Biofuel progress, a report from Dubuque

The fun thing about conferences is that there are also sorts of individual lines that presenters say that could be pulled to the headline, and perhaps be more mischievous than helpful. I was thinking that today, when the opening speaker began with explaining why she couldn’t start her talk with a joke. Turns out that when she tried to Google “ethanol and Joke” all she got was pages of citations of “ethanol is a joke” or “ethanol is a big joke!” Conference, you say, speaker, you say, but I thought the ASPO Conference didn’t start until tomorrow?

Well yes, that’s true, but sometimes if you want to catch some of the developing stuff, or the stories that never make it to the National Meetings, you can learn a lot from smaller conferences, and so I came to Dubuque. Today is the first of two days on “The Impacts of Increased Bio-Fuel Production on the Midwest Landscape.” At a time when the current ethanol situation has been described as “the farmer’s version of the gold rush,” it was interesting to hear what is happening down at the farm level and in planning within the Midwest to look at answers to the looming problem. Some of the papers today discussed switchgrass, and algae, and biodiesel and how to effectively harvest the “crappiest wood” in the U.S. and turn it into useful energy. And in the discussions, in a town where the corn grows right up to the airport runways, there was a lot of realism in the discussions of water needs, and soil nutrition replacement and bottom line cost levels.

Since, alas, courtesy of American Airlines this was the second time I missed my connection in Chicago, and had to overnight there, before getting up before dawn to get here, and since I have to get up even earlier tomorrow to catch the flight to Houston, this post won’t quite be as detailed as I would like. Nor will I give my book review on my traveling book (Sandalow’s “Freedom from Oil”) until after Houston. And I apologize to the presenters who gave detailed presentations, (not otherwise available) at this meeting of the Soil and Water Conservation Society that I will not be able to give those talks full justice. But let me try and give you the gist of what I learned.

The meeting started with a presentation by Diana Friedman of SARE , Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, whose talk was “Beyond Biofuels.” The group is about to publish a pamphlet on “Clean Energy Farming,” and it was information on this that she talked about. One of their issues, and one that was common to a lot of today’s discussion was on the need to re-invigorate the rural communities and the benefits that sustainable agricultural solutions would have to that economy and those goals. Skipping a discussion of ethanol, (too polarizing) she talked about the benefit of Energy Audits, and how they could help farmers, though even when done they were not always followed through, noting that Energy Efficiency provides the best and fastest payback. She noted that 3-5% of the Iowan energy cost could be reduced just be better vehicle maintenance and upkeep of farm equipment.

She gave examples of innovators in the industry Piemont Biofuels who have established a biodiesel operation that reached its first year target within 6 months of start-up, and who are using solar heat to help in running the plant. John Williamson (pdf file) who also includes passive diesel in a farm-scale closed loop energy operation, in which he uses sorghum to provide the ethanol for plant equipment; Mike Collins (pdf) who operates greenhouses and converted them to using waste oil in the furnaces; Don Bustos who, facing bills that would drive him from the land his family had owned for 400-years, used undersoil piping with geothermal cooling in summer, and solar heat in winter to eliminate fuel costs from his greenhouse operation; Dan West who uses fruit waste to generate ethanol and who glued mirrors to an old satellite dish to make a pre-heater for the ethanol; Plug Flow Digesters (pdf) who use the “output” from 560 milk cows to generate 60 kW of power; and Community Wind Power of Wisconsin, where 12 farmers raised $3.6 million to buy and install 2 1.9 MW wind projects, setting up a 15-year contract with the utility.

She discussed recent government initiatives, including the Sun Grants, and the trends in future legislation, with the goal of 36 billion barrels of renewable fuel by 2022, of which only 15 billion would be from corn ethanol. She mentioned the initiative to provide funds for farmers to start producing the feedstocks for the nascent cellulosic ethanol industry (though she noted that it “wasn’t here yet”) and that the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance were beginning to formulate and codify how that industry might operate. In general she felt that the opportunities outweighed the challenges. In regard to corn ethanol, while we are still living the “gold rush times” there may be a course correction coming in regard to capital investment.

In comments someone said “ethanol is a 50-year blip on our energy plot, and we’re 25 years into it.” And someone else noted that we will transition from ethanol to pyrolesis of much of the feedstock because of water issues.

Brian Wrenn of the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center gave a talk that introduced the Center, budget $4 million, half from industry. It is involved, among other things, in training ethanol plant operators, for which there is currently much demand. Almost all new ethanol plants use dry grinding and he had a good map (from the NCGA ) showing where the ethanol plants are, and are planned. It is heavily oriented to the MidWest. (not surprisingly). Half of their research is dealing with what to do with the Brewers grain that is a byproduct of the ethanol generation. They are looking at pre-fractionating the corn to remove the non-starch components pre-digestion and maybe using that in a cellulosic treatment. We are at 12 billion bu this year, with a lot of the increse starting to come from increased yields, rather than acreage. We will have 8 billion gall of ethanol (4% of gas used) reaching 15 billion gal by 2015 (7% of gasoline). This is currently using 20% of the corn crop and will rise to 33%. The big issue however is water use. It takes approximately 5 gall of water per gallon of ethanol, so that a 50 million gal/yr plant will use 600,000 gal of water a day, which is more than the ratio of water used in refining gasoline (3 – 4.5 gal/gal). Much of the water loss is in dissipating the heat of the process.

There is still no good way to harvest, store, and transport feedstocks for cellulosic (see Dora Guffey’s talk later), and the chemicals used for pretreatment inhibit fermentation. And while enzyme activity in cellulosic has been improved, it is still very slow. And the water use/gallon of product is double. Further the pre-treatment water cannot be re-used, but must be discharged, preferably to a municipal sewer, since it contains organics that sewer treatment plants can deal with.

His ultimate conclusion was that the costs of making ethanol are what they are, and as a result the best path forward is conservation. (Since if we reduce the overall amount then we can meet the mandated percentage). Using corn stover is like a lot of biofuel ideas, it sounds good – until you start thinking about it. In the debate about that the numbers for stover, I got the impression that there are about 5 t/acre generated, and that it is acceptable to remove about 1.5 tons, since this also helps with no-till operations, without depleting the nutrients too much.

After the break there were four talks on Alternate Biofuels, starting with one by Hank Stetzler of the University of Missouri, who talked about sustainable forest thinning. With Missouri having the “crappiest wood” in the country, and lots of unproductive underbrush and poor timber, there is a potential to thin the forest to provide a better environent. By using satellites and “real truth” techniques, and then assessing the relative volumes of wood available, and accessible (no >30 deg slopes) and near a highway (while not precluded by other use) they were able to identify a resource of perhaps 9 green tons per acre. If the tops are left (and perhaps laid to protect the access paths from erosion) this leaves most of the nutrient in the forest, while improving the forest, and providing a resource.

The problem is how to convert this into an economic energy supply. Harvesting techniques have been studied, as has close-to-growth portable charcoal kilns that also produce the liquid byproducts, and which combine to make transportation costs more effective. (Hauling chipped wood is expensive). Trees under 8-inches yield nearly 100% biomass, by 11-12 inches this drops to 40%; 12 – 16 inches yields 25% biomass, and above that less than 20%. By looking at where the best resource lies, and the practicality of the use, they identified 3 locations in Missouri, Frederickton, Cuba and Thayer, where a potential use site could be created. Much of this land is in private hands, but if only 5% became involved it would be enough to provide a sustainable supply.

One potential is to generate pellets (this is done at NW Missouri State who burn a mix of 80% wood chips, 15% pelletized paper/trash from the campus and 5% pelletized animal waste). The increasing costs for transportation have reduced the viable collection area around a plant from 70 miles to 25.

The second paper was supposed to be be on the use of Osage Orange, which can produce 500 gallons of diesel, 750 to 900 gallons of ethanol and 4-5 tons of combustible biomass per acre per year, but unfortunately Alan Gravett the author could not make it. The operation recently obtained a $325k award from the DoA .

Brett Hulsey of Better Environmental Solutions talked of the use of various biofules. He noted that in the report “Cleaning the Air with Ethanol”, authored during the Carter Administration, cellulosic ethanol was said to be 5-years from viability. It is now said to be 2. He noted that it is currently uneconomic, given the price of soybean oil, to make biodiesel. The same concern might exist for corn ethanol, save only for the tax breaks that it currently gets, and which provide a profit of $0.50 to $1.00 a gallon (not bad for 20 million gal/year plant owners). Wisconsin spends $18.5 billion on fuel, 60% of which money leaves the state, but if $12 billion is spent on renewable energy then it will create 300,000 jobs. It will currently in displacing diesel and benzene, reduce the cancer causing components of current fuel mixes. He noted that using rice straw had an energy return of 9:1 (not sure what he was talking about here) and that Wisconsin could utilize 4.9 million tons of crop residue a year; 3.4 million tons of CRP grass; 2.9 million tons of hybrid poplars; 2.2 million tons of forest residue; 1.7 million tons of mill waste; 0.55 tons of urban waste; 0.32 million tons (sic) of methane; and 0.051 million tons of manure, which gives 14.8 million tons that could be combusted to provide fuel. Burning matter is not new and by now we know how to do it. We have the rivers that help with transportation, and if grass is burned it can provide ten times the energy source of solar and wind. And again he mentioned recovering 1.5 tons/acre of corn stover to help with no-till, while providing an energy source.

He noted that the manure from dairy herds (and Wisconsin has a large dairy herd) is a possible source for cellulosic ethanol since it is already partially digested and has a much better payback this way then by using it as a fertilizer. The problems with developing the new renewable fuels is that no-one will invest in the production of feedstock, until they see a need, and no-one will invest in the plants until they see the production. One problem he did mention was that it appears that burning corn stover in power plants raises corrosion issues. (Such is not the case with burning wood with coal, since this allows combustion of high-sulfur coals without the sulfur dioxide emissions).

This combustion issue was part of the presentation by Dora Guffey of the Chariton Valley Biomass Project who discussed a program in which switchgrass has been raised on delicate land, and harvested and burned in controlled tests at a normally coal-powered plant. The intent was to see if using this grass, which controls erosion, and improves soil quality could provide a viable fuel alternative. Three test burns have been made, addressing such issues as boiler corrosion.

They harvest the grass after a killing frost, so that virtually all the nutrients have left the plant body which is harvested, and are left in the root bit which is left on site. The grass is bundled into special bales 3 x 4 x 8 ft, and hauled to storage. You can’t leave it in the field as it wicks water, and it must be stored on gravel in a barn (same reason). Bale integrity controls energy availability. The bales weigh 1,000 lb and when reground for combustion they prove to be abrasive, and moisture content helps with this (12% moisture at the boiler if kept well, which matches the harvested value). The third test burn used 25,000 tons of grass over the 90-day test period. It cost $61 per ton for haulage, and $26 per ton for re-processing the grass at the power plant into small fragments (< ¾ inch) that could be blown into the furnace. The plant was paying about $20 a ton for the coal, and in the above you will note that the farmer did not get paid for the grass. Like the coal, the grass had to be totally consumed by the fireball within 3 seconds of being fed into the boiler fireball.

They displaced 2% of the coal in these tests, and are now permitted to burn the switchgrass. It should be noted, however, that fields of switchgrass can contain up to five different plants and all must be permitted (only one is, and it was selected for by using herbicides on the test plots). Thus more extensive testing will be required before a more general feedstock can be used. There is a concern that with the grass growing near waterways, any use of controlling chemicals might enter the waters, which would be a strong negative. Increasing transportation costs will negatively impact this project.

The final paper was by Dave Summers, of the University of Missouri-Rolla, talking about the growth of algae underground. I noted that some of the slides he used to illustrate the critical need for new fuel sources bore a remarkable resemblance to some of the information from this site. He quoted the Greg Paul number of 2,500 gallons of biodiesel, per acre, per year, from algae in comparison with the yields of other biofuel sources. He talked about experiments that are ongoing to identify high-yield varieties, finding that the local pond, for example contained algae that had nearly 25% oil content. The program, which is ongoing, is currently looking at the energy balance in supplying energy to the algae, and using LEDs in controlled frequencies to examine their potential in supplying the light more efficiently. (Sorry I did not take good notes).

Well 4 am is going to come very soon, and if I am to make that flight . . . . .

Thanks for taking such copious notes on farming energy efficiency, ethanol, and other efforts.. Looking forward to more articles about algae biofuels, with attention to energy balance, wastes, and water requirements. I wonder what the EROEI for excavating an underground growing facility is?

Almost nothing if you use already mined out space, that is the attraction. There are a number of places in the Midwest where the limestone was mined from underground leaving supported underground space under places such as Kansas City and Springfield, which have been turned into factories and offices. Because of the insulation and isolation it had advantages in certain industries, and has a very stable temperature. And it might be possible to use other mined out space - some of the metal mines, for example, leave rather large cavities.

The fact that algae feed on carbon dioxide makes an underground coal mine – like UMR’s Experimental Mine – the perfect incubator. According to Summers, the United States has a lot of unused space underground. “In underground coal mines, temperatures are easy to keep constant,” he says, “even at the higher temperatures that algae prefer.”

Summers also realized that, under the surface, the algae would not be vulnerable to infestation and could be grown in three dimensions. “Soybeans and other crops grow on the surface in two dimensions,” Summers says, flattening his hand in the air to illustrate a point about volume. “Algae isn’t a scarce resource, by any means. It breeds so rapidly under the right conditions – you could fill a whole mine eventually from one vial. And algae don't really need all of the light that comes from the sun. If the electrical engineers can provide a good source of light underground, you’ve solved some big problems.”

You are never going to replace the sun efficiently. Electrical engineers understand this - their crowning achievement was the spread of 1% efficient light bulbs, currently being replaced by 10% efficient bulbs by the green movement. Algae do not live on CO2 - they live on sunlight, their energy source - which they store by building CO2 up into carbohydrates. They live on great scads of it, a kilowatt per square meter peak (around 200 watts average). A thin layer of slime might not use all of that sunlight - and so algae have evolved mechanisms to rise to the top when they need energy, and sink when they're full; Even if they hadn't, simple water pumps can cycle a tank very, very efficiently. Even largescale agricultural processes like cheesemaking do it on a few watts of handpower, often.

Plant biofuels exist to *HARVEST SUNLIGHT.* Sticking them underground is utterly counterproductive.

The United States has a great amount of land *aboveground* that it doesn't use - go find an alkali flat, for the love of Bob.

"LEDS at tuned frequencies" to grow biofuels should be an utter outrage for environmentalists, as long as anyone in the world is using coal for electricity generation.

The overall fuel consumption of this approach in tons of coal per mile, compared to using it to charge a battery in an EV, is literally hundreds of times higher.

I agree with Squalish, there is not even a theoretical possibility that underground growing will be energy positive. An EROEI of about 0.1 would be an upper limit based primarily on the lighting inefficiency. You have to wonder what is going on in peoples minds when the think of such projects. It makes coal to liquids look green.

1. Does anyone have numbers on the entire energy input chain into producing a gallon of biodiesel from algae?

2. Could a suntube-like approach work to bring in sunlight instead of using LED lighting? My concern would be with the amount of energy required to drill through rock to get to the various parts of the mining chamber.

3. Are there enough suitable* underground mines in the US (or the world) for an eventual 2 mmbd production? 10 mmbd production? How much does the current pilot plan to produce?

* Ones that are not:
- too unstable in their bracings
- flooded with heavy metal contaminated water
- composed of passages that are too narrow or winding
- too far from current infrastructure (roads, pipelines, etc)

The mine is the problem, not a solution. Light is the limiting issue. Algae could work on the surface if a suitable highly productive strain could be found. If the algae were perfect except for susceptibility to contamination, then a surface system in the desert with greenhouses or glass tubes might work.

Suntubes with surface sunlight concentrated with mirrors would probably be even less efficient than electric lighting since you would loose about 10-20% per meter due to reflection losses on the walls of the tube.

Anything you can do in your mine, I can do for a tenth the cost in a corrugated steel silo.

Even so, land is not the limiting factor (in most countries) for a massive industrial project like this - it works in the middle of nowhere even better than it works in the city, and it is highly mechanized.

I don't have numbers on overall efficiency of LED lighting, only that the cost per lumen for white light is so high (in lumens per dollar) that LEDs are practically useless for bulk lighting. Compared to arc lighting or flourescents, they cost 50-100x as much, without even matching efficiency. LED evangelists refuse to compare energy efficient lighting, and assume that their trends will continue forever.

Currently, the best choices for bulk lighting are all high intensity discharge: metal halide, sodium vapor, and sulfur lamps. You can pick up a 1 kilowatt MH lamp for 20 cents a watt, and it will give you 60-90 lumens per watt of high color accuracy white light, and last you 10,000-20,000 hours. None of these come in small sizes, and they are all delicate systems including a ballast, igniter, and warmup/ cooldown time. And sodium lamps are yellow/orange.

High efficiency flourescents can match them in most things, and beat them roundly in modularity + ease of use.

LEDs are excellent for portable/fixed colored directional or colored flood lighting, good for portable white directional lighting, and horrible for anything else.

I've just come inside from spraying a nasty chemical on a biofuel crop (synthetic pyrethrin on canola) and I'm wondering if it will even be possible Post Petroleum. The more I think about it the more I think the localised gasification/charcoal approach is best. Use not only garbage but roadside weeds that survive with or without FF input. Cook food and heat water with charcoal pellet stoves that work out a few cents per kilowatt hour equivalent, then put the ash on the garden. The really big hurdle seems not to be harvesting or charcoal making but gas-to-liquids technology. When that cost comes down I see at least a partial way forward.

The forest harvesting paper did mention that there is a liquid and gaseous product to the portable charcoal kiln, but gave no more details, and I don't know what they are, or what volume is produced. The problem with large scale burning of weeds is, as the switchgrass example noted, EPA wants an impact statement for the burning of each variety that will go into the furnace.

The liquid and gaseous products from the charcoal kiln are probably somewhere between the properties of bio-oil (a product of fast thermolysis at intermediate temperature) and the off-gas from torrefaction, with some tars thrown in.  The process is going to turn carbohydrate into a product which is primarily carbon, so the byproducts will be rather wet.

It is amazing the lengths that people will go to in order to make biofuels work. I think the sun->wheels efficiency will have a hard time exceeding 1/2% when you factor in photosynthesis, biomass transportation and the combustion engine.

A solar panel combined with an electric motor is around 16% efficient today. We just need to figure out how to deliver electricity to moving vehicles. Some combination of overhead wires or guideways can serve most commuters and cargo without destroying our food supply.

Eh.... The smoke and mirrored policies rarely effect any shadow of common sense- they just tend to pretense. It all becomes temporarily offset with thee ever greater/ongoing subjected clause of morewardumbery fiat nonsense solutions. The laws of physics and thermo do not require any stated energy source--we never really quite get back what we put in do we? Ah, we have a glorious mountain of mammonized waste that can be bilked if and when nesessary invokes stretch marks. That is when eyelids and pupils adjust - and when individual I's and institutionalized Q's pop. That is when reality moves beyond thee bullchit consumerism vanity of making it to break to sell more. We have a big fat sofa of relaxation to extract our previously broken wasted ways from. Won't that be comforting inbetween the tracer rounds?

Food supply will become more local, and this is because it has little choice/options. Things will be in season because half way around thee world will require sum importance beyond a squid appetizer.

Even when we are destructing foreign lands for booty of liquid black energy, this simple equation does/will not change.

Moving vehicles and electricty are not a big problem when the obvious waste is eliminated and the power is/becomes slightly sustainably generated....atleast not a problem in an environment with leaders that have sum thinking semblance of an actual forthcoming clue.


This conference had a lot of data from "in use" processes. Very good reporting!

Two questions:

1. Did anyone mention the use of alternate sources of heat for the ethanol process to increase EROEI? I have heard of using cow manure and other organic waste to generate nat. gas for the process, thus increasing the EROEI.

2. The cost associated with using switchgrass as boiler fuel in a normally coal fired plant sounds very high. The $61/ton cost of transport equals $1342 per truckload or $6100 per railcar load. This equals a trip length of 500 to 800 miles. These figures must be off. I would think that switchgrass could be grown very near the power plant in normal economic situation, thus reducing this cost to 10% of quoted figure.

Comment: Cost for coal may be $20/ton, but that is not delivered price. Rail transportation from Wyoming or Montana where low sulpher coal is located costs more like $20 per ton, so delivered cost is more like $40/ton.

Mark in St Louis, USA

The $61 figure covered harvesting (with special equipment to prepare the bales, and load the trucks) and storage - the issue of moisture content is critical, and thus they had to be in barns with at least a gravel floor, and good water protection in the walls and roof. I don't know how they amortized off these costs, nor how they were derived. The numbers came in response to a question at the end of the paper and so was not very detailed, and was, I recall, because the presenter had said that the power company liked the idea but would not displace $20 coal with $120 switchgrass, and the question related to where the $120 figure came from. The plant is up around the Iowa:Missouri border. (And I am not sure if it covered the cost of herbicide and a small amount of fertilizer for the switchgrass - sorry).

The use of biodigesters for gas generation was one of the topics mentioned by the first speaker, but apart from making pellets from animal waste at a Missouri college, and the possible cellulosic source, I can't remember animal waste being mentioned much.

The powerplant for the grass experiments is in Ottumwa, IA. At least some of the grass was from the Corydon, IA area roughly 75 miles away.

This is where alternative feed stocks to corn break down. Harvesting costs, as pointed out, are significant. There is no high tech-high volume infrastructure in place as there is with corn. Those who favor such as switch grass are unfamiliar with the efficiency of the corn harvest and what would be involved to obtain such efficiency with alternatives to corn. Corn has definitive quality characteristics that must be met at sale. What will be the definitive quality characteristics of switch grass and such? No one knows and no one can say. Storage is a big issue even for corn. Transporting bulking low density materials is difficult and time consuming. Also completely lacking is a discussion of on whose land the alternative feed stocks will be produced. Poor land is owned by poor owners mostly with little capital for investment. The better land is owned by the more wealthy who are not going to forgo growing a well established crop such as corn with a firm market price for a pie in the sky scheme.

A railcar routinely carries 100 tons of rock. I'm not convinced one can carry 100 tons of switchgrass.


I haven't escaped from reality. I have a daypass.

greenhouse geothermal cooling in summer,

I again show my 'googelmister' skills (no, wait, I just happen to remember the key words to find)

Half of their research is dealing with what to do with the Brewers grain that is a byproduct

Again: done.

You can convert the complex carbohydrates as:
Pig food (
the land next to miller brewing was called pigsville and who doesn't like bacon!)
or fungi (to kill weed seeds)


BioFuel from waste.... coming projects in the US. First 200tpd plant running in Guelph, Canada. 130tpd startup in West Lorne is hanging!

More plants to come in south america, australia,....

Agreement with Mitsubishi japan.

Lot of potential......Need to say more ?

dymtf.ob for the investors ;-)

Yeah you need to explain what exactly "lots of potential" means and give some cost estimates. What is the ultimate potential of waste feedstock?

The 200tpd plant is said to produce some 350bpd oil equivalent per day (this I assume is including co-generation and char coal). Compare that to a single Saudi oil well of 6000bpd. Even mature wells can produce more than that.

I agree waste is a low hanging-fruit and has to be utilized, but it will be able to bring us only that much further. I suspect if they had to do all the harvesting and chopping themselves the overall economics and EROEI would make the whole thing unthinkable.

The real advantage is that they have tested over 140 types of green which they can convert in BioOil and that there are places on earth where there's lot of free waste stock. In some cases they even pay to get rid of it.

Also the modular concept of the building of theyre plants is very clever. Theoretically it's very easy to move theyre plants to new feedstock places.

A study has proven that from 30$ crude oil, theyre biooil is profitable.

More detailed energy study:

I'm not sure its unthinkable, but probably close.

I am surprised there are not any references to existing cogen or waste facilities. These have been in operation 20+ years and have walked a lot of problems. Most of the fuel is free, or of nominal charge, the cost is transport. As such, the danger area is around 20 miles, over 100 and it's not worth it. The typical location is near large sawmills. Most of these plants got started as a response to air quality regs if anything, the "waste" owners were more than happy to give away their problems.

With wood biomass, I've been to one facility that uses mill waste-alot of bark-at 50% moisture. The facility must run 24/7, the trucks 5 days a week, so storage of the volumes of waste becomes critical. It's not cost effective to keep it dry. So I was surprised to read of all the moisture talk. It makes much more sense than just burning in teepees, as previous. But like hydro in the northwest, I think it's pretty much tapped out, save urban waste.

It is clear that there is a farming bias in most of these schemes. The exceptions are the underground algae,which is plainly silly, and the forest thinning, which could work on a local scale. The only benefit of farming is that some crops are readily turned to liquid fuels. The disadvantage is that the efficiency is very low because a successful harvest requires intensive input.
I am surprised that there is little talk of forestry. Grass can be more photosynthetically efficient that trees, but are extremely inefficient to harvest and transport and convert. Why not plant forests in corn fields, provide minimal maintenance for a couple of decades and then remove 2% of the trees per year. You will end up with a self-sustaining forest which will also provides a steady stream of relatively cheap energy.

Cellulosic biomass (wood, stalks) has big advantages over slime such as cow poo methane, algae and fermenting alcoholic mashes. For starters, leaves and branches hang themselves out to dry after rain, and can hibernate in cold and drought. They stretch out looking for light and nutrients. Harvested at the right time the moisture content may be low enough for the next application, not requiring energy sapping de-watering such as distillation. They have evolved defences against many insects and fungi. Oilseeds can evolve herbicide resistance (perhaps with GMO help) but I don't know how wood can evolve a strategy against gasification at 650C.

Wood and grass is the way to go. Save 'girlie' plants for salads.

I am surprised that there is little talk of forestry.

There is a interesting 'law' of allometric scaling in biology. Applied to plants and microalgae it is valid for all species over a range of 19 orders of magnitude variation in individual plant mass, M. Over this range, the mass growth rate, G varies as M to the 3/4 power(Niklas&Enquist, PNAS v98#5 p2922-2927 or ). This gives microalgae an enormous advantage in productivity, and trees, especially big ones, a big disadvantage compared to plants of intermediate mass. This seems not to be known by people in the energy-biomass promotion community. Of course, growing trees and growing algae have very different practical problems which may neutralize these theoretical differences. But I'm not surprised that there is little interest in deliberately growing wood just to burn it. As for algae, this may explain some of the published productivity numbers are way larger than for other photosynthesis systems.

But inspite of this theory, growing algae in caves does seem an outlier idea.

I agree that the primary productivity of algae and corn is significantly higher than that of trees. But I bet there is a scaling law with a steeper and opposite slope for the harvesting efficiency. In the case of algae, the energy needed to break the cell membrane to release the oil and to separate the oil from the emulsion is probably greater than the energy in the oil. For food use that might be fine since food is always energy negative, but if you are interested in the energy content you can not win.

But I suspect the interest in algae has to do with the interesting technological aspects and the availability of investment money for such projects.

If that were so, then nothing would eat algae as food because it would be a net energy loss.

(Sometimes I wonder how many people think before posting, or if it's just a world shortage of coffee.)

There is a difference between eating algae and putting it into an IC engine or burning it. It is the same for ethanol, try putting beer in your tank. Removing all the water is very energy intensive.

(Sometimes I wonder how many people think before posting, or if it's just a world shortage of coffee.)

"With Missouri having the “crappiest wood” in the country, and lots of unproductive underbrush and poor timber"

I am not sure I can agree with that comment by one of the attendees.

I lived in Missouri for many years and spent a lot of that time in the wooded areas,,camping,fishing,etc...

Missouri does not have the crappiest wood in the world.It has an enourmous amount of Eastern Red Cedar where the ground is rocky. It has huge numbers of various oak trees. In fact this is usually the first growth that comes when the forest is trying to reestablish opposed to the sweet gum and other trash,weedy trees that sprout on cleared land here in Ky.

The Ozark region does not have real good soil on the hillsides since most of it has long ago eroded down to the creek bottoms and there is where very highly prized black walnut grows.

There is a lot of diversity in Missouri and the upper half of the state is mostly like the prairie landscape..and more fertile for row cropping or grain production. The south being part of the Ozark Mtns..but very diverse with lots of game..and land that is 'locked in' due to poor farming areas..however it can be done and IMO should be more prized than it is...

I became sick when I drove thru the Popular Bluff area and seen the huge amount of smoke over many miles from the burning used to just make charcoal for the cityfolk bbq. A huge waste in my mind and distressing to the land...

They logged the best part of this land away a long long time ago and of course it looks like the casual observer..

Just go down and float the Jacks Fork , or Gasconade, or many of the other beautiful,wild, clear running rivers in this Ozark region and then you might think differently.

It is full of caverns, many unknown now,I have been thru lots of them when younger..this is a land that doesn't need to be trashed for its immature oak trees..however I would say that proper thinning can improve what has been slashed and hacked at over the ages...

Down in some of the offbeat areas way back in the outback I have run into stands of old growth timber,,that was amazing and beyond telling of...sadly conservation has not been kind to this area IMO even though there are state forests that you think would be protected but seems this is just a shine-on. Truth is far different IMO.

Growing serious crops large scale just doesn't work except in the Bootheel and the upper north of Missouri. All the rest is rugged,very rugged outback. A huge amount of chert is in this well as more copperheads per square mile than any place I know,as well as scorpions and timber rattlers. Chiggers and ticks abound as well. If you go there you better be prepared...yet the very wildness to me was the reason I spent so much time there. The natives there are not known for friendliness to strangers.

Airdale-of course this is just my observations and the experts may cast it differently..but I doubt they have the same viewpoint , especially to call it the crappiest wood in the country.If so(and I don't agree) it surely didn't get that way by itself. And whats there is trying to come back to what it once was.
Must we destroy everything in search for future energy to endlessly fill our days with a lazy, obese lifestyle that goes nowhere and accomplishes little?

It was the speaker, a professor of forestry at the University of Missouri, that made the remark.

Heading Out,

Thank you for a very good outline, I have to wonder about the switchgrass monoculture and chemical use. If we are looking for a sustainable power source from native grasses, the production fields should mimic the native prairie in the area. In the northern tallgrass prairie, switchgrass is a minor player with big bluestem dominating the scene. Big bluestem is equally combustive and in a prairie matrix would not require chemical use and on a rotation basis would not require fertilizer inputs.

I think that part of the limitation of the experiments came because of the EPA restriction on burning. Thus the feedstock was preferentially limited in order to get the experiments done. I would expect, were this to grow into a production operation that the additional permitting to allow the grass varieties would be obtained and they would use the more available species and mix.

I would expect, were this to grow into a production operation that the additional permitting to allow the grass varieties would be obtained ...

I have no idea about the particular chemistry of the various grass, but I do know of one serious biomass burning issue:
Rice straw contains a lot of silica (thats right, silica as in sand). When you burn it you get silica particulate matter in the air, unless you do a really good job of filtering you flue gas. If any of these grasses have silica in them, I expect EPA approval will not be forthcoming at an affordable price. There are a whole lot of show stoppers like this in biology.

This is why they could gasify rice straw to syngas and synthesize SNG. They can deal with the silica in the ash produced and just might make a good mix for plowing back into the soil.