Industry Market Trends

Are Biomass and Biofuel Environmental Solutions for the Future?

Jan 23, 2013


"Biomass" is a manufacturing and industrial term that has become thrown around quite a bit in recent years, as more and more companies and industries try to find ways to take their waste products and recycle and re-use them.

Landfills are filling up fast, and the incredible amount of carbon footprint industrial waste leaves is a concern to manufacturers and customers alike.

But what exactly is biomass, and how is it going to change manufacturing procedures in the future, leading to more "biorefineries?" I talked to some experts in the field, and looked at some new projects being funded by the Department of Energy, to get a handle on this emerging trend.

James Regan is in corporate communications for Covanta Energy, which operates 44 waste energy plants and eight biomass facilities across the U.S.

He explained that the desire not to simply put waste in landfills is a big reason companies are turning to biomass; in the biomass process, methane gas is not produced like it is at landfills; landfills produce 25 times more methane gas than the biorefining process does.


"A lot of companies focus on the 3 R's," Regan said, referring to reduce, reuse, and recycle. "We try to focus on the 4th "R'", which is recover.  "We are trying to get to zero landfill and reduce our carbon footprint almost entirely."

Regan explained that at Covanta's waste facilities, 2/3 of their trash is biomass, and at their biomass facility they work primarily with wood waste (from land-clearing sites and the like), and stressed that U.S. companies need to take a page from their European brethren on biomass.

"There are more sustainable policies around the world than here; there are no policies on the climate side to reduce landfills in the U.S.," Regan said. " In the EU they have policies in place to reduce landfills, like the landfill directive; they encourage reduce, reuse, and recycle. I think companies here are getting more and more proactive in that area."

Josh Levine is the project director for American Renewables, a consortium of three companies heavily invested in biomass's future.

When asked why biomass is catching on, he quickly rattled off several reasons:

"Among renewable energy, it's one of the only space-load technologies," Levine said. "Unlike wind and solar, which is only available when wind blows and sun shines, with biomass you can turn it on and turn it off when you need power.

"It also is unique in that it utilizes a locally-reusable fuel. You can re-use 1 million green tons a year; that's just under $30 million a year in fuel," he added.

Other reasons Levine cited why biomass is effective and popular include the desire for companies to diversify their portfolios, and its potential for job growth, something every sector is looking for right now.

Levine pointed to a Florida State University economic impact analysis that determined that around 500 jobs in the Tallahassee region are directly or indirectly created by a Tallahassee biomass factory.

What are more reasons biomass is becoming more popular? How about the uncertainly of fuel prices? Consider that in the 1950s, the price of a ton of oil was about one-sixth the price of a ton of wheat. In 2011, the price of oil was three times that of wheat. This is one factor why biorefineries are a more economically attractive option than they have been in the past.

The U.S. Department of Energy is certainly interested in developing biomass as a renewable energy that works and helps diminish the nation's carbon footprint and reduce the dependency of our waste-producers on landfills. A few weeks ago the Department announced more than $10 million in grants to five research projects in California, Washington, Maryland and Texas that will "develop new technologies to convert biomass into advanced biofuels and bioproducts like plastics and chemical intermediates."


According to the DOE, these projects use innovative synthetic biological and chemical techniques to convert biomass into processable sugars that can be transformed into bioproducts and drop-in biofuels for cars, trucks and planes. These grants will support projects led by collaborative teams, which include universities, national laboratories, and private industry.

You can find the whole list and descriptions of the grant winners here, but I wanted to go in-depth with a few of the projects, so I talked to two lead project investigators who were recipients of the DOE bucks:

Texas AgriLife Research: Texas AgriLife Research is a branch of Texas A&M University and a premier research agency in agriculture, natural resources, and the life sciences. They received a $2.4 million grant to do a project that will develop a novel and integrated platform for converting lignin, a component of all lignocellulosic material, into biofuel precursors.

In tandem with scientists from Georgia Institute of Technology, University of British Columbia, Washington State University, and Texas A&M University, Texas AgriLife and principal investigator Dr. Joshua Yuan will, over the next two years, attempt to convert and degrade lignin as part of the biofuel process.

"Lignin is a major part of biofuel now," Yuan began, "and it is the most recalcitrant plant material that allows plants not to be degraded.  What we want to do is convert and degrade lignin and use it to produce lipids. And from lipids you can create biodiesel, which is a source of biofuel."

Yuan said that two major reasons his team's research will be important to the biomass and biofuel movement is that first,  the amount of waste produced in the U.S. grows every year, and we "are running out of places to put it," he said. And second, the fluctuation in the U.S. biodiesel market make finding a stable solution crucial.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2010, there were 343 million gallons of biodiesel produced, while in 2011 that number rocketed up to 1 billion gallons (967 million).

"This (project) will have a very significant impact on the biodiesel industry, for their sustainability, because they will have better ways to use their waste," Yuan said.  "If we can convert lignin to lipid, you can provide a stable source of feedstock for biodiesel."

J. Craig Venter Institute: The JCVI, named after the pioneering scientist and research essential to genome research, has earned a grant of up to $1.2 million for a project that will develop new technologies to produce enzymes that more efficiently deconstruct biomass to make biofuel. The work will be performed in collaboration with La Jolla, California-based Synthetic Genomics, Inc.

The project will be spearheaded by Dr. Yo Suzuki of JCVI, and he explained that "investigating synergy" will be a big part of the project.

"At the end of the project we want to find multiple enzyme genes, that can synergistically degrade biomass," Suzuki said. "To achieve this we're combining synthetic biology approaches, and yeast genome engineering approaches."

Suzuki said his team is starting with 51 enzymes with known activity that came from a meta-genomics study on bacteria living in cows, and that the chemical characterizations of those enzymes will hopefully allow researchers to find synergy among them that will allow the enzymes to deconstruct biomass more efficiently.

Mark Adams, the scientific director of JCVI, said the research could also "show the way to use cellulose to more easily break down biomass."

Clearly, biomass and biofuel technology is not going away, and how quickly companies and manufacturers adapt to it may go a long way toward determining their future success in the marketplace.