by Eric Sorensen | © Washington State University
With just a whiff of irony, let’s sing a song of praise for gasoline.
A single gallon contains more than 30,000 calories. You wouldn’t want to drink it, but in straight-up energy terms, that’s enough to power a human for about two weeks.
Gasoline is convenient, portable, and for the most part, cheap. For the purposes of this story, I used it to log more than 1,000 miles around Washington State and make appointments, easily, and always on time. Tank low? More than 2,000 filling stations were out there for me to fill her up and pay with a piece of plastic.
“The liquid fuel distribution system in our country is a work of art in many ways,” says Peter Moulton, senior energy policy specialist for the Washington State Department of Commerce.
More impressive still is the tortured narrative to the tank: Over millions of years, buried microbes are cooked and compressed to form long chains of carbon and hydrogen. Enter “Colonel” Edwin Drake’s well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, oil booms in Texas and Saudi Arabia, plastics, modern agriculture, a massive infrastructure of wells, refineries, pipelines, tankers, filling stations, highways, and yes, the automobile, which now runs through more than 200 billion gallons of gas a year.
Just add new car smell, clean windshield, and mix CD.
But to briefly rain on the parade, that gasoline also contains more than a dozen hazardous chemicals, including some, to use the parlance of our times, known to the State of California to cause cancer. Its adjusted-for-inflation price, while blissfully unchanged for most of a century, is now scarily unstable. Fossil fuel production is polluting our oceans. Its consumption is warming our climate. Our dependence on foreign oil drains more than $5 billion a week from our economy.
If only we could simply grow our own fuel.
It’s starting to look like we can.
Out on the windy reaches of the Columbia Plateau, researchers are looking to a day when the blindingly yellow flowers of a tiny camelina oilseed might transform millions of acres of dry, dusty, often fallow cropland. In a retired chicken coop on the WSU Pullman’s old Carver Farm, researchers are cooking wood for oil and rotting manure for gas—possible uses for the slash from logging, the leftovers from food-processing, and dairy manure.
At WSU Tri-Cities, researchers in a new $24 million lab are taking a page from the Paleozoic Era, using microscopic algae and other bugs to produce hydrocarbons, but in a nano-fraction of the time.
All told, scores of WSU researchers are rotting and burning their way to a new energy future. In their world, if it is biological, if it contains a carbon atom, there is a way to draw some energy out of it. Now we just have to find a way to do that in a practical, economic way that approaches the practical, economic grace of gasoline, which, by the way, has had a 100-year head start.
“All of these fuel options have trade-offs,” says Chad Kruger, interim director of WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, “and we can’t predict what they all are. Nothing will be as ‘simple’ or ‘competitive’ as petroleum.”
Craig Frear is standing by a 10-gallon steel tank in an abandoned chicken coop on WSU’s old Carver Farm. The tank is an experimental anaerobic digester capable of converting cow manure into a gas rich in methane, the main element of natural gas. It looks a bit like a modern wood stove, but in some ways, Frear sees it as a large, metal cow stomach.
“Lots of papers say look to nature to get your best engineering,” says Frear. “A cow’s rumen is perhaps the most perfectly designed digester on the earth. From an engineering perspective, your challenge is to mimic it and keep costs down.”
Frear speaks with the clarity and directness of a school teacher. He was one for 12 years before undertaking a PhD, in part as a promise to his dad. He ended up receiving his WSU doctorate in engineering science last year, just six months before his father’s passing. Along the way, he’s analyzed more than 40 different materials that could be sources of bioenergy, focusing in particular on bringing cow-gut technology to our energy diet.
The cow’s rumen, the first of four chambers in its stomach, is a fermentation marvel. It mixes the feedstock efficiently, excretes byproducts that could slow the process, and moves food out while keeping valuable bacteria in, all while converting the food into energy and protein.
By mimicking that design, a human-made anaerobic digester can run on just about any biological material—broken eggs, bad ravioli sauce, fish guts, beet pulp, human wastewater, and yes, manure. Through a combination of heat, bacteria, and the ancient microbe archaea, the process breaks down organic matter in a succession of synergistic reactions evolved over millennia. In the end, it produces nearly pathogen-free fiber for livestock bedding or soil amendments and a liquid that can be further treated for fertilizer. And it can outperform the rumen by capturing methane.
In a farm lagoon, manure is a potential water pollutant. In a cow’s burp, methane is a greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the global-warming power of carbon dioxide. But in a tank, they’re both potential cash cows.
“Biogas made from liquid manure has the best carbon footprint and it also has the least amount of fossil energy to actually make the fuel,” says Kruger of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, whose Climate Friendly Farming Project has focused on reducing agricultural energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
“The third part is it’s the cleanest fuel,” Kruger says. Purified and compressed, biomethane is almost pure—“your outputs are CO2 and water and a tiny bit of other stuff.”
Frear says anaerobic digestion is most economical for farms with more than 500 cows, which would account for 135 of Washington’s 450 dairies. Outfitted with digesters and electrical generators, they could produce 130 megawatts—enough to power all the homes in Spokane.
But all those megawatts may be a better indication of bio-methane’s energy potential than its actual potential use, if only because the Northwest already has lots of clean, relatively efficient electricity.
“We’re better off using biogas for a more efficient energy outcome,” says Kruger, like a heat source or fuel for a public fleet that returns to the same place each day for refueling. Plans are already underway to power airport shuttles on methane from Whatcom County cows.
“From a BTU standpoint, it’s not going to solve all our problems,” says Kruger. “But it’s a low-hanging fruit. It has a really intelligent market that makes a lot of sense.”
Oil in Those Hills
For most of the past century, farmers in the dryer, windier parts of eastern Washington have turned to agronomists like Bill Schillinger to tell them A, how to keep their soil from blowing away and, B, what is best to grow.
Faculty and staff of WSU’s Lind Dryland Research Station have in the process helped reduce erosion from hundreds of tons per acre while WSU breeders have developed several varieties of wheat suited to the region. But when it comes to alternative crops, says Schillinger, researchers have had “less than full success.”
Now Schillinger and a host of other people are hoping to take the tiny camelina seed, in the words of Scott Johnson, president of Sustainable Oils, “from a half-inch under to 40,000 feet.” They want to grow jet fuel.
“One thing very promising about this plant is it doesn’t need a lot of water,” says Schillinger, standing in one of several greening test plots at the station. “It’s very cold tolerant. We can plant it in the fall and have some confidence that it will still be alive in the spring... This would definitely represent something new to grow.”
Meanwhile, camelina’s oily seed can contribute to a state mandate to have 2 percent of all diesel sales be in the form of biodiesel. It is technically a toothless guideline more than a rule. But it’s been given momentum by the Seattle company AltAir’s agreement to sell 750 million gallons of camelina-based fuel to more than a dozen airlines. The fuel would be processed at an Anacortes refinery and piped directly to the Seattle- Tacoma International Airport.
Camelina-based fuel has already powered a hydroplane at Seattle’s SeaFair and airplanes in test flights by KLM, Japan Airlines, and the U.S. Air Force.
“If you look at where petroleum actually comes from, it was all plant based—whether it was algae or cyanobacteria or the actual plants from hundreds of millions of years ago,” says Margaret McCormick of Targeted Growth, the bioscience arm of Sustainable Oils, which will provide oil for AltAir. “The idea that we’re now using terrestrial life—plants, algae, what have you—to create a fuel isn’t novel. We’re just compressing time and making it suit our needs. I think it’s the obvious choice. There’s definite advantages to leaving sequestered the carbon that has been so long underneath the ground and using the plant life that’s already out.”
Still, it’s a long way from Lind to runway 16L/34R. Like petroleum, Washington’s wheat-production system has had more than a century to develop. Camelina is just getting started. An order of 750 million gallons of biofuel would need to see camelina’s bright yellow bloom lighting up 1 to 1.5 million acres.
To some extent, camelina is walking in the footsteps of canola, which has been grown in the state for a few decades already.
A crop of canola may never pay as much as wheat, but it could improve a wheat crop enough to be worth growing. Bill Pan, co-director of the Biofuels Cropping Systems Research & Extension Project, a sprawling effort involving roughly 30 WSU-based researchers, calls it a “nitrogen catch-and-release crop.” The crop’s roots tap nitrogen deep in the soil and recycle it as the leaves fall off and break down. The root channel in turn traps water and prevents erosion while the overall crop rotation breaks weed and disease cycles.
But would-be camelina growers might be wary of canola’s own shakedown phase.
Four years ago, biodiesel based on canola and other sources was selling for less than conventional diesel and evoking a lot of warm feelings for its “triple bottom line”—good for people, the planet, and profits. The operators of Inland Empire Oilseeds, a crushing and processing plant in Odessa that opened in 2008, had a front-row seat.
“A few years ago, when biodiesel was actually cheaper than diesel, everybody went out and built plants and everybody wanted to buy biodiesel,” says Pearson Burke, marketing and logistics manager.
But the industry had trouble putting out fuel to an acceptable standard. Soon, he says, “there were just some horror stories of school buses running down. The ferry system had problems with plugging in their filters.”
It didn’t help that the price of petroleum went down, the cost of seed went up, and the European Union put a tariff on imported biodiesel. Moulton, the state energy policy specialist, counts eight planned biofuel facilities in the state, but says an “economic perfect storm” left only four in operation.
Inland Empire Oilseeds survived. Its operators credit this to having a crushing facility and bio- refinery in one place so they basically buy their oil at cost. Even then, General Manager Stephen Starr ’78 compares the company’s learning curve to not just reinventing the wheel, but “inventing the wheel for the first time.”
The facility when last we checked was producing about 2.5 million gallons of biodiesel a year and hoping to boost capacity to 8 million gallons by the end of the year. That’s about one-tenth of what AltAir hopes to produce each year from camelina.
“We look at that and view that as an extremely aggressive, optimistic plan,” says Starr. “We will just to have to see if they can do it. Farmers are typically conservative. They stand a lot to lose if the crop doesn’t produce they way they expect it to.”
“I try to tell everybody, if you try to introduce a new crop it’s just going to take several years,” says Bill Pan. “It doesn’t happen overnight. ”
Manuel Garcia-Perez reaches into a refrigerator, pulls out a one-liter bottle of brown liquid, and offers a whiff.
It smells oddly familiar—burnt and woody but hard to place amid the clean benches and empty cabinets of a new lab in the old ag engineering building.
“It’s barbecue,” says Garcia-Perez.
Indeed, the very process Garcia-Perez uses to make this liquid is the same used by the Kingsford charcoal company, only faster. So where Kingsford slowly cooks wood scraps to keep most of the energy in a briquette, Garcia-Perez cooks wood quickly to extract an oil containing 100 or so different compounds.
“My tool is heat,” says Garcia-Perez, an assistant professor in Biological Systems Engineering. Specifically, he uses pyrolysis, cooking wood, straw— even the fiber from a manure digester—in an oxygen-free chamber at nearly 1,000 degrees F. Some of the gases that come off can be used to heat the reactor. Other gases condense into bio-oil, while solid material falls out as char.
The oil can be converted into green gasoline or diesel. The char can be used as a coal-like fuel or added to soil, where it can sequester carbon, take up pollutants, and possibly improve the soil’s fertility. Similar material produced centuries ago by slash-and-char farmers is believed to be responsible for the super-fertile Amazonian “dark earth” soils, or terra preta.
The energy potential from Washington’s forests is huge. The Midwest is far better at producing corn for ethanol, but we’re one of the nation’s top producers of wood. One WSU study tallied more than 11 million tons a year from just logging residues, mill waste, forest thinning, and land clearing. With other sources of biomass, the state could produce nearly half its annual gasoline consumption, says Jonathan Yoder, an associate professor of economics and leader of a major study of the state’s biofuel economics and policy.
But press him on the details, and Yoder says, “I’m going to hem and haw here.”
Problem One: Getting the wood out of the forest to a pyrolysis facility. A large, centralized factory has economies of scale but requires moving a lot of material over long distances.
“When it comes to biomass, transportation is a huge issue,” says Yoder.
A fleet of smaller, portable pyrolysis units could operate alongside slash piles and thinning operations, transporting only the resulting oil, but with greater labor and capital costs.
Then there’s the not-so-simple problem of how fluctuating economics have to be considered if you want to ask which type of renewable energy source has the most energy potential.
“I think that’s the wrong question,” Yoder says. “The right question is: What is the appropriate balance among all our potential energy sources? Looking at the economic tradeoffs and the relative costs of utilization of forest biomass, of hydropower, of agricultural biomass production, of oilseed production—all of these have different economic costs that increase with production levels, but at differing rates.”
If that’s a bit bewildering, let’s consider the desk in Yoder’s office. We could run it through a chipper, cart it over to Garcia-Perez’s oven and get a nice stock of oil and char from it. But then Yoder wouldn’t have a desk.
Similarly, as the demand for wood-as-fuel grows, so does the price for wood for desks. A once-abundant resource and cheap source of fuel now becomes more scarce—and expensive. Even thinning residues can have a value, breaking down over time to build soil and provide nutrients. Take them away, and you cut into the long-term value of your forest.
“Wood for a table, wood for lumber, spotted owl habitat, water quality impacts, you name it,” says Yoder. “You use that biomass for energy and likely it means you can’t use it for something else.”
Really, Really Green Power
It’s late one afternoon and Chad Kruger has spent about an hour extolling the virtues of manure digestion and camelina-based biofuel. He has a nearly four-hour drive to Wenatchee ahead of him, so by way of wrapping up I ask what else we might talk about.
“Um,” he says, with no further prompting, “algae is the holy grail.”
Off the top of his head, he quotes the following figures: camelina yields 30 to 40 gallons of fuel per acre, corn produces about 200 gallons per acre. But algae can produce orders of magnitude more—5,000, even 15,000 gallons per acre.
“You can see very quickly,” Kruger says, “if you’re looking for massive amounts of fuel, algae is it.”
I run this notion by Shulin Chen, a professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering. Last year, he and a variety of partners around the state received a $2 million federal appropriation to develop algae and find a way to convert them into fuel and other products.
He pulls up a PowerPoint slide based on New Zealand research showing algae can produce tens of thousands of gallons per acre.
“Realistically,” he says, “it’s more like 2,000 gallons. We can do 2,000 now. We can design a system to do 2,000, not in a pond, but in a greenhouse.”
More to the point, he says, pulling up a map of the United States, soy-based biofuel would use almost all the nation’s cropland to replace just half its petroleum-based fuels. A similar amount of fuel from algae would take an area roughly the size of Vermont, and it need not be cropland and compete with food.
This is a big deal. The surge of interest and investment in crop-based fuels, followed by a surge in food prices in 2007, raised concerns that the world’s food supply might be being sacrificed for energy. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development called on governments to end biofuel mandates and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization called for a review of biofuel subsidies and policies. This prompted a greater interest in “second-generation biofuels” derived from sources of organic carbon other than foodstuffs like sugar cane, corn, wheat, or sugar beets. It also spurred interest in “third-generation biofuels,” more advanced technologically driven fuels that include algae.
Algae, says Chen, is “energy dense,” with twice the energy per pound of ethanol. Like camelina, it can be processed as a ready-to-use “drop in” fuel. Grown near a conventional coal plant, it can use carbon-dioxide from a smokestack and reduce the fossil fuel’s carbon footprint. Its production can also yield a variety of other products: pharmaceuticals and nutritional supplements, food and animal feed, specialty chemicals, pigments, and personal care products.
It is expensive to make, though, in that it needs nutrients to grow. Remember, we’re talking here about algae producing orders of magnitude more biomass or recoverable oil than other technologies, and it has to eat. One key nutrient is nitrogen, and plenty of it. Kruger notes the nitrogen currently comes chiefly in the form of processed natural gas from the Middle East.
“There’s a food-versus-fuel issue that very few people talk about,” Kruger says.
Aware of that challenge, Chen has a provisional patent to use anaerobic digestion to extract and recycle nutrients from algae waste.
“Water probably is the bigger issue,” Chen says. “We have to use wastewater resources and find other ways we can conserve water. But again, if you grow other crops, you use water also. It’s all relative and there’s no perfect solution.”
Full development of algal fuel is still several years away. Peter Moulton, the state energy policy specialist, jokes that the technology has been “five to eight years away for the last 30 years.”
Chen has heard the joke before and suspects a market for algae’s byproducts will lead the way to making it a viable source for fuel. That and the changing price of petroleum.
“When you see $5 per gallon gas and diesel,” he says, “the picture will change.”
Billions and Billions of Refineries
Birgitte Ahring and her colleague Aftab Ahamed have peered into a cell and seen a refinery.
The cell is a fungus called Gliocladium. It grows inside the bark of the ulmo tree, along the Andes in Chile and Argentina. Ahring and Ahamed were drawn to it a couple years ago, when a Montana researcher found that the fungus produced several hydrocarbon compounds similar to diesel.
It’s the type of offbeat, cutting-edge discovery that attracts Ahring, a microbiologist and one of the first two researchers hired under Washington state’s STAR program (Strategically Targeted Academic Research). As director of the WSU Tri-Cities Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy, she leads an interdisciplinary effort focusing on turning biomass into fuel and other products.
She talks with farmers about using their straw for fuel. She talks with food processors about digesting their wastes for methane. At this February’s Harvesting Clean Energy conference in Kennewick, the Danish native said she was drawn to Washington because, “I knew this is the place where all the biomass is.”
At the same time, her new holy grail is “electrofuel.” It would use photovoltaic electricity with carbon dioxide and different bacteria to make organic molecules. These molecules can then be converted into jet fuel or diesel using catalysis.
“A lot of organisms can actually grow with electricity and directly fix CO2,” says Ahring, sketching the process on a whiteboard. “And then you begin to engineer your pathway in here. So you actually have a situation where if you have a microbe, it doesn’t need the sun directly. It actually grows directly off electricity, CO2, or hydrogen-CO2 coming from electricity.
As an added benefit, the microbe can capture CO2.
“We can actually engineer the strains to do what we want,” says Ahring.
It sounds far-fetched and a bit too perfect. But it’s the type of work that is being encouraged by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Projects Research Agency Energy program or ARPA-E. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which brought you the Internet, the program aims to develop “high risk, high payoff” technologies that reduce our dependence on foreign oil, improve energy efficiency, and cut down on emissions.
Meanwhile, Ahring and Ahamed collect American, German, and Danish strains of Gliocladium and feed them cellulose. In some cases, they trick the fungus into producing more hydrocarbons as a defense mechanism.
In an as-yet unpublished paper, the researchers document measuring 16 commercially used hydrocarbons, including benzene, octane, and others with varying numbers of carbon atoms. The paper notes that the compounds “are very similar to diesel fuel and could be used to power the diesel engine without any modifications.”
“You get straightaway the hydrocarbons ready for fuel,” says Ahamed. “That counts a lot for industry.”
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