produced than what you might expect.”

The cause of that nonlinear relationship can be traced to the soil microbes responsible for converting nitrogen fertilizer to nitrates and then to nitrous oxide. Unlike humans, when some soil microbes are short on oxygen they have the option of using nitrate in place of oxygen. As the microbes respire these nitrates they produce nitrous oxide. Ruan says that fertilizing beyond what the plant can use and needs is likely providing an opportunity for these soil microbes to take up excess nitrate and produce nitrous oxide.

The disproportionately adverse results of over fertilizing have the potential to effectively change the math on biofuel crops’ net climate benefit. An over fertilized switchgrass crop can reduce its climate benefits as much as 50 percent once the fertilizer’s production, use, and nitrous oxide emissions are subtracted from the crop’s carbon benefit.

The study also measured the relationship between fertilizer and nitrate leaching, and found – also for the first time – that nitrate leaching is also disproportionately greater at high fertilization rates. Soil nitrate not converted to nitrous oxide is also available for loss to groundwater and then eventually to streams, lakes, rivers and wetlands, where it’s once again eligible to be converted into nitrous oxide.

“If we’re ever going to realize the environmental potential of biofuels, we will need to have smart strategies for fertilizing cellulosic crops,” Ruan said.

Potential strategies include developing nitrogen use calculators to help farmers determine how much fertilizer to use, or paying farmers for the perceived risk of yield loss as a result of lower fertilization.

Robertson says future research in this area could focus on identifying which soil microbes are responsible for the nitrous oxide increase in order to develop management strategies that suppress them, or – sidestepping the microbes entirely – simply designing a plant capable of more efficient nitrogen use.

MSU’s Stephen Hamilton and Ajay Bhardwaj also contributed to the paper.

GLBRC is one of three Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers created to make transformational breakthroughs and build the foundation of new cellulosic biofuels technology.

July 6, 2016 - Weekly ethanol production in the United States hit a new high in June, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Average production for the week ending on June 10 was 1.013 million barrels per day. According to a report from the EIA, this marks the fifth time output surpassed the one million barrel mark. All of these instances have occurred since November 2015.

For more on this story, click here.

April 6, 2016 - Cellulosic Sugar Producers Cooperative, an Ontario-based farmer's cooperative, confirms that it has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Comet Biorefining to collaborate on the development of a sustainable agricultural biomass supply chain in southwestern Ontario.

Comet Biorefining recently announced Sarnia, Ontario as the location of its commercial-scale biomass-derived sugar facility. The plant will require over 60,000 tonnes of corn stover or wheat straw per year producing dextrose sugar. The production of these sugars and co-products would support the production of bioproducts such as biochemicals and biofuels.

The Cooperative Board of Directors has approved the jointly developed business plan for the agricultural biomass to sugar value chain in southwestern Ontario and is now engaged in completing its regulatory requirements to complete an equity raise anticipated to occur in the third quarter of 2016. The business plan includes a full assessment of the specific costs for the aggregation, transportation and storage of agricultural biomass (particularly corn stover from the farm to the gate of the cellulosic conversion plant) and the potential financial returns for participation as an equity partner in the cellulosic sugar production facility. The project was conducted by Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC).

"Producers need to take an active role in developing new markets based on new technologies coming to market," said Dave Park, president, Cellulosic Sugar Producer's Cooperative and director, Grain Farmers of Ontario. "BIC approached a group of farmers in the area and we formed the cooperative approximately two years ago to enable this opportunity to develop."

Dave Park further adds, "Farmers can expect this project to be the first step towards the future commercialization of a large scale cellulosic sugar business. Farmers in the region can add value to their crops without increasing their land base. Corn stover is a very sensible feedstock because it is like super-imposing a crop on top of an existing crop, while not taking away any land from food production. The development of this technology will also help farmers reduce GHG emissions and climate change impacts through reduced tillage and achieve the 3 pillars of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic."

A commercial project would take advantage of the existing highly skilled trade workforce and infrastructure in the Sarnia area for construction of the plant. This initiative will further strengthen the reputation of Sarnia-Lambton as a hybrid chemistry cluster, creating jobs and attracting additional bio-based projects.

"Cellulosic Sugar Producers Cooperative shares our vision of developing a world class value chain to produce high quality dextrose from underutilized agricultural residuals, cost competitively," states Andrew Richard, Comet founder. "We are extremely pleased to work with the cooperative to help enable an expansion of the bio-economy in Ontario."

"We are very excited at the prospects of establishing the first commercial scale agricultural biomass to cellulosic sugar value chain in Canada," says Dr. Murray McLaughlin, BIC Executive Director. Dr. McLaughlin adds, "Risk is inherent with all first-of-kind technologies and we encourage the governments in Canada to support these groundbreaking bio-based clean technology companies to ensure that Ontario and Canada are leading the world towards a lower carbon, sustainable economy."

Bioindustrial Innovation Canada ( is a Canadian not-for-profit organization catalyzing the commercialization of Cleantech with focus on bio-based and sustainable chemistry-based technologies including advanced biofuels, biochemicals, biomaterials and bio-ingredients. Based in Sarnia, Ontario, the BIC mission is to create jobs and economic value sustainably in Canada.

March 8, 2016 - Two Alberta Innovates corporations have teamed up to provide funding for R&D projects that advance the knowledge and use of cellulose nanocrystals (CNC), an advanced biomaterial.

The new program, called CNC Challenge 2.0, is intended to support early-stage work to demonstrate technical feasibility of CNC in high-value applications with potential for commercialization.

Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions (AI Bio) and Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (AITF) will support up to eight projects, and provide each successful applicant with the following:

  • Up to $25,000 in funding for their CNC project research.
  • Up to one kilogram of CNC from AITF's pilot plant.
  • Access to AITF's researchers, capacity and facilities.

Researchers and developers at Canadian institutions, companies or other organizations are invited to submit proposals via the AI Bio website Successful projects have the potential for ongoing support toward commercialization.

CNC consists of nano-scale crystals made from cellulose (plant fibre), the most abundant organic polymer on earth. It is biodegradable, non-toxic, extremely strong and has other unique properties that offer exciting opportunities for a wide range of commercial applications.

Alberta has one of the few pilot plants in the world capable of producing high-quality CNC in kilogram volumes. The plant is located on AITF's premises in Edmonton. Current leading-edge research in the province includes the development of CNC applications in the fields of energy, health, industrial coatings, electronics and the environment.

"This is an excellent opportunity for small- and medium-sized enterprises to gain funding and material for their nanotech-related research," says Gordon Giles, director of forestry at AITF. "I'm particularly excited at the prospect of providing researchers and developers with high-quality cellulose nanocrystals made at our Edmonton pilot plant."

"The first CNC Challenge funding program (1.0) yielded several interesting projects," notes Christine Murray, director of agricultural technologies at AI Bio. "We look forward to seeing other creative uses for CNC come forward which take advantage of its unique properties and great potential."    

Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions is a research agency funded by the Government of Alberta, which invests in science and innovation to grow prosperity in Alberta's agriculture, food and forest sectors.

Part of Alberta's research and innovation system, Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (AITF) is helping build healthy, sustainable businesses in the province. Through a suite of programs and services for entrepreneurs, companies, researchers, post-secondary institutions and investors, AITF provides technical services and funding support to facilitate the commercialization of technologies, develop new knowledge-based industry clusters and encourage an entrepreneurial culture in Alberta.

January 13, 2016 - In Germany, the national ethanol producers association says a report from the agriculture and food ministry, BLE, shows ethanol produced in country reduced GHG emissions by an average of 62 per cent in 2015 compared to the 50 per cent mandated by the Renewable Energy Directive in 2017.

As a result, the industry is calling for higher blending beyond the current 3.5 per cent mandate. Current law foresees an increase to 4 per cent in 2017 but the industry wants to see the increase implemented beforehand.


May 20, 2015 - The Finnish research institute VTT has demonstrated that lignocellulosic biomass can be successfully converted into industrial biochemicals, in this case, pure BTX chemicals (benzene, toluene and xylene). The aim of this research, reports VTT, is to enable the use of wood-based chemicals to replace crude oil in, for example, plastics, fuels, medicine and paints.

Demand has grown rapidly for chemicals generated from renewable sources, and particularly sought-after chemicals include pure aromatics, such as the BTX chemicals benzene, toluene and xylene, according to VTT.

VTT has developed a method of manufacturing BTX chemicals by combining the gasification of lignocellulosic biomass, the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis and aromatisation. Over 85 per cent of the separated benzene exceeded 90% purity and around 50% of the separated toluene was over 70 per cent purity, the institute reports.



Genetically modified potato starch.     Photo by BASF - The Chemical Company/flickr.

January 26, 2015 - A new class of enzymes can degrade previously resistant forms of starch, according to a new study. The resultant product is a source of material for making biofuels.

Starch is a polysaccharide found in food and plants. Finding ways to effectively break down all forms of starch, into usable sugars, is seen as key for the effective production of biofuels.

Biofuels include fuels manufactured from biomass conversion (such as plant matter.) Cellulosic biomass is derived from non-food sources, such as trees and grasses. There are ethical issues surrounding the use of biofuels. For example, crops that could be used to feed people are used to provide the raw materials for biofuels instead. The use of non-food sources gets around this issue; however, this brings with it some environmental concerns.

In terms of the process, starch as a key part of the collected biomass can be used as a feedstock for ethanol production. Ethanol can be used as a fuel for vehicles in its pure form, but it is usually used as a gasoline additive to increase octane and improve vehicle emissions. Modern petrol engines can use petrol containing up to 10 per cent ethanol without needing any modifications.


Feb. 10, 2015 - The federal government is investing $3.7 million to help Integrated Grain Processors Cooperative (IGPC) Ethanol Inc. install a Fiber Separation Technology (FST) system to help boost production through operational efficiencies.

According to a news release, the investment will enable IGPC Ethanol to have a higher output of ethanol, corn oil and distillers' grains, develop new higher value animal feed products and lower the plant's energy consumption. The introduction of FST at the IGPC plant allows for the early separation of fibre from corn prior to its fermentation, increasing the efficiency of the distillation process and producing a cleaner fibre product.

The investment enables IGPC Ethanol to purchase approximately 18 million bushels (up from 16 million currently) of corn grain from local farmers for use as feedstock.

Founded in 2002 by 780 farmers and agri-businesses, IGPC Ethanol is a division of IGPC Inc. and is one of Ontario's largest cooperatives. It employs 50 full-time staff at its plant in Aylmer, Ont. The plant began commercial operation in December 2008.




January 21, 2015 - Building an Ontario bio-economy.

Expanding the natural gas grid in the countryside.

And pushing greater infrastructure investment in rural municipalities.

Those are the Ontario Federation of Agriculture's top three priorities in upcoming provincial 2015-16 budget talks.

"We have been working to build a bio-economy here in Ontario, with a goal to attract and build bio-processing plans and develop additional energy generation through bio-digestion," OFA director Peter Lambrick writes in the organization's budget position paper.

"Assistance in drawing processing companies to Ontario for purpose-grown crops to help fuel our rural economy will be in the pre-budget submission."

The federation has been pushing bio-economy interests vigorously since the publication in 2013 of Alternative Technologies to Transform Bio-Mass into Energy, which was prepared for the OFA from background work done at the Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park.

"The agricultural sector in Ontario could not only be energy self-sufficient but could also provide biomass for energy use in other economic sectors," the report says.

It notes Ontario farms produce over 50 million tonnes of grains, beans and feeds and about 14 million tonnes of crop residues annually. About three million tonnes - 20 per cent of total crop residue produced - can be sustainably harvested annually.

An additional three million tonnes per year of biomass can be produced by planting purpose-grown crops such as miscanthus and switchgrass on less than 5 per cent of agricultural lands in Ontario.

And about 30-35 per cent of grain corn grown in Ontario is used to produce ethanol.



January 7, 2015 – A group of Ontario farmers have a plan to convert crop residue into cellulosic sugar to help fuel the province’s bioeconomy.

Based in Sarnia, the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-operative (CSPC) will work to develop a market for crop residue materials that can be converted into cellulosic sugar and support the establishment of bioprocessing facilities in Ontario.

“This grassroots initiative is an excellent way to develop new markets for crop residue materials and new business opportunities for Ontario producers,” says Dave Park, CSPC president. “And we will have member producers involved at every stage of development of this new value chain.”

Over the next two years CSPC directors will be providing critical assessments on logistics and investment models as additional field trials are conducted to support a new business case for investment in Ontario’s bioeconomy.

Cellulosic sugar is derived from crop residue and is used in the production of biofuels and bio chemicals. Ontario farmers, industry groups and farm organizations have been working to develop a health bioeconomy to expand the market for renewable resources like corn stover and wheat straw. Extracting cellulosic sugars from crop residues provides farmers with new markets without competing for land.The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) know there’s a lot of interest in Ontario to create markets for renewable biomass products based on extensive market research and consultations with Ontario farmers.

“It is essential to have groups such as the CSPC take local leadership to support investment attraction for this new market initiative to support future value chain investments in Ontario,” says Don McCabe, OFA president. “We’re pleased to see OFA’s ongoing work consulting and researching biomass production, harvesting and logistics is paying off.”

The OFA will continue working to support the further develop of a healthy bioeconomy in Ontario.

December 18, 2014 - In two Iowa cornfields in early November, Leifmark, LLC and New Holland Agriculture teamed up to test equipment and methods used to gather, bale, and store the corn stover left behind after the grain harvest.

Paul Kamp, Leifmark's Chicago-based partner, coordinated the 520-bale collection.

"Using local specialists and best practices, we showed stover harvesting on area farms is very practical. That's good news for three ethanol producers now considering new businesses making cellulosic ethanol from biomass."  

Developing more efficient methods and equipment brings down the overall cost of stover, says Kamp, whose company markets Inbicon Biomass Refinery technology in North America.

"Couple lower stover prices with a predictable supply chain," adds Kamp, "and you reduce risk perceptions with biomass. So future plant owners can feel confident putting their capital into cellulosic ethanol projects." 

New Holland Agriculture's Scott Wangsgard emphasizes that "technology companies like Inbicon have certain specifications for corn stover bales. To meet them, we've been designing specialized equipment that also boosts collection efficiencies." 

For the November test, New Holland used a high-capacity baler and automated bale wagon that picks up, transports, and stacks the 3' x 4' x 8' square bales required for Inbicon's refining process. "Square bales handle more easily than round ones, store in much less space, and pack tighter so flatbed trucks can haul more tonnage per trip," says Wangsgard. 

Bales with four sets of variables were gathered, differing by corn variety, soil type, and methods of preparing stover for baling. Jens Fink, a biomass researcher from Inbicon's Denmark laboratories, and Larry Johnson, a Minnesota-based biomass consultant, were on hand for assessing bale weights, measuring moisture, and taking core samples for compositional analysis in both Danish and U.S. laboratories. 

Johnson sees important advantages gained by setting an industry standard for stover bale specifications, such as "establishing uniform value for trade, gathering and process efficiencies, more mechanization options, and more sustainable removal of stover."

"A set standard also allows process technology companies like Inbicon, and process equipment makers, to tighten their guarantees," says Leifmark partner Thomas Corle, who works closely with investors on project de-risking.

"Along with efficient harvesting logistics, Leifmark can also integrate the cleanest technologies into biomass refinery projects. That brings the best synergies and investment-grade returns."



December 16, 2014 - Most bio-based fuels and chemicals are made from food crops today, but companies are under pressure from governments and economic forces to switch to non-food cellulosic materials instead. There are 2.4 billion tons of cellulosic biomass available today, led by 1.2 billion tons of municipal solid waste (MSW), according to Lux Research, but at widely varying costs.

Corn stover costs $91/MT (USD), palm fruit bunches and fronds vary from $75/MT to $105/MT, while wood residues at $33/MT and bagasse $38/MT. MSW is a wildcard - it can have negative costs of up to $55/MT due to tipping fees, but is more challenging to convert than other biomass feedstocks (to put the cost in perspective, an $80/MT feedstock converted to fuels at typical yield, adds $1/gallon to fuel cost).

"Cost and local availability are the two most important metrics when analyzing the feasibility of cellulosic biomass options," said Andrew Soare, Lux Research Senior Analyst and the lead author of the report titled, "Quantifying Cost and Availability of Cellulosic Feedstocks for Biofuels and Biochemicals."

"Despite cellulosic feedstocks' potential, too many business plans today are still built around unrealistically low feedstock costs, failing to take into account the value of alternative uses, or rising costs as producers prove feedstock value," he added.

Lux Research analysts examined the cost and availability of eight cellulosic biomass sources. Among their findings:

  • Local availability is key. On account of transportation costs, plants need local biomass to be viable. Using a radius distance of 50 km, municipal solid waste is the most plentiful at 1.2 million MT. Corn stover is the next most abundant at 800,000 dry MT; other sources range between 250,000 MT and 350,000 MT.
  • Wood residues, sugarcane bagasse are the low-hanging fruit. Wood residues and sugarcane bagasse are the two cheapest cellulosic biomass resources, costing about 50 per cent less than other sources and can yield 241 million MT. Wheat straw offers 268 million MT, while rice straw is even more plentiful at 642 million MT.
  • MSW has negative cost - for now. MSW is the cheapest cellulosic source with authorities willing to pay an average $55 per MT for its disposal. However, it is unlikely that its price will always remain negative, as feedstock cost will increase significantly as successful producers come online.

The report, titled "Quantifying Cost and Availability of Cellulosic Feedstocks for Biofuels and Biochemicals," is part of the Lux Research Alternative Fuels Intelligence and Bio-based Materials and Chemicals Intelligence services.


November 13, 2014 - Government and private-sector funding is expected to move ahead proposal that could lead to the building of a commercial plant in Sarnia-Lambton to convert cornstalks and wheat stalks into sugar for use in the chemical industry.

Murray McLaughlin, executive director of Sarnia-based Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, said approximately $300,000 from the federal government’s Growing Forward 2 initiative, along with approximately $200,000 from other partners, will be used in the coming year to take a closer look at the technology and how to move it to commercial use.

The objective is to see a commercial plant developed by 2018.

Other partners in the project include the Grain Farmers of Ontario, the Cellulosic Sugar Produces Cooperative, BioAmber Inc., the Integrated Grain Producers Co-operative Inc., Jungbunzlauer Canada Inc., and Ontario Agri-Food Technologies.

This stage of the project is expected to take a year to complete.

"Basically, we're going to evaluate a number of processes that are being developed to process biomass corn stover and wheat straw into sugars, with the whole premise of trying to determine what might be the best technology for our region," McLaughlin said.

"By the end of this study we hope to be in a position where we can identify two or three technologies that would have the ability to produce sugars at the quality that we need."

Work is also being done to establish a cooperative that would look at the "early front-end stage" of collecting corn and wheat stalks to supply a plant.

"And then we would want to establish a sugar mill in the region to take that corn stover to sugar," McLaughlin said.

"Once you have sugar, you can convert those sugars to a number of different chemicals."

There will be conversations in the coming months with companies who could use the sugar to create building-block chemicals, much like the new BioAmber plant now under construction in Sarnia.


August 21, 2014  - BLAIR, Neb. — It starts out as freeze-dried fungus or bacteria from Denmark and ends up being one of the key ingredients in what some are calling Nebraska’s and Iowa’s shot at the big time when it comes to scientific innovation and economic development.

It is all about the production of enzymes at the Novozymes plant in Blair. The micro-organisms from Denmark wind up being mixed with water, oxygen and other additives in a broth to stimulate production of beneficial enzymes, or molecules that can accelerate biological processes.


 August 12, 2014 - Edmonton, Alberta-based Syngar Technologies Inc. has announced two separate joint venture projects that will, together, help make hemp-to-cellulosic ethanol a step closer to reality.

Syngar Technologies, which was featured in March 2012 article in Ethanol Producer Magazine has licensed its Pulsed Low Ultra Sound Wave (PLUSWave) Technology, which uses ultrasound frequencies to stimulate the fermentation growth of algae, bacteria, fungus or yeast microorganisms, including for use in production of ethanol. In late April the company formed Cellunol Inc. with ANW Inc., a South African company with a cellulosic pretreatment technology called Oxy-Hydro Fragmentation, said Garth Likes, CEO and chairman of Syngar Technologies. The second joint venture, announced in early May, is with Discovery Minerals LTD. and will involve pilot-scale testing of on-farm small-scale production of cellulosic ethanol using waste hemp materials as a feedstock. “It turns out that hemp is a pretty good alternative the cellulose content, as well as the fibers that are used to make clothing or whatever else,” he said.



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