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6 Final Thoughts After completing all of the presentations and breakout take home lesson, he said, is that as the biomass community sessions, the workshop held a final panel discussion to sum- thinks about bridging and transitions it should think not marize the day’s findings. The panel consisted of William just about technology but also policy and legislation. Carter Hitz of E. I. du Pont de Nemours, Emily Carter of Princeton agreed with this comment and added that discussions that University, and Rina Singh of the Biotechnology Industry she has been having with the leadership of Public Service Organization (BIO). Paul Bryan, the workshop co-chair, Gas and Electric Company (PSG&E), New Jersey’s largest asked each panelist to identify one to three new and impor- publicly owned utility, raised the issue that there is a need tant ideas gleaned from the workshop. for a national policy about electricity. Power grids, she said, Hitz said that he was excited about the possibility are regional and on an interstate basis one electron is no of using ethanol as the primary fermentation output but then different from any other electron. What happens as a result, using ethanol as the starting material to make other chemicals she explained, is that PSG&E ends up idling expensive plants more reduced than ethanol. Carter was encouraged by the that use renewables and that are better for the environment idea of using natural gas as a bridge technology to move from because these plants cannot compete economically with dirty coal to biomass as the primary fuel for generating electricity. coal plants feeding electricity into the regional grid. She thought that this route would develop a biomass industry Charles Anderson, from the Pennsylvania State Univer- that would eventually scale enough to make a final transition sity, commented that the solar energy industry is looking to producing fuels economically from biomass. at combining natural gas and solar power plants as a way Singh was impressed by the potential of thermochemical of being able to produce electricity consistently. Another conversion technologies and was encouraged that biological possible bridging approach might be to combine biomass- and thermochemical conversion were on equal footing in fed plants with solar as a way of moving both technologies terms of research interest. She noted, though, that she was dis- forward. Continuing on the theme of coupled plants, Thomas appointed by the overall lack of discussion of the conomics e Richard, also of Penn State, wondered what became of an of any of the technologies discussed at the workshop. She also idea that was popular five to ten years ago of the integrated remarked that the 2012 Farm Bill before Congress calls for biorefinery that would produce high-value chemicals as a funding research on technologies for conversion of biomass means of supporting the production of lower value fuels. Hitz to renewable chemicals that stress energy efficiency. responded that industry may have moved away from this idea In the ensuing open discussion period, Mark Barteau because the drive to produce low-cost biofuels has become followed up on the subject of bridge technologies by noting the dominant push. But he agreed that the idea of using a that Delaware enticed Bloom Energy to construct a natural common feedstock to make high-value chemicals might cre- gas-fired fuel cell power plant in the state by passing legis- ate enough demand for that feedstock to get the front end of lation that counts natural gas-powered fuel cell-generated the infrastructure going to then make cheap biofuel. electricity as part of the state’s renewable portfolio. While Hitz added that the field needs to continue to evolve its that may be a stretch, he added that it was his belief that the ideas and work on both the supply and demand side together. real interest lies in having biomass be the ultimate source In other words, a feedstock infrastructure that generates a of gas for those fuel cells rather than fossil natural gas. The shippable, densified feedstock will not develop unless there 29
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30 OPPORTUNITIES AND OBSTACLES IN LARGE-SCALE BIOMASS UTILIZATION is already an end use for it and vice versa. His recommenda- continue studying how to increase sugar content and change tion was that the community focus on developing a front-end the structure of plant carbohydrates and lignin to make them to back-end solution that would demonstrate the viability of more easily converted into sugars. But those efforts will take taking biomass and making an economically viable product. time to yield advances. Jeff Steiner added that the key thing Once that happens, he said, then parties might jump in who that has to happen is that people working in the process side are interested in developing the supply side or the process- need to be talking more to the people working on the supply ing supply. The challenge is figuring out how to evolve that side to make sure everyone’s needs and interests are aligned. system. Carter added that small companies that she has talked Hitz agreed and cited an illustrative example. Grasses may with are looking primarily at making high-value chemicals as become a good feedstock, but it would be a better one if it a way of getting into the larger biodiesel business eventually. stood erect in the field until it was totally dry. Those kinds In a cautionary note, Bryan said that the high cost of sepa- of mundane features need to be communicated. ration and purification technologies presents a challenge for the integrated biorefinery idea. Each product needs its own GENERAL OBSERVATIONS separation, purification, storage, and distribution infrastruc- ture, he explained, and so every product being made needs to Throughout the workshop, speakers made general obser- pay off at least that part of the process, which in his experi- vations about the issues associated with large-scale biomass ence, he said, is often the most costly part of a continuously utilization and the role of the chemical sciences in addressing operating refinery operation. This approach may be more these issues. These observations are gathered here to cap- feasible with batch processing. ture the broad themes emerging from the workshop. These Helena Chum added to this thread by describing how the themes should not be seen as consensus conclusions of the Brazilian ethanol industry is evolving. It started largely by workshop and are associated with the speaker who made converting sugar cane to sugar, using ethanol to maximize that observation. profits and eventually to produce electricity. Over the past three years, however, Brazil had shifted its output and is now • Total global production of cereal grains as a feedstock using 10 percent of its sugar production to make higher value cannot meet even a fraction of the demand for renew- products such as polyethylene and other chemicals. There is able fuels and chemicals. Doing so will require making a major emphasis in Brazil now to develop the biorefinery use of lignocellulosic materials. (Bryan) concept. The point is that by building a biomass-to-fuels • Solving the “tyranny of distance,” seasonality, and infrastructure, biomass is now a commodity with potential feedstock variability problems will require the devel- as a feedstock for chemicals and other applications. She opment of technologies that can convert a wide variety added that RFS2 is creating the same situation in the United of biomass sources at local depots into a uniform, States. The point that she wanted to make, she said, was transportable feedstock for further processing at cen- that chemists need to think more about the whole system of tralized biorefineries. (Bryan and Stokes) agriculture and forestry, energy and other products, and the • With sufficient research and development, the United biomass landscape as a whole. States has enough available land to produce biomass in Singh noted that while there are some integrated refineries sufficient quantities to meet the demand as a renewable in the petrochemical industry, these are a number of compa- source of fuel, chemicals, power, and heat in a manner nies that focus on specialty chemicals. These companies are that is sustainable and that does not compete with food. not vertically integrated, but are instead capitalizing on one (Stokes) aspect of the value chain, something that she thinks could • It is not possible to replace a multi-trillion-dollar take place in the biomass world with the development of petroleum-based infrastructure with a biomass-based commodity sugars that would be analogous to commodity infrastructure overnight. Economics must be the driv- oil. She added that there are 10 BIO member companies ing force behind this transition, but policy can help that are working on producing cheap, sustainable supplies ease this transition. (Duff) of feedstock sugars. • Tapping into the enormous value of petrochemicals Robert Greene, from DOE’s Office of Basic Energy and specialty chemicals is a place where chemistry Sciences, asked what a more ideal biomass would look like, can play a huge role in realizing value from biomass and Hitz responded that in his opinion, the biggest improve- conversion, particularly since these are high value ments today would be on the transportation side, that is, added products that would use very little of the avail- making bigger bales of material rather than in increasing able biomass. (Duff) the sugar content of the biomass by a few percent. From an • Both thermochemical and biochemical conversion of e conomics perspective, increasing the volume of material biomass into a feedstock for fuel and chemical pro- that could be hauled on a truck would be the place to have the duction is promising, but there is a significant need to biggest impact. However, he added that it is still important to create catalysts that can remove contaminants from this
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FINAL THOUGHTS 31 feedstock and that are more tolerant of contaminants better tailor these processes to the meet the demands in downstream processing. (Duff and Brown) of working with biomass feedstocks. (Brown) • Algae have potential as a source of lipids that could • The lack of a national policy on the use of biomass in be used as a feedstock for fuel, chemical, and energy power and heat generation is impeding developments production, but a great deal of basic research is needed in this field. (Steiner, Barteau, and Carter) to realize this potential. (Duff) • The economics of biomass-to-power systems may • To achieve cost-competitive biological conversion of benefit from the development of small-scale systems biomass into ethanol or other feedstocks will require as opposed to large-scale power plants. (Steiner) moving from batch to continuous-flow processes, a • Methane may serve as an important bridge technology transition that will require a substantial amount of between oil/coal and biomass. (Hitz) chemical and chemical engineering research, particu- • Production of high-value chemicals is an area worth larly with regard to the development of catalysts and exploring in detail as it represents a potentially viable separation technologies. (Somerville) approach of creating demand for a biomass feedstock. • Basic research on the chemistry of thermal conver- (Hitz, Carter, Chun, and Singh) sions, via both gasification and pyrolysis, is needed to
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