Sponsored by the Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing in the LSU AgCenter, the meeting brought together representatives from universities, agribusiness and the chemical industry to learn about how producing renewable energy can benefit Louisiana and surrounding states.
The institute serves as an umbrella that brings together the various researchers and programs involved with biofuels and biochemicals, said John Russin, vice chancellor for research in the LSU AgCenter.
Louisiana is a national energy and chemical processing hub with infrastructure and expertise to transform nonfood crops and crop waste into fuels and chemicals, he said. And the AgCenter is a logical leader because of its faculty’s expertise, its research capabilities, its traditional land-grant mission and its stakeholder connections.
The AgCenter needs to be recognized among the worldwide leaders in biofuels, said AgCenter Chancellor Bill Richardson. “We can’t compete with the Midwest in the conversion of grains. But we have cellulose – wood and cane – and technology.”
The AgCenter received a $17 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that will fund a pilot plant “to see if technology really works,” Richardson said. “There’s a lot yet to be done.”
The objectives of the grant include producing two crops high in biomass – energy cane and sweet sorghum – for biofuels and biochemicals. Other considerations include how much per acre growers can earn for their feedstocks and how much buyers will have to pay per gallon for fuels or per pound for chemicals, said Vadim Kochergin, a research engineer in the AgCenter Audubon Sugar Institute and director of the Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing.
The program’s strengths include infrastructure and expertise, industrial partners and collaborations, Kochergin said. “We are a small group. We are looking at ‘pathways’ from single crops to final products.”
Researchers at the Audubon Sugar Institute are incorporating technologies for converting biomass into fuels and chemicals into a pilot plant that mirrors practices at sugar mills so the results can be easily transferred to full-scale production, Kochergin said. The plant is expected to be operational by the end of September.
“Biofuels, biotechnology, bioproducts are good for rural America,” said Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
Bioprocessing is not just for fuel, Strain said. Louisiana has more than $2 billion in facility investments, and biorefineries can be built in locations that have from 24,000 to 40,000 acres capable of producing biomass feedstocks within a 25-mile radius.
Kyle Zeringue with Louisiana Economic Development said renewable fuels and chemicals are integral to Louisiana's "blue ocean" business development initiative, a comprehensive plan targeting sectors in which Louisiana can achieve significant market share, which includes clean technology and agribusinesses.
Louisiana has 14 million acres of forestlands, said Buck Vandersteen, and landowners grow one-third more than they harvest for saw timber, plywood, oriented strand board and paper.
“Economic conditions, primarily home building, have put the industry in a difficult position,” Vandersteen said. “This creates opportunities for growth in other areas.”
High-biomass energy cane could yield 120 tons per acre that could support the production of ethanol and second-generation biofuels, said Ben Legendre, head of the AgCenter Audubon Sugar Institute.
Crops dedicated to renewable fuels rather than residues from conventional crops such as corn and sugar are “one of the best paths forward,” said Chris Roach, project development manager with CERES Inc.
Using marginal land to produce energy crops eliminates the conflict between growing plants for food or fuel. “We don’t want to be competing with food-producing land,” he said.
The best model is a long-term contract with growers to assure crop availability, Roach said. This includes a “bankable” feedstock supply plan that is year-round, offers producers a predictable price, provides consistent high quality and is sustainable.
Klein Kirby, chairman of A. Wilbert’s Sons LLC, which operates about 96,000 acres of timberland, 13,500 acres of cropland and 1,500 acres of pasture in Louisiana and Mississippi, offered a landowner perspective to producing renewable fuels.
“Crop diversity is very, very important to us,” Kirby said. He said his company is looking for alternative crops for marginal land, double-cropping systems and markets for production wastes.
“We believe in diversity,” he told the audience. “We love what you’re talking about today.”
Susan Hager, senior vice president for communications and government affairs with Myriant Corp., said her company is producing biosuccinic acid, which replaces petroleum-based chemicals.
Production uses fermentation processes to convert sugars into products that are no more expensive than petroleum-based products and use nonfood crops. The company has a new plant in Lake Providence, La., that will begin production early in 2013.
The company is looking for “sugars and cellulosic feedstocks to feed our plants long term,” she said.
“Cellulosic feedstocks are important to our business,” said Brett Callaway, head of agricultural business development for BP Biofuels North America.
The biofuels industry is “in its infancy,” Callaway said. Production of biofuels and biochemicals needs to be affordable, scalable and sustainable.
“Louisiana has a wealth of biomass and infrastructure that we can take advantage of,” said Greg Bohlmann, director of business development for DuPont Industrial Biosciences.
He said his company sees opportunities to develop a renewable fuels and chemical industry.
The LSU AgCenter is investigating the potential costs of producing energy cane for biofuel, said AgCenter economist Mike Salassi.
The process includes evaluating the advantages of using equipment and expertise growers use with the crops they currently grow and comparing the results with “new” crops that are most adaptable to Louisiana growing conditions and management practices, Salassi said.