Sounds corny, but biomass may save America

In this month's edition of Control Report, Senior Technical Editor Rich Merritt recommends bringing your process plant and its jobs to the Midwest, where it's a lot better and safer than the Mideast.

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 By Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor

W

hen the chemical plants and refineries come back from overseas, your jobs will come back, too. So, welcome to Iowa! I live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is not the end of the world. You can, however, see it from here. It is hard to believe that a little company in this remote town might hold the key to the revitalization of the U.S. economy. That is, it may release us from our reliance on foreign oil and bring back all our refineries and chemical process plants from third-world countries.

And when the chemical plants and refineries come back to be near a new, cheaper source of energy and raw materials, your jobs will come back too. So, welcome to Iowa! You may be one of my neighbors in the not-so-distant future.

And it’s all because of corn, wheat, and the successful development of an enzyme at Genencorp, a bioproducts company in Cedar Rapids.|

Tom Pekich, group vice president of bioproducts at Genencorp, explains that a hydrolysis step is needed to break down corn, wheat stalks and other biomass, so they can be used as feedstock for fermentation processes that make ethanol and chemicals.

         



"When the chemical plants and refineries come back from overseas, your jobs will come back, too. So, welcome to Iowa!"


“We were asked four years ago to come up with cellulosic enzymes that would reduce the hydrolysis cost significantly,” Peckich told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “We received some grants from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and have been able to demonstrate a 30-fold improvement in the enzyme cost.”

“Work continues to make the enzyme cost about 8 to 10 cents per gallon of ethanol,” he added. “Right now, the cost is down to 10–20 cents per gallon.”

Genencorp plans to build a pilot plant within two years to demonstrate the commercial viability of the technology. Genencorp is also working with DuPont, Wilmington, Del., and Cargill Dow LLC, Minnetonka, Minn., to use the same technology to produce chemicals to manufacture plastic. Other research is being conducted toward making hydrogen fuel from biomass.

Pekich believes that biorefineries will be built in the “very near future” that will produce an array of fuels and chemicals from biomass.

Meanwhile, President Bush recently signed into law the JOBS bill (H.R. 4520), also known as the FSC-ETI bill, to help secure the future of biofuels and to boost rural economic development. “The JOBS bill will lead to new jobs in the ethanol and biodiesel industries,” said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association.

Some of those jobs must be for instrument and control engineers, technicians and operators. They can’t operate billion-dollar biorefineries without us. Thanks partly to the efforts of control engineers and operators, the U.S. ethanol industry set an all-time monthly production record in August 2004 of 225,000 barrels per day, according to data released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The ethanol industry is expected to produce more than 3.3 billion gallons in 2004, up from 2.81 billion gallons in 2003. Currently, 81 ethanol plants have the capacity to produce more than 3.4 billion gallons annually. Fourteen plants, with 630 million gallons of annual capacity, are under construction. That’s a bunch of new jobs for our readers, and it’s only the start.

According to The Economist magazine, the American market for bioethanol is 8 billion liters/year. If predictions of 75 billion liters/year by 2020 come true, that means nearly 10 times as many plants will be needed. The Economist says that will be enough to replace two-thirds of our current petroleum production.

As I see it, the lesson is you may want to look into the possibilities of using biomass as an energy source, or as a raw material for whatever it is you make in your process plant. After all, the cost of oil-based raw materials will continue to skyrocket in coming years, and they aren’t making any more oil. Corn, on the other hand, is plentiful, we make more of it every year, and the cost of making biochemicals is coming down, not going up.

So bring your plant and your jobs to Iowa. It’s a lot better to have a plant in the Midwest than in the Mideast anyway. It’s safer here, too.
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