POSTED ON AUGUST 6, 2008:
Weathering the Oil Apocalypse
State-funded, collaborative bioenergy efforts up and rolling
Grass is Greener. Switchgrass is a touted source of cellulosic biomass because of some cultivars' ability to grow in conditions of varying soil fertility and rainfall. The plant is low-maintenance and uses resources efficiently.
While the trusty pumpjacks won't be leaving the Oklahoma horizon any time soon, the state is truly turning over a new leaf with recent biofuels initiatives.
There's even a chance that the state could remain an energy capital well into the post-oil world, or at least in a world leery of dependence on foreign fossil fuels.
Last January, Governor Henry announced a proposal to establish a $40 million research, development and education center for just that purpose.
"A thriving oil and gas industry certainly does not nullify our need to pursue other sources of energy," Henry said. According to the governor, the state has other needs to attend to.
"Not only would the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center (OBC) play a vital role in reducing America's dependence on foreign oil, but it would be a great boon for Oklahoma in a number of ways," he said. "This institute would help diversify our state's economy, protect our environment, creating high-paying jobs and contribute to a revitalization of rural Oklahoma."
Last June, Senate Bill 609 united the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma as founding consortium members of the OBC in the development of viable alternative energies that utilize the state's current resources.
"The research collaboration created by the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center is benefiting all Oklahomans," said David Fleischaker, Oklahoma Secretary of Energy. "This biofuel research is helping create new opportunities for farmers."
OBC spokespeople emphasize Oklahoma's agricultural strengths as valuable assets. These three institutions are working on developing energy systems out of existing Oklahoma-grown feedstocks, as well as agricultural wastes.
The research teams at each institution are collaborating to maximize the breadth of OBC's work.
"Each individual entity, they bring something to the table," said Steve Rhines, vice president and general counsel to the Noble Foundation. "No one entity has a comprehensive program."
Pass the Grass
The Noble Foundation's primary focus, within its participation at OBC, is the development of native prairie plant switchgrass, which grows wild throughout Oklahoma.
The foundation was at an advantage because it has been working with switchgrass as a tool for range management. In addition, they also had the help of Senior Vice President and Forage Improvement Division Director Joe Bouten, who had done early switchgrass research at the University of Georgia.
According to Rhines, about two years ago when the country was abuzz with talk of cellulosic ethanol, switchgrass was one of the "chosen crops."
(Cellulosic ethanol, which sounds impenetrable, is simply ethanol that comes from the conversion of the stiff plant polysaccharide cellulose. You may know cellulose by a few other names; think of it as "roughage.")
"We didn't have to hire anybody or change our research direction, switchgrass really just came to us and we were able to incorporate it into our research," said Rhines. The team is working on increasing yields through crossing breeds to perpetuate desirable traits, building upon the plant's already efficient qualities.
Switchgrass is a touted source of cellulosic biomass because of some cultivars' ability to grow in conditions of varying soil fertility and rainfall. The plant, like many prairie grasses, is low-maintenance and uses resources efficiently because of its extensive root system.
A recent study from an Agricultural Research Service lab in North Dakota shows that switchgrass may also improve the fertility and stability of soil it grows in, due to increased levels of the essential soil component glomalin.
Remarkably, the OBC's efforts in switchgrass research have put Oklahoma on the map with the largest ever plot of land devoted to cellulosic ethanol production. This past June, 1,000 acres of switchgrass were planted in Guymon, in the state's panhandle.
"The industry needs to understand what happens in the middle of these 1,000-acre spreads," said Rhines, explaining that this size of plot was needed to gather critical data. "This is really a visionary program because, if you look at other programs in the nation, no one has been as bold as to plant 1000 acres of this crop. It's the first time in the world."
Until now, stands of switchgrass have been severely limited in size. The plot in Guymon will be closer to the size of a potential production-size operation, which will provide much more accurate information regarding resource use. "It serves as a living laboratory," said Rhines.
Switchgrass production is not the only part of the bioenergy equation, however. The Noble Foundation is the only member of the OBC devoting such undivided attention to switchgrass ethanol production.
Oklahoma State University's research program is a highly diversified approach to bioenergy development.
"We are evaluating any and all feedstocks that may be available in Oklahoma," said Dr. Ray Huhnke, who leads the OSU team. "Switchgrass is one of those, but we're also researching other bio-based resources, whether it be other perennial grasses, or residues and evens wastes for conversion into liquid fuels."
While Huhnke agrees that "switchgrass has great potential," and that a newly developed variety soon to be released by OSU "shows great potential for producing large quantities of biomass under a variety of soil conditions," he said that several varieties of sorghum are very promising as well.
Different varieties of sorghum have different strengths. For example, forage sorghum for high production potential and sweet sorghum for fermentable content.
The University of Oklahoma research team, on the other hand, is less focused on developing raw materials, and more on converting the inputs into usable fuels. OU's participation in the OBC completes the production chain began by the other researchers, which is essential to the goal of creating a viable biofuels industry in Oklahoma.
According to Dr. Lance Lobban, there are two subdivisions in the fuel conversion research team at OU: researchers in the botany and microbiology departments are working on conversion of cellulose to ethanol. Researchers from chemistry and chemical and mechanical engineering are developing thermochemical techniques to convert the cellulose to gasoline and diesel, and vegetable oil and animal fats into diesel and other chemicals.
The barrier in the way of Oklahoma and a thriving bioenergy economy is the lack of existing infrastructure to support the market.
One hurdle is to get people on board, and, given the agricultural thrust of the projects, this means a lot of farmers. The OBC is making efforts in this direction with education initiatives, tailoring their research direction towards crops that current farmers could easily adopt.
According to Steve Rhines, it would be unrealistic to expect farmers to cross over into unfamiliar biofuels, so they are "develop[ing] plans and programs for what farmers and ranchers in this area are doing and how they might integrate energy crops into their current production."
Another problem is the lack of facilities available to complete the afore-mentioned production chain in an efficient manner.
"As you probably know, there are no biorefineries in the state of Oklahoma, currently," said Rhines. He calls it a chicken-and-egg predicament: what comes first, building a biorefinery in the hopes of a successful biofuels industry in Oklahoma, or waiting for the industry to take off, and then building too late?
It's an especially tough question considering the price tag--ballpark, $350-700 million, according to Rhines.
However, the state doesn't have to make the decision just yet. Earlier this spring, international ethanol producer Abengoa agreed to join the OBC team as an out of state participant.
A biorefinery is planned for Hugoton, Kansas, about 10 miles from the Oklahoma border and just a little over 40 miles from Guymon, the site of the thousand acres.
As a "hybrid" refinery capable of process a variety of input into different biofuels, the facility will complement the OBC's diverse research project.
The refinery is set for completion in 2010.
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