Mix some very smart “Volunteers” with fast-growing grasses and trees and what do you get? Well, you end up with one monumental effort to change the world and some innovative new biofuel and biomass co-products to boot.
A couple weeks ago I took some time from a family vacation and traveled two hours north from my childhood hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee to visit the University of Tennessee’s Center for Renewable Carbon. The Center’s state-of-the-art labs are nestled at the edge of the UT campus in Knoxville – home of the “Big Orange” Volunteers. Surrounded by the University’s trial gardens and Veterinary School stables, the Center’s complex has an agricultural, earthy vibe that can’t help but inspire staff and students. They are, after all, working to create a new era in sustainable energy by making fuel from grass and trees. Inspiring indeed.
My primary reason for making the trek north that day was to see what Dr. Tim Rials and his UT team are doing with biofuels research as part of the Southeast Partnership for Integrated Biomass Supply Systems (IBSS). This $15 million effort was funded by the USDA in 2010 and seeks to “demonstrate real-world solutions towards economically and environmentally sustainable production and conversion of biomass-to-biofuel in the southeast United States.” Since Forest Business Network is a member/partner with the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), which is working to create a woody-biomass derived aviation biofuels industry in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, I hoped that IBSS might compliment and possibly knowledge-share with NARA. And let’s face it – taking trees and other organic materials and turning them into fuel is just plain cool, so when an effort this big hits so close to my home (I might live in Montana but I’m still a Southerner at heart), I just had to see it for myself.
Before my discussion with Dr. Rials on IBSS, I took advantage of an opportunity to tour the Center’s facility with Dr. Joe Bozell. I was impressed by the research labs, to say the least. Dr. Bozell led me past bundles of forest residue sitting outside large bay doors as they waited to begin their journey through the center’s research areas. Forest residue is not the only biomass material the Center studies. Joe showed me how the labs are extracting the three components of biomass – cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin – from a diverse selection of grasses and tree crops, and are researching opportunities for creating biofuels and other valuable commercial products from each of the biomass components.
Photo left: Dr. Joe Bozell reveals processed lignin in its powdered form after it’s been extracted from biomass material. In this website’s “News” section image, Dr. Bozell showed me some cellulose that had been bagged and frozen to keep it from degrading. (Tom Waddell / FBN)
Winding my way through the facility and seeing the multi-cultural staff hard at work on world-class equipment, I got the strong impression that the University is tackling biomass and biofuels research in a very big way. In other words, the USDA’s goal of producing almost 50% of the next generation of biofuels in the Southeast U.S. is in excellent hands.
And this is where IBSS comes in. Dr. Rials discussed the three primary goals of the program (which UT is a member) in order to meet the USDA’s mandate: 1. Demonstrate real world solutions to the barriers that limit biofuels production. 2. Create, validate and use new metrics and tools that help with better decision-making to enable biomass-to-biofuels production. 3. Create communication tools and outreach programs that incite a well-trained workforce and give stakeholders the knowledge they need to support a biofuels industry. The University is not alone in this complex effort. It has multiple academic and industrial partners, including ArborGen, Auburn University, Ceres, the University of Georgia, RenTech, Lousiana-Pacific Corporation and North Carolina State University – each tackling a specialty piece in the overall biofuels puzzle.
Integration and diversity are key to a successful biofuels industry, Dr. Rials explained. This is why IBSS is researching a diverse portfolio of energy crops – trees such as loblolly pine, poplar, eucalyptus, and cottonwood, and grasses such as switchgrass and sorghum. Seeing some of these crops in their various states of production was next on our agenda, allowing us to get out in the very warm, but gorgeous Tennessee countryside for the rest of the afternoon.
After lunch, I drove with Dr. Rials and Jessica McCord, the Center’s Research Associate, to an experimental tree farm situated just south of town. Row after row of fast-growing hybrid poplar and cottonwoods grow on this 10-acre mini-plantation. Tim and Jessica showed me how the poplars have reached some rather impressive heights even though they were planted only four months prior. The farm provides UT researchers a valuable opportunity to learn how Tennessee weather and soil, row density, tree proximity and other factors influence tree growth and viability as short-rotation energy crops.
Next on our tour was the Biomass Innovation Park near the town of Vonore. This state-of-the-art park, managed by Genera Energy, “researches and optimizes biomass supply chain operations and business models.” Dr. Sam Jackson, Genera’s Vice President of Feedstock Operations, explained that Genera is a turnkey biomass supply chain company. Genera and the Innovation Park seek to “take crops from farm fields [grasses, tree crops, etc.] and turn them into uniform industrial biomass feedstocks for a biorefinery or other conversion use.”
Genera’s biggest biomass focus is switchgrass, working with area farmers in managing 5,100 acres of switchgrass fields that comprise an inventory of 50,000 tons of biomass.
Genera works closely with the University of Tennessee and IBSS on a handful of objectives: Researching efficiencies in the harvesting and movement of biomass from farms to biorefineries, maximizing energy crop harvest yields, and creating sustainability standards for energy crops, to name a few.
Adjacent to the park, and also owned by Genera, is a cellulosic ethanol demonstration-scale biorefinery that I was able to tour while there. This biorefinery – operated by Genera’s partner, DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol – is the only one of its kind in the world, and the only one in the U.S. that can perform all the operations necessary in converting biomass to advanced biofuels for transportation.
In my tour of the facility, Sam and his staff showed how the park is innovating biomass processing on a number of levels, including the creation of a new compacter that helps compress lightweight biomass like switchgrass so that transporting trucks can achieve their axle weight.
Once my tour ended, I got a chance to sit down with Sam, Tim and Jessica for a brief moment to recap what I’d seen. I was very pleased to learn that Dr. Rials had confirmed his intentions to attend NARA’s annual meeting in Missoula, Montana this September. This helped cement my hopes that the two projects could collaborate together in a meaningful way.
Most importantly, I was encouraged by all the USDA, University of Tennessee and the many IBSS partners are doing to promote the creation of a viable biofuels industry. It’s a very exciting time for the agriculture and forest product industries as the nation takes its first steps in moving away from petroleum energy sources to those that are much more sustainable, and that hit close to all our homes.
Tom Waddell is Forest Business Network’s Vice President of Marketing & Sales.