By: Robert C. Brown, Director, and Robert Mills, Communications Specialist, Bioeconomy Institute, Iowa State University
The use of fermentation to produce ethanol from corn and other biomass is well known in the agricultural world. There are, however, other technologies that can convert biomass into fuels and chemicals. Foremost among these are thermochemical processes, which use heat and catalysis to break down biomass to intermediates that can be upgraded to transportation fuels.
One advantage of thermochemical processing is that the end result can be “drop-in fuels,” those that are fully compatible with the existing fuel infrastructure. While not perfect, these drop-in fuels are good enough to run in today’s engines without modification.
Another advantage to thermochemical processing is that most systems can work with a variety of biomass feedstocks. Often the feedstock is lignocellulosic biomass, such as corn stover, switchgrass, miscanthus, wood, etc. But thermochemical processing can also use lipid-rich biomass such as distillers dried grains and algae as well as mixed wastes from commercial and municipal sources.
There are two basic types of thermochemical processing, indirect and direct liquefaction. Indirect liquefaction includes gasification, where the solid biomass is heated to create synthesis gas, or syngas, that is subsequently upgraded to liquid fuels. Various catalysts are then used to convert the gas into alcohols or hydrocarbons. The advantages of gasification is that the process produces a uniform product and it is commercially proven. Gasification, however, requires technologies to clean the gases, which are still under development, and the capital costs can be high.
Direct liquefaction uses heat and pressure to convert the biomass into liquids which can then be further upgraded into finished products. Direct liquefaction includes pyrolysis and solvent liquefaction. In the case of pyrolysis, biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen. The process yields bio-oil, syngas, and a solid product known as biochar. The bio-oil can be upgraded to drop-in fuels. Pyrolysis can be performed at relatively small scales, allowing it to take place close to the source of biomass rather than moving biomass to one large, centralized processing facility. One of the major problems with pyrolysis is that the bio-oil is unstable, complicating its conversion into fuels.
At Iowa State University, we have invented a process to condense the pyrolysis gases in fractions, resulting in better, more stable products. The economics of fast pyrolysis are promising. In addition to producing fuels and chemicals from the bio-oil, the biochar may also have economic value. Consisting mostly of carbon, biochar can be used a soil amendment, helping retain moisture and nutrients. There is also research underway to use biochar as a filter medium for purifying water.
Solvent liquefaction, or solvolysis, is similar to pyrolysis except that it is performed in a solvent at elevated pressure. Though the fundamental chemistry of solvolysis is not well understood, the technology has promising economics. The process can upgrade bio-oil in a way similar to oil refining, and it can create sugars which can be further upgraded without expensive enzymes.
In addition to extensive research into thermochemical technologies, there are also many efforts underway to commercialize these technologies. Like all start-ups, these efforts have met with various degrees of success. There are, however, several pilot-scale systems being tested and commercial plants being built.
Bioenergy is a complex topic. There are many pathways from raw material to finished product. What’s more, bioenergy technology must be viewed in context of larger energy issues and policies. You can learn more in a book written for the general public, “Why are We Producing Biofuels,” by Robert C. Brown and Tristan R. Brown. The book is available on Amazon. You can read the first chapter for free online at: http://www.brownia.com/content/whyareweproducingbiofuels_excerpt.pdf.
Biomass, as a sustainable fuel, does more than just help the environment—it saves lives. Many rural hospitals have antiquated boiler systems that burn oil for fuel during the cold winter months. This is not a sustainable heat source, and the cost is putting many of them in the red. These hospitals often are the only close access to medical care in low income communities.
Piedmont Geriatric State Hospital in Burkeville, Virginia, is using biomass to keep its buildings warm during those long winters. The hospital burns around 3,000 tons of native warm season grasses (NWSG) as biofuel, supplied by FDC Enterprises, from November to May. The hospital saves, on average, more than $1,300 per day during those seven months.
On an energy basis, biomass is roughly one-third the cost of fuel, which quickly adds up. Glenn Farris stated, “For many rural hospitals, being able to save over $200,000 per year is the difference between staying open or closing their doors. It can also be the way to bring that next important lifesaving machine or a new doctor to their facility. It can’t help but make you feel good to know you work for a company and in an industry that can make great things like this happen.”
By using biomass energy, hospitals can save money normally used to heat the building and instead better serve the community. Biomass is a win for rural hospitals, the communities they serve and the environment. To learn more about AGCO Biomass solutions, please visit: http://bit.ly/AGCOBiomass.
If not in its infancy, biomass farming is perhaps still toddling along. Yet, most indicators point to a significant increase in production and an additional source of revenue for farmers, as well as a variety of other benefits, depending on the crop being grown.
Signs point to a number of infrastructure, process and equipment enhancements that will make the harvesting, transportation and storage of biomass much more efficient in the next few years, if not sooner.
For starters, consider the harvesting of corn stover, which in many areas of the country can increase corn yields for the following year. Also, perennial grasses such as miscanthus and switchgrass can be grown on marginal land, require little in the way of inputs, and offer a number of environmental benefits, such as helping to filter runoff and prevent erosion.
Among such biomass-producing crops, stover already has a foothold. It’s readily available in many parts of the Corn Belt, where a partial harvest does help yields.
Now farmers and the biofuels industry are looking ahead at increased production of all things biomass, including the crops mentioned above, as well as energy sorghum, woody biomass and more. The U.S Department of Energy predicts total crop- and pastureland planted in bioenergy crops will increase from less than 10 million acres today to between 60 and 80 million acres over the next 15 years.
As a result of this increased demand, new processes and technologies are in development to help make the gathering and transport of biomass, particularly stover, more efficient and profitable for the farmer. Especially promising is single-pass harvesting, which promises the operator considerable time and fuel savings over other methods currently in use.
“AGCO has a unique solution for single-pass harvesting equipment with their new series of combines that are single-pass compatible,” says Dr. Matt Darr, assistant professor of Agricultural & Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. “AGCO is also a leader in the industry with single-pass baling products to provide producers and large energy companies the opportunity to make single-pass harvesting a reality within a supply chain.”
The technology in Hesston® by Massey Ferguson balers is ready-made to handle stover, as well as other biomass crops. Already, the Hesston 2170XD large square baler has earned its stripes for how densely it can pack the bulky crops, says David Ibbetson, a Kansas-based custom baler who uses two 2170XD balers to bundle some 15,000 bales each year in Iowa. He also uses Hesston round balers to bundle another 1,500-plus bales closer to his home in Yates Center.
Several other pieces of equipment that will aid in the harvesting of residue are now in the pipeline at AGCO. One such tool is a corn header that can harvest upwards of 150% higher volumes of corn and MOG. Another is a receiver chute that’s attached to the front of the baler and allows it to take in MOG without it being deposited on the ground before baling. “By having the baler accept the residue directly,” explains Maynard Herron, AGCO’s engineering manager at its Hesston, Kan., plant, “you cut in half the amount of ash in the bale. Those cleaner bales, of course, are more valuable and make this approach to stover more profitable to the farmer.”
Watch a video of Iowa State’s Dr. Matt Darr explaining when harvesting corn stover can increase yields, save money and time, and generate revenue at http://www.myfarmlife.com/crops/the-case-for-stover/.
Continue the conversation: Do you harvest stover? If so, have you seen a benefit on your farm?
If you would like to learn more about AGCO’s Biomass Solutions, please visit: www.bit.ly/AGCOBiomass.
In 1978, Hesston Corporation introduced the Model 4800, the industry’s first large square baler, revolutionizing hay production and feeding practices at a time when labor availability and fuel prices were driving a need for innovations on the farm. Big square balers have come a long way since then, and on May 16, 2013, a large crowd gathered at AGCO’s Hesston Operations to celebrate the 25,000th large square baler built in Hesston, Kan.
Credit for the big baler idea is generally given to Allen White, who spent more than 25 years as a company engineer. White started his research by building a giant bale chamber in the engineering lab and manually packing it with hay. When the 4-foot-by-4-foot bale did not get hot or spoil, engineers went on to build the first prototype baler. They quickly realized that the side-feed approach currently being used would not work, and in 1975, the first prototype that fed hay into the bottom of the bale chamber was built.
After extensive field-testing, the Model 4800 was perfected and released in 1978. Field testing and working with farmers to meet their needs have always been a hallmark of equipment development at Hesston. These productive balers proved to be a more labor-efficient and economical way to harvest, store and feed forages.
Today, balers built in Hesston are sold in as many as 39 countries and used to bale everything from alfalfa and grass hay to wheat straw, miscanthus for biofuel production, and even recyclables such as newspaper and aluminum cans.
“It is amazing to look back at all that has gone into today’s big baler models,” says Dean Morrell, product marketing manager, Hay and Forage. “Building the 25,000th baler is an invigorating milestone and a great tribute to everyone who has been involved in its development. I know there will be even more innovations in the future large square balers built in Hesston.”
Tomorrow, May 16, the 25,000th large square baler will roll off the assembly line at the AGCO facility in Hesston, Kansas USA and be presented to its new owner. Here are a few fun facts about the large square baler to help kick off this historic event
• The first large square baler — the Hesston model 4800, produced at the AGCO facility in Hesston, Kan. — was introduced in 1978.
• Nearly 50 individual patents were awarded to the original baler.
• There are at AGCO 15 employees who were involved with developing and building the first large square balers and are still working at the Hesston facility today.
• Together, they have 610 years of experience working at the Hesston facility, with tenures ranging from 36 to 49 years.
• Large square balers built in Hesston have been sold under the following brand names: Hesston, New Idea, Massey Ferguson, Fendt, Challenger, Case IH, New Holland and AGCO.
• They have been used to bale everything from alfalfa and grass hay to wheat straw, miscanthus for biofuel production and even recyclables such as newspaper and aluminum cans.
• Large square balers manufactured in Hesston have proudly been sold and delivered to customers in as many as 39 countries all over the world.
• Hesston by Massey Ferguson Models 2170XD and 2190 create bales that are 4-feet x 3-feet or 4-feet x 4-feet, respectively, and can weigh up to a ton.