Allentown, PA (The Morning Call, October 5, 2013): Emerging technologies allowing for the making of biofuels from perennial grass crops, woody material and other organic carbon sources — known as biomass — could give Pennsylvania farmers and businesses that support them a boost while increasing domestic energy reserves.
Officials say the method may be a viable alternative to corn-based ethanol production, which local agriculture has profited from for years.
First-generation biofuels, such as ethanol from corn, are made from sugars and vegetable oils through conventional extraction methods. Second-generation biofuels, or advanced biofuels, can be made utilizing a wide range of biomass feedstock including woody crops, perennial grasses such as switchgrass and agricultural residues, but they require more complex extraction technologies, such as pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is heating organic materials in the absence of oxygen to produce decomposition.
Dr. Akwasi A. Boateng, a biofuels researcher at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Wyndmoor, Montgomery County, sees hope for Pennsylvania-grown switchgrass as a viable biofuel via pyrolysis and has been researching that possibility for nearly a decade.
With a $6.9 million USDA grant awarded this past January, Boateng and his team are working with a handful of Montgomery County farmers to grow switchgrass to produce drop-in biofuels — those that can be used as a direct replacement for conventional fuels in gasoline, diesel or jet engines. The research also will explore converting forest residues, horse manures and other perennial grasses into biofuels.
"ARS has been doing a lot of research on switchgrass as an energy crop," said Boateng, adding that ultimately the agency would like to develop a mobile unit that could travel from farm to farm for biofuels processing.
Dr. David Pimentel , a Cornell University professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, was recently honored by the Rodale Institute for his work to reduce the use of agricultural pesticides and for authoring the nonprofit's first seminal report comparing organic to conventional agriculture.
Pimentel has been an outspoken critic of corn-based ethanol production, claiming it requires more energy to produce than it yields; by his reckoning, 1.5 gallons of fuel is needed to produce one gallon of ethanol. He also questions the ethics of utilizing a food crop for fuel.
"All ethanol has to be produced from food crops, and this is a major problem," he said. "This contributes to starvation, not so much in the U.S., but worldwide. The World Health Organization is reporting that 66 percent of the world's population is malnourished, primarily in the southern part of Africa and Asia. I'm not going to blame it all on ethanol, but still it's contributing to world starvation."
Dr. Gregory Roth, professor of agronomy at Penn State University, suggested Pimentel's math and thinking may be flawed.
"USDA reports on the energy efficiency of ethanol have shown a net energy balance," he said, adding that ethanol has caused a massive investment in agriculture. That investment, Roth said, is a result of an increased market price for commodity crops grown across Pennsylvania such as corn, wheat and soybeans.
"Suddenly, grain farmers who have never made money have become profitable, landowners have reaped the benefit of getting more for their land when they rent it to these grain farmers, the machinery and crop input suppliers have all been able to benefit as well from these commodity prices, and more grain is produced as a result."
Roth cited record corn yields across Pennsylvania. "None of that would have happened at pre-ethanol prices. From my perspective, it has caused a lot of resources that weren't there before to flow into agriculture, and many segments have prospered because of that. Nevertheless, I think there may be opportunities down the road to move toward other feedstocks, but the economics of processing cellulose feedstocks are different."
Two years ago Hillsborough, N.J.-based Primus Green Energy forwarded plans to construct a $40 million biomass-to-liquid-fuel plant in Plainfield Township utilizing locally grown switchgrass as a primary feedstock.
The company scrapped that idea a few months later while still considering other Pennsylvania locations, finally looking outside the Keystone State and ultimately abandoning switchgrass altogether.
"We're not doing biomass, we're doing natural gas – conceivably, Marcellus shale type stuff – and it's not likely to be in Pennsylvania, it's likely to be on the Gulf Coast," said George Boyajian, vice president of business development for Primus Green Energy. "It all comes down to cost. We can get this other stuff cheaply. The cost of handling switchgrass, collecting it and paying for the machines to turn it into syngas [synthetic gas] is very expensive."
Boateng said that while corn stover – the leaves, stalks, husks and cobs left in the field after corn is harvested – offers an additional possibility as a second-generation biofuels feedstock, , research suggests that removing too much of it may ultimately be detrimental to farms since incorporating it back into the earth improves soil structure and fertility.
Corn stover also has other uses that may command a higher price, such as for bedding and grazing. Unlike corn, switchgrass is a low-input crop that can be grown on marginal lands.