Overview and Perspective: Biofuels and Bioprocessing in Louisiana

Linda Benedict, Russin, John  |  5/13/2015 1:58:46 AM

John Russin

Louisiana has long been recognized for oil and gas production. From the first producing oil well in Jennings in 1901 and the first natural gas pipeline near Shreveport in 1908, our state has matured into a globally recognized hub for recovery, processing and transportation of fossil-based fuels, chemicals and specialty products. Over the years, Louisiana has drilled more than 1 million producing wells that have yielded billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Trailing only Texas, Alaska and California in crude oil production, Louisiana produces nearly 23 percent of our nation’s crude oil and nearly 11 percent of the nation’s natural gas. Not surprisingly, the oil and gas sector remains a principal economic driver in Louisiana and across the Gulf of Mexico region.

However, worldwide dependence on these nonrenewable fossil fuels, coupled with concerns surrounding climate change, has driven interest in alternative, renewable, biobased sources for fuels, fibers, polymers and specialty chemicals. This emerging paradigm shift from exclusive emphasis on fossil-based hydrocarbons toward expanded use of plant-based carbohydrates has created unique challenges. Many acknowledge that long-term success of these evolving industries will depend upon a balance between food needs and fuels, fuel components and specialty chemicals, but so far there have been amazing successes. Industry sources report more than 300 types of bioplastics produced currently from plant starches, including many familiar items such as shopping bags, drink bottles and dining utensils. Demand for such bioplastics is expected to increase 19 percent annually and to exceed 2 billion pounds by 2017. Clearly, this value-added market represents a great opportunity for Louisiana farmers.

The LSU AgCenter stepped into this arena in 2009 with the creation of the Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing, and in 2010 this concerted group of scientists and industry partners was awarded the single largest grant in LSU AgCenter history – a $17.2 million project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture titled “A Regional Program for Production of Multiple Agricultural Feedstocks and Processing to Biofuels and Biobased Chemicals.” The main goal of this five-year project is to expand the agricultural sector in the Southern region by developing production and utilization systems for ‘dedicated energy crops’ that USDA had determined were optimal for our region – energycane and sweet sorghum. The project encompasses four main objectives: 

  •  Evaluation and improvement of energy crops for sustainable production in low-input marginal systems. 
  •  Development of pilot and industrial facilities for syrup and biomass production that will support fuel and specialty chemical  production.
  •  Finding regionally appropriate business, logistic and supply chain models.
  •  Education initiatives to support practical training for students, supply chain participants and the general public.

 

The first challenge in this effort was to develop production guidelines for energycane and sweet sorghum. While Louisiana and other states already developed optimal production systems for sugarcane (low fiber, high sugar), the focus for energycane was opposite (high fiber, low sugar). Existing selection and breeding programs in cane required rapid expansion to accommodate this new crop while not sacrificing existing efforts on commercial sugarcane varieties. Our close partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture- Agricultural Research Service Sugarcane Research Unit in Houma, Louisiana, has helped greatly in this effort. Their existing body of work on energycane varieties provided a strong foundation upon which our joint efforts could build. Efforts with sweet sorghum were aided greatly by a key industry partner Ceres Corporation, an agricultural biotech company in Thousand Oaks, California, that develops and markets crops for bioenergy and other uses and prior support through the Sun Grant Initiative, a national network of land-grant universities and federally funded laboratories working together to further establish a biobased economy. The AgCenter is well on its way to developing reliable guidelines to sustainably produce, manage and harvest these new crops on traditional and marginal lands in our state and across the South.

Design and manufacture of a versatile pilot-scale facility posed significant challenges. Unlike the designated energy crops from other regions of the United States (primarily dried wood and grassy crops), those designated for Louisiana were unique in that they contained two distinct feedstock streams – traditional dried bagasse and sugar syrups – which required unique facilities for plant grinding, biomass storage and syrup preparation. This oneof- a-kind facility has been installed at our Audubon Sugar Institute and is entering its final phases of facility optimization prior to use. An added bonus is that this pilot facility also can support the AgCenter’s traditional sugar processing research programs. At present, the first batch of purified syrups from Louisiana energy crops is being prepared for delivery to Virent Inc., of Madison, Wisconsin, which will use these as feedstocks in their proprietary processes for fuel and specialty chemical production.

Biomass crops targeted for other regions of our country will be subject to a single harvest, then baled and stored until used – a supply chain that has very simple logistics. Harvest and processing of energycane and sweet sorghum posed distinctive challenges because of the staggered harvest of these fresh crops throughout the year. Efforts to develop more complicated logistics and supply chain models for our crops were aided by considering the sugarcane industry. Guided by existing models for harvest, transport and processing logistics for sugarcane, scientists on this project are developing similar guidelines for both energycane and sweet sorghum. This will involve geographic regions far beyond the traditional sugarcane production areas, as both crops have notably greater cold tolerance. Challenges also arose in our efforts to identify suitable lands for energy crop production that do not impact traditional food and fiber crops. These efforts have identified more than 12 million acres in our region that are classified by USDA as marginal lands, which generally are more erodible, droughty and less productive and cannot be easily cultivated, making them potentially suitable for these low-input biomass crops.

Our studies have identified a number of surprising advantages that biomass crop cultivation can provide. We have learned that harvest and transport machinery used currently for commercial sugarcane can be used without modification for either energycane or sweet sorghum. Studies showed also that these crops can produce sustained yields in the absence of large amounts of chemical fertilizer, particularly if alternated with a clover crop. Both crops, but especially energycane, produce a very dense, tight canopy that effectively shades out most weeds, thereby reducing the need for herbicides. And few insect or pathogen pests have developed in plots thus far which suggests that pest control inputs may be minimal. According to our analyses, an additional environmental benefit comes in the form of a smaller carbon footprint for both energycane and sweet sorghum compared to conventional crops. Together, these environmental benefits could provide a significant boost to interest in these crops.

Existing food and fiber crops enjoy high levels of public recognition and acceptance that are absent for these biomass crops. Unfortunately, a myriad of editorial cartoons have enthusiastically – but unrealistically – depicted biofuels as imminent, ubiquitous and readily produced through the most rudimentary means. These circumstances highlight the need for a rigorous, multifaceted, science-based education program for stakeholders at every level. Extension and communication experts are addressing this challenge on many fronts. For example, definitive production guidelines are being developed for energycane and sweet sorghum, so that Southern farmers are equipped with necessary information for cropping decisions. New university-level courses will train scientists on practical aspects of biomass crop production and processing. Ageappropriate materials are being developed that will introduce these topics to pre-K and elementary students and engage older students with projects and activities. And public education will continue as we learn more about the practicalities and possibilities of biomass crop production as part of the Louisiana agricultural landscape.

John Russin is the vice chancellor of the LSU AgCenter.

(This article was published in the spring 2015 issue of Louisiana Agriculture Magazine.)

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