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Life Beyond Ethanol: Other Transport Fuels from Minnesota's Farms

June 10, 2009 By Salman Mitha, Fellow
Success in the 20th century was dependent on access to oil because it is the basis of all transportation fuel. But it didn't have to be. During World War II the Nazi's had started to lose access to oil used for fueling their military. Unfortunately they had access to some of the best science of world of that time; German scientists lead in many technologies including chemistry. A key technical success was the use of coal to create gasoline for their war effort. Converting coal to gasoline or diesel fuel is usually called coal gasification. Using coal gasification and their ample supply of coal the Nazi's were unfortunately able to keep the military fueled and operational. 

After the war was over coal gasification lost favor as cheap Middle Eastern oil flooded the world market.  There have been recurring attempts to revive for coal gasification for other reasons. National security concern is one reason; using coal gasification and using American coal to fuel our cars reduces dependence on foreign oil. Early environmentalists also advocated goal gasification as a simple way of creating a clean burning coal process because the gasification process removes many types of pollutants. But coal gasification does not reduce CO2 emissions and the environmental movement lost interest in it. 

But the coal gasification process contains very interesting and useful technology.  A key step in coal gasification is the creation of a gas called syngas. This syngas was then converted the different fuels, like diesel and gasoline. But syngas can also be created using biomass. Replacing coal with biomass, a renewable resource, in the gasification process would produce renewable gasoline.

What is Syngas?
Syngas is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. At the start of the 19th century many cities were being lighted by syngas, the famous gaslight of the Victorian era. It was generated by blasting steam over hot coal or coke. Both carbon monoxide and hydrogen are flammable and syngas was a very easy way to distribute heat and lighting fuel before electricity. It was also used for cooking and heating in the home. However carbon monoxide is very poisonous and by early 20th century natural gas was replacing syngas everywhere.

World War I was the first major war that required the use of gasoline. Germany was rich in coal rich but had limited access to oil became very concerned about its strategic weakness.  During the early 1920s two German scientists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch developed a way of converting syngas to gasoline. The technology is called the Fischer-Tropsch process was easily scaled up to industrial levels. During World War II the Nazi government using Fischer-Tropsch process was producing upwards of 125,000 barrels of oil per day for their war effort. Syngas to gasoline is a proven industrial scale technology and has been improved over the years. Creating gasoline from biomass based syngas would be ready for primetime as soon as biomass syngas becomes available.

There are also other fuels from biomass syngas. Dr. Douglas Cameron, Chief Scientist at Piper Jaffrey says that it is very easy to convert syngas into chemical called dimethyl ether that can be used in diesel engines. Dimethyl ether is a gas but has the remarkable ability to work in today's diesel engines with minimal modifications and it burns very cleanly. Even older diesels engines when using dimethyl ether do not produce any particulate pollution or sooty smoke. Dimethyl ether is the most cleanly burning fuel for existing diesel technology.

Syngas also burns much more cleanly than either coal or biomass. Converting biomass to syngas is also a very good way to cleanly produce industrial heating or setup combined heat and power plants. Combined heat and power plants could be another way to get green heating for greater Minnesota buildings and get renewable electricity into the grid.

Biomass to Syngas
The science and technology of using syngas to create fuels is already available. All that a renewable fuels supply requires is a way is to create syngas from widely available biomass such as corn stalk or corn cob. The science behind it is straightforward. Heat biomass in an atmosphere of steam and limited air and voila the syngas comes out. The major challenge is with making the process commercially feasible and being able to control the quality of the syngas.

Work on biomass to syngas reactors is already underway. The University of Minnesota at Morris has built a biomass reactor to create syngas for heating the campus. Syngas combustion is used to create steam in a boiler. In the future syngas combustion will also be used for cooling. However Dr. Joel Tallaksen, the project manager of the biomass reactor project said the reactor project is more than just providing heating and cooling with a lower carbon footprint. A key objective was for the university and its partners to learn about building better biomass to syngas reactors. This reactor project is an industrial scale pilot for a biomass to syngas study.

Using biomass based syngas to for heating may be the first commercial breakthrough for biomass reactors. Corn based ethanol for fuel produces are looking to replace their natural gas heating in their plants with renewable energy. A biomass syngas reactor to providing heating is a possible solution. Renewable energy for heating is very important because corn ethanol production requires a lot of heat. An ethanol plant in Minnesota is already planning to roll out a syngas plant shortly. That plant will use corn cob and this will reduce overall carbon footprint for producing corn ethanol, making the ethanol 'greener'.

Biomass to syngas technology is advancing fairly rapidly. There is a radically different type of reactor called plasma reactor that super heats a biomass to a very high temperature creating syngas.  A company in California is planning to use the plasma reactor and a Fischer-Tropsch system to create renewable jet fuel. They are planning to setup a plant in Sacramento.  

The biomass to fuels revolution is already underway. Biomass is one of Minnesota great resources and we cannot afford to be left behind.

What should the government do?
Minnesota is rich biomass resources are much more than just the crops. The process of growing food also produces agricultural waste biomass that could be harvested and used. Our largest crop corn also produces the largest amount of waste biomass, corn stover. Most of the corn stover is tilled back into the land to prevent soil degradation.  Studies from Oakridge National Laboratory have shown that up to 50% of the corn stover could be removed without impacting soil quality. The harvestable stover could be burnt for electricity or could be used for making synthetic green fuels. Using it for transport fuel could generate 300 to 400 million gallons of green gasoline per year replacing 10 to 15% of our gasoline. If other biomass resources, such as corn cob or even energy rich corn itself, are added to mix then this number goes up.

Minnesota and the federal government are already facilitating a biofuels industry. There is an existing framework of mandates and incentives in place for promoting a biomass based fuel industry; corn ethanol. This framework has successfully replaced some dependence on imported oil and bought investment and income into farmlands of the Minnesota and the country at large. However there is widespread agreement that corn based ethanol a first step towards a more scalable cellulostic ethanol. It should be possible to adapt the framework to drive a new larger biofuels industry that includes cellulostic ethanol but also includes any other biomass based synthetic green fuel. Let the market and technology drive the best fuel.

From a policy perspective, incentives for biofuels should only be based on two criteria
1) Is the fuel green?
Does the carbon in the fuel come from renewable sources

2) Does it help the economy?
Is there any economic value and will the economic value be captured locally?

Any biomass gasification based green fuel meets both these criteria. Farm based biomass provides both renewable carbon and an income stream for the agricultural economy. And if waste biomass is used there is very little impact on the food prices and the food industry. Finally syngas can also be made from special energy crops like fast growing prairie grass. Biomass is bulky and difficult to transport. So it is likely that the biomass to fuel plants will be situated in Greater Minnesota. 

The key public policy change is that all renewable fuel incentives, either subsidies or mandates should be independent of the type of the biofuel. Incentives should only be based simply on the fuels renewable energy content. The state will need to create standards on determining renewable energy content per gallon of fuel and then rewriting incentives and mandates for it. Let the market place decide the best and most economical use of biomass for fuel. As long as the fuel is based on local biomass, the farmers will benefit, the community will benefit and the environment will benefit.

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