November 18, 2011 | General

Creating The Future

BioCycle November 2011, Vol. 52, No. 11, p. 45
Biomass Energy Outlook
Mark Jenner

THE politics surrounding biomass and climate carbon has taken its toll on my hope of forward progress in the bioeconomy. This dark cloud has challenged the creation of uplifting and motivational Biomass Energy Outlook columns the last few months. Over the last few weeks, however, I had an attitude adjustment – from negative to positive – regarding research and development of bioenergy.
Last week, I attended BioCycle’s 11th Annual Conference on Renewable Energy From Organics Recycling in Wisconsin. The week before I was at a USDA biofuels conference in Washington, DC. The BioCycle Conference highlighted the real-time adoption of renewable biomass technologies. The USDA meeting focused on bioenergy research and discovering our future. Both presented current, future and historical evidence that mountains really are being moved on the value-added biomass economic frontier.
Research and technology development has been part of my entire career. As a Peace Corps volunteer 30 years ago, helping subsistence-farmers adopt new crops, a local farmer asked me, “How did (western) folks like me learn the things we were teaching?” That question has haunted me for my entire career. How do we discover the future? We have to create it. This demands the best science, efficient business models and effective policies.

The 11th Annual BioCycle Conference on Renewable Energy began with keynote speakers Carol and Eddie Sturman, founders of Sturman Industries. These two individuals shared their vision of how to overwhelm the skeptics with efficiency and common sense. The Sturmans had experience in successful technical innovation before coming to the biofuels arena. They told the story of why policy makers are looking at the biofuel question all wrong – that engines needed to be tuned to the fuel, not run a new fuel in an engine that was made for a different fuel. The Sturman’s digital valve technology tunes the engines to available fuels rather than merely dropping new, alternative fuels into the existing internal combustion technology. It was very motivational.
The knowledge-fest continued as presentation after presentation yielded real-time information about what is currently happening. Additional exhibitors have appeared as the biogas markets and anaerobic digestion technologies have evolved. The attendees were as diverse and nearly as compelling as the rest of the program. Participants without a personal success story to tell asked excellent and challenging questions.

The week before the BioCycle Conference, I attended a National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) conference at USDA. I am fortunate to play an important, but small, role in one of the recently funded NIFA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) grants. USDA’s NIFA was at one time the cooperative research and extension agency at USDA (CSREES) and they fund research and education projects. Five large multimillion dollar grants were awarded to take precommercial biofuel technologies from purpose-grown crop production to commercialization. They include research, technology transfer and build out of crop production, leading to the development of commercial scale biofuels facilities. They also include cutting edge extension and education components.
Of these five big projects funded, I am involved with one centered at the University of Washington looking at converting poplar and alder trees in the Pacific Northwest to biobased jet fuel, diesel and gasoline. Another project based at Washington State University is using Douglas fir and western red hemlock in addition to poplar and alder for conversion to green fuels and chemicals. Iowa State University is the base of operations exploring the use of pyrolysis to create biofuel and biochar from switchgrass, big bluestem and Indian grass. Louisiana State University is leading the development of sweet sorghum and energy cane to produce biofuel and biobased chemicals and the University of Tennessee is the center for converting switchgrass, pine and eucalyptus into biofuels.
In addition, two large interdisciplinary, multistate bioenergy education projects were funded to help train and inspire teachers in this emerging field. Participants at the NIFA conference represented the leadership and support of all these funded projects. I was reminded that USDA has shaped additional research and education programs that use the best minds and resources to discover what it takes to develop home-grown fuel and chemical industries.
There are no guarantees of success, but the scientists, extension specialists and private industries offer great hope of figuring these opportunities out in the next five years. Historical projections of each public dollar invested in agricultural research and extension range from 20 to 50 percent return on that investment. This is an effective use of the publicly funded research dollars. The Sturmans, through other sources of funding, enabled faster adoption with greater energy utilization of biofuels through modified internal combustion engines. New technology development changes all the rules.

The best part for me at these two conferences, however, was seeing my colleagues and acquaintances whose accomplishments span decades of work in the supply and demand of undervalued organics. Many long-time associates had different employers and business cards. It is a fluid business on the biomass development frontier. The unspoken message was that we are a tenacious lot and we have moved mountains independently and collectively. While the reality of developing new industries is daunting, tangible and impressive impacts are happening everyday on the biomass frontier.

Mark Jenner, PhD, and Biomass Rules, LLC, has joined the California Biomass Collaborative. Burning Bio News and other biomass information is available at

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