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Energy crops

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A research commitment on Renewable Biomass Energy & Global Warming by using Nature’s own Power Plants! Read the full article here In unique public and industry research and commercial demonstration partnerships, the Common Purpose Institute is working with the University of Florida, Florida Energy Office, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Farmers, Power Providers, Industrial & Manufacturing Companies, Ethanol Biofuel Producers, and others to grow, harvest, and use fast growing crops (called energy crop or closed loop biomass) and also biomass waste streams (e.g., clean yardwaste, crop residues, etc.) as renewable energy biofuel or feedstocks for:

  • Power plants (e.g., woody crops, switchgrass).
  • Clean biogas for Industrial use (e.g., product drying).
  • Ethanol production (e.g., sweet sorghum, sugarcane).
  • Biodiesel production (e.g., soybeans).
  • Oil (pyrolytic liquids from bioenergy waste streams).
  • Biorefineries (steam, power, value added bio-products).
  • Biomass Energy & Global Warming:   By remembering the basic science of photosynthesis, a key aspect of our biomass research effort can be easily understood. Since plants and trees absorb and store atmospheric carbon as they grow, growing and using biomass energy crops reduces the level of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere — which may be creating Global Warming Climate Change on our planet.

    The science behind this Strategy to reduce greenhouse gas levels is accomplished in two ways: First, biomass energy from crops is “carbon cycle neutral” just like other forms of renewable energy such as wind or solar power. Second, growing energy crops creates a “carbon sink” through terrestrial carbon sequestration by storing carbon underground through root systems and soil chemistry management practices (e.g., recycling bagasse). Because of this creation of a “carbon sink” (a component which solar and wind energy do not have), we believe that bioenergy from closed loop energy crops represents the most effective choice in “alternative energy” options to address Global Warming.

    Our Biomass Crop Approach to Restoring Environmentally Damaged Lands.Also, it’s important to note that our biomass research and commercial demonstration is using environmentally damaged lands, such as closed mining sites. According to NASA Scientists, one-fifth of the carbon dioxide released annually from fossil-fuel emissions could be “sequestered” by planting energy crops on marginal lands of this type. Hopefully, our work can help create a “Global Model”, where thousands of acres now largely considered wastelands can have productive agriculture and environmental use.

    For marginal lands such as mining (phosphate, coal, etc.), pre-mined lands were most likely in native forest for hundreds/thousands of years. As such, these sites’ soils were probably at carbon saturation. After mining however, empirical research is clear that post-mined lands often have little soil carbon.

    Thus, any incremental build-up of carbon from post-mined sites (starting from a low percentage close to zero) to a carbon saturation level (present before mining) would be creating a permanent carbon sink. This concept of “incremental build-up” of carbon levels on mined lands is illustrated in the yellow bar of the graph below.

    Carbon Saturation Levels of Pre and Post Mined Soils

    Biomass Energy & Pollution:   Because energy crop fuel contains almost no sulfur and has significantly less nitrogen than fossil fuels — reductions in pollutants causing acid rain (SO2) and smog (NOx) may be realized — improving our air quality. An additional environmental benefit is in water quality, as energy crop fuel contains less mercury than coal. Also, energy crop farms using environmetally pro-active designs will create water quality filtration zones, uptaking and sequestering pollutants such as phosphorus from soils that leach into water bodies.

    Biomass Energy & Agriculture: What if the next big oil or natural gas field wasn’t in places like the Middle East or Venezuela — but fields of energy crops (trees, sorghum, switchgrass) grown in Florida and the Southeastern U.S.?

    U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Lab Bioenergy Agriculture ReportIn ongoing research and commercial demonstration (best management agricultural and environmental practices) efforts, an “energy crop farm” of non-invasive eucalyptus trees and various row crops (e.g., soybeans, sweet sorghum, sweet potatoes, energycane) has been established on closed phosphate mining marginal lands (non-irrigated) in central Florida.

    University of Florida Biomass Energy Crop Yield Estimates The Project reflects decades of tree research conducted by the University of Florida and Shell Energy to produce “Super Trees” which may grow 20 feet a year (yielding 32 green tons and 16 dry tons per acre per year).

    Also, significant collaboration is occuring with sorghum seed companies in the development of varieties (hybrids, cultivars) producing high yields (~30 green tons per harvest) and high Brix (sugar content) that can be grown year-round in Florida’s warm climate.

    Another important aspect of “Energy Crops” is that they can also represent a sustainable renewable energy resource — since our trees and certain row crops like sugarcane will re-grow after each harvest (coppice, ratoon) — allowing multiple harvests without having to re-plant (called short rotation crops).

    A key aspect of our agriculture research and demonstration efforts is the development of Strategies to vertically integrate Farming into Bioenergy projects — allowing Farmers to participate in a profitable “process end” (e.g., biofuel ethanol production) of agriculture rather than just selling a commodity based raw product (e.g., corn, soybeans, etc.). All of these Strategies have a common nexus to create “value added” products and services to become a low cost Producer.

    If our team of scientists, engineers, farmers, and environmentalists are successful, energy crops could provide:

  • A clean alternative energy biofuel for power plants.
  • Feedstocks for ethanol (cellulose or sugar/starch
    platforms) and biodiesel.
  • New cash crops to farmers & rural economic development.
  • Greater Energy Independence (foreign oil & natural gas).
  • Productive use of environmentally damaged lands.
  • Tampa Electric's Polk Power Station (coal gasification unit) is one of several coal- fired units in Florida co-firing biomass. Biomass Energy Engineering: The power plant engineering behind the project is also innovative, using an approach called biomass co-firing. With co-firing, an existing power generation facility is modified to allow use of energy crop fuel — changing the fuel mix from a current 100% dependence on fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, natural gas) to approximately 5% biomass fuel and 95% fossil fuels.

    While displacing relatively small percentages of fossil fuel use with biomass energy crops may not sound like much, it is very significant when recognizing the tremendous size of electricity generation facilities. For example, co-firing energy crops at just one medium size power plant would be the equivalent of installing over 41,000 large solar panels — or in reducing CO2 emission levels, by removing approximately 17,000 cars off the road.

    Co-utilizing “Energy Crop Fuel” especially with coal is both effective and economically promising because it doesn’t require major changes in existing technology at power plants.

    Instead of building new power generating facilities, which would ultimately result in higher costs to the consumer, we are working with scientists and engineers to change the fuel blend. It’s a novel approach to creating Renewable Energy, and if it works, there’s potential for immediate commercial use by electric utilities offering their customers a low cost option to purchase “Green Energy”.

    In biomass co-firing, there are three primary approaches to biomass fuel delivery into the existing power plant: Solid Fuel Blending; Solid Fuel Direct Injection; and External Gasification.

    Examples include: (1) Blending coal and biomass fuel together for a cyclone coal unit; (2) Directly injecting only biomass fuel through dedicated fuel ports into a pulverized coal unit; (3) Creating biogas in an external gasifier and then piping the hot gas into an existing coal, oil, or natural gas boiler.

    An intriguing aspect of this third option is the potential to use the biogas high in the boiler’s re-burn zone — possibly avoiding the need to install costly pollution control equipment (e.g., Selected Catalytic Reduction or SCR) at a coal unit. Engineering research suggests that the “hot tar” fraction in the “hot raw” biogas is particulary reactive and may reduce NOx emissions between 50% and 70%.

    Working with Electric Utilities, U.S. Department of Energy Labs (NETL, NREL, ORNL), the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and Others — we have performed biomass co-firing engineering research (called “test burns”) on all major combustion technologies of cyclone, pulverized coal, and combined cycle gasification (IGCC) units.

    The Biorefinery Concept: In addition to the above electric utility power plant project work, we are working with Industrial Companies to integrate a variety of biomass raw feedstocks (e.g., cellulose, sugar/starch crops or waste streams) and conversion processes (e.g., biotechnology) into a single facility called a biorefinery at an existing “host” industrial plant:

  • Steam and Power Co-generation (using syngas).
  • Fuel Products (e.g., ethanol, pyrolysis bio-oil)
  • Value Added Products (e.g., chemicals, materials).
  • Our approach in creating a biorefinery is fundamentally the same as the approach used with electric utility power plant co-firing — where an existing industrial “host” facility is modified for biomass applications utilizing as much of the existing engineering infrastructure as possible (e.g., avoiding high capital costs of a new stand alone bioenergy or biorefinery facility).

    From an industrial company’s perspective, the large economic incentive with this approach is the displacement of high cost natural gas (and in Florida, also oil) with lower cost biogas in the generation of steam/power (i.e., cogeneration) and/or process heat (i.e., product drying) for the industrial company’s “core market” products. An example would be the installation of a new external biomass gasifier to an existing industrial natural gas boiler package at a citrus juice processing plant — resulting in lower cost steam and power for both “core market” (e.g., juice processing) and biorefinery products (e.g., pyrolytic liquids).

    Biomass Energy & Native Habitats:   Also included in this Research Effort are special project advisors from leading environmentalists, such as the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission — ensuring that natural wildlife habitats are preserved and enhanced. A key aspect of this environmental habitat work effort is using energy crops as “Bridge Crops” to reclaim/restore severely damaged closed phosphate mining sites.


    Written by Casey McConnell

    February 21, 2008 at 4:59 pm

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