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Renewable fuel talk turning to cellulosic gas, diesel

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A Purdue University agricultural economist and energy policy analyst has changed his tune on renewable fuels.

“We don’t just talk about ethanol. We talk about biofuels,” said Wally Tyner.

“Ethanol is the product from corn, but you also can produce gasoline and diesel directly from cellulosic feedstocks. And when you bring up the blending wall for ethanol, that means the door may be open wider for processes that will take us directly from corn stover, switchgrass and Miscanthus to biogasoline and biodiesel. We need to be thinking in those terms.”

Tyner and fellow Purdue agricultural economist Steven Wu will discuss biofuels and the future of renewable energy during Growing the Bioeconomy: Solutions for Sustainability. The Dec. 1 conference is a collaborative effort between Purdue and sister land-grant universities in 11 other Midwest states.

Purdue Extension and Purdue’s Energy Center at Discovery Park are hosting a conference viewing site in Stewart Center on the university’s West Lafayette campus. The conference also can be viewed online.

The event is geared toward anyone with an interest in biofuels. Conference topics range from advances and breakthroughs in biofuels to biochar, which is the leftover material after cellulose is converted into fuel.

Tyner said there’s still a future for ethanol, but much of the future growth will be in cellulosic biofuels. Cellulose for liquid fuel comes from plant material, including the non-grain parts of corn.

Ethanol growth is restrained by a “blending wall” – the amount of ethanol gasoline companies are permitted by law to blend with petroleum-based fuel. Current federal standards set the amount at 10 percent of gasoline consumption.

No such blending limit exists with cellulosic biofuels, Tyner said. There are other differences between biogasoline and ethanol, he said.

Biogasoline is produced through a refining process and is chemically similar to petroleum-based gasoline, while ethanol is produced by a fermentation process, Tyner said. Biogasoline can be transported through gasoline pipelines; ethanol is corrosive to pipes and must be transported by rail or truck.

However, cellulosic biofuels face three challenges, Tyner said.

“You’ve got market uncertainty, technology uncertainty and government policy uncertainty,” he said.

There are no commercial cellulosic biofuels plants operating in the United States, Tyner said. Getting them built likely will require biofuels companies to enter into new kinds of contracts with the farmers supplying the feedstock. Dedicated energy crops like switchgrass and Miscanthus, a similar grass, produce for 10-15 years. A 50-million-gallon biofuels plant would need a truckload of cellulose every 10 minutes from day one.

“These plants cost $400 million to build, and nobody’s going to sink $400 million into concrete and steel until they’ve got a guaranteed supply of feedstock,” Tyner said. “And getting a guaranteed supply of feedstock means convincing farmers that they are going to be there 10 years from now to take their Miscanthus or switchgrass. The plant has to be convinced that the farmer is going to be there 10 years from now, as well. It’s a whole new ballgame.”

Government subsidy programs for renewable fuels would need to change, as well, for the biofuels industry to take off, Tyner said.

“Right now, everything in the U.S. is on a per-gallon basis. So today, for cellulosic biofuels you get $1.01 per gallon whether you’re producing ethanol or biogasoline,” he said. “Biogasoline has 50 percent more energy than bioethanol, yet it gets the same subsidy. We could consider moving to the kind of system Europe has, where everything is based on energy content. That would level the playing field.”

Wu’s presentation follows Tyner’s. Wu will discuss contracting issues for second generation perennial energy crops.

The conference’s keynote speaker is James Lovelock, a renowned thinker on global environmental science. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu are invited speakers.

The conference runs from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. EST.

Registration is $75 for those viewing the conference at Stewart Center and $50 for online viewing. Complete registration information is available by visiting the Purdue Conference Division’s upcoming events page at https://www.cec.purdue.edu/ec2k/Upcoming.asp and clicking on the link to Growing the Bioeconomy: Solutions for Sustainability. Registration is recommended by Nov. 24.

For a complete conference agenda, visit the conference Web site at http://www.bioeconomyconference.org. Additional information also is available by contacting Chad Martin, Purdue Extension renewable energy specialist, at 765-496-3964, martin95@purdue.edu.

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