Student Panel Touts BSE Program

Every fall, students interested in the Bioresource Science and Engineering (BSE) program sign up for a seminar (BSE 150) to give them an overview of the degree. Led by Professor Rick Gustafson, the course provides current and prospective BSE students with an introduction to the science and technology of bioresources, and throughout the quarter various faculty, advisors and guest lecturers cover different dimensions of the program.

The class is generally a mixture of freshman and transfer students, and this past Tuesday, December 3, they got to hear from a panel of six current students who’ve already invested several years in the program.

BSE PanelThe students on the panel—Edward Berg, Ryan Binder, Breanna Huschka, Seth Jorgensen, Andre Smith and Monet Springmeyer—answered questions and talked about their experiences, ranging from the tremendous paid internship opportunities (getting recruited, traveling to positions in other states, hands-on training); setting up study groups and managing the course load; preparing for interviews; whether to opt for minors or a double major; considerations for grad school; and generally how to succeed in the major.

Even as the panel cautioned students to be prepared for some tough courses and serious studying ahead, the biggest takeaway was clear: BSE is worth the effort, as most of the students on the panel already have full-time job offers waiting for them after graduation!

Photo © SEFS.

Hardwood Biofuels Webinar Series

Next Wednesday, December 11, from 10-11 a.m. PST, Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB) is hosting the second webinar in an ongoing series about aspects of the biofuels industry and current research. The webinar, “Assessing the economic and environmental impacts of poplar-based biofuel production,” will feature three presenters from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences: Professor Rick Gustafson along with graduate students Erik Budsberg and Jordan Crawford.

The webinar is free, and online registration is now open!

Advanced Hardwood Biofuels NorthwestWho Should Attend

Extension educators, potential landowners/growers, agriculture and natural resource professionals, poplar and bioenergy researchers, environmental professionals, government officials and other biomass producers.

What’s Covered? 

•           Economic assessment of the bioconversion process based on ASPEN model outputs
•           Profitability analysis, including options to produce hydrogen
•           Life-cycle inventory of resources and energy inputs and emissions
•           Life-cycle analysis in consideration of global warming and fossil fuel and water use

Summary
A technical feasibility and economic performance analysis examines the production of biofuels using the ZeaChem conversion technology with options for producing the hydrogen that is required in the process. Using outputs from an ASPEN simulation model of the bioconversion process for the economic assessment, we will present operating and capital cost results as well as an evaluation of economies of scale. Profitability is presented in terms of the cash cost to produce the fuel and the selling price required to generate a reasonable return on investment.

Life-cycle assessments (LCA) examine all the resource demands and outputs to the environment associated with the production and use of a product. Starting from establishment of the bioenergy farm to combustion of the fuel product, we inventory the resources and energy acquired from the environment and all emissions that go back into the environment. The life-cycle inventories are then translated into environmental impacts using standard LCA protocols. In this LCA we examine life-cycle global warming potential, fossil fuel usage and water usage. The life-cycle impacts of hydrogen production options are examined in detail to complement the techno/economic analysis research in this area.

How to Access the Webinar
After you’ve registered, you should start connecting 10 minutes prior to the start time. You’ll need a computer with internet access and speakers. At the meeting time, you can enter the meeting online or paste  this link, http://breeze.wsu.edu/growinggreen/, into your internet browser. The link will open to a login page. “Enter as guest” with your name and business or institution, and click “Enter Room.” (If you have any difficulty registering online, contact Nora Haider at nora.haider@wsu.edu.)

Sponsored by the  University of Washington and Washington State University, this webinar is part of the Hardwood Biofuels Webinar Series. You can check out archived presentations, and the next installment is scheduled for February 5, 2014, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. PST (details to come).

About AHB
Led by the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, AHB is a consortium of university and industry partners in the Pacific Northwest working to support a sustainable hardwood biofuels industry for growing and converting hardwoods, such as hybrid poplars, into liquid biofuels. If you’d like to join the AHB mailing list and receive the latest news and event information, sign up now!

Understanding the Carbon Balance of Biofuel Production

In 2011, the USDA awarded $40 million to the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest (AHB) consortium to develop a system to convert poplar trees into liquid biofuels. Led by the University of Washington and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), the AHB team is developing various strategies to create a renewable, direct replacement for existing fossil fuels that can be used in conventional cars, trucks and jet engines. The long-term vision is to produce 400 million gallons of biofuel per year from 400,000 acres of hybrid, sustainably-grown poplars.

Poplar Plantation

Poplar plantation in Oregon.

Four poplar demonstration plantations in the Pacific Northwest are being established as part of the AHB project to optimize production of biomass feedstock. At these poplar plantations in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, AHB researchers are thoroughly assessing the plantation environmental impacts on a number of factors, such as the carbon cycle, soil, wildlife and water usage.

Part of this research includes life cycle assessment (LCA) to determine total carbon emissions associated with production and use of biofuels. One question to be resolved by the LCA is the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of biofuels, especially compared to petroleum-based fuels.

“The life cycle greenhouse gas emissions depend on many factors,” says SEFS Professor Rick Gustafson, who is leading the AHB research. He says preliminary results show that poplar-derived biofuels unquestionably lead to substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline, but the precise magnitude of the reduction has yet to be worked out. These reduced emissions result from carbon sequestration of growing poplar feedstock balancing emissions from conversion of biomass into fuel and from use of the fuel product.

As a result, producing ethanol from plantation-grown poplar trees can be nearly carbon neutral. Research by Erik Budsberg, a SEFS Ph.D. student involved in the AHB program, shows that carbon emissions from fermenting the lignocellulosic sugars directly into ethanol, and burning the residual biomass to create electricity, is balanced out by the carbon sequestered by the poplar trees and by the displacement of fossil fuel-based electricity. The downside to this process, however, is that the total product yield—80 gallons of biofuel per ton of biomass used— is somewhat low, resulting in inferior process economics and greater feedstock demands. In addition, the ethanol fuel product is not compatible with our current transportation infrastructure, making its use somewhat limited.

Erik Budsberg

Erik Budsberg standing in front of year-old poplar trees at a GreenWood Resources poplar plantation in Boardman, Ore.

By using a different process, ethanol can be produced with a yield of 130 gallons per ton of biomass used. This process uses a different fermentation pathway but requires the addition of hydrogen to produce the fuel. While the yield is high—resulting in superior process economics and low biomass demand—this method has greater life cycle carbon emissions since it requires pumping natural gas, a fossil fuel, into the system. Even so, the process still results in a 60-percent reduction of greenhouse gases compared to gasoline.

A challenge of using bioethanol is that current infrastructure in the United States—most vehicles, and the fuel distribution network—is not built to handle fuels with high concentrations of ethanol, and that’s not likely to change any time soon, says Gustafson. To produce biofuels that are fully compatible with existing infrastructure, the ABH research program is developing processes that convert the poplar trees all the way to hydrocarbons, which are the molecules found in gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

“By producing hydrocarbons, we end up with greater carbon emissions when compared to producing ethanol,” says Gustafson. The process the AHB team is developing, however, will produce infrastructure-compatible hydrocarbons with good yields while still reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent compared to gasoline, which is a big advancement.

It’s therefore clear that producing fuels from biomass like poplar trees leads to significant greenhouse gas emission reductions compared to petroleum-based fuel. The exact amount depends on many factors, such as the conversion process used and the choice of final products. The value of the research under way in the AHB project is that environmental benefits and impacts can be quantified before the factories are built and the feedstock plantations are established. Their research will also identify early on areas where environmental performance can be improved, enabling us to construct the most sustainable biofuels production enterprise possible.

Photo of poplar plantation © GreenWood Resources; photo of Budsberg © Renata Bura.

SEFS Seminar Series: Week 6 Preview

Biofuels Slide

Lignocellulose, or dry plant matter, is the most abundantly available raw material for the production of biofuels. But how can we improve the production of fuels and chemicals from lignocellulosic biomass? And how do we deal with heterogeneous biomass?

Join Professor Renata Bura this Wednesday, February 13, as she tackles these questions in Week 6 of the SEFS Seminar Series!

The seminars, held in Anderson 223 on Wednesdays from 4 to 5 p.m., are open to all faculty, staff and students. Check out the rest of the seminar schedule for the Winter Quarter, and join us each week for a reception in the Forest Room from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Additional Background:
Professor Bura is part of the Biofuels and Bioproducts Laboratory (BBL), which includes Shannon Ewanick, Brian Marquardt, Rick Gustafson, Erik Budsberg and Jordan Crawford. Here’s what she says about the lab’s work and her seminar presentation:

Improvements in individual processes (pretreatment, saccharification and fermentation) have been ongoing, but few researchers have considered the effect that the incoming heterogeneous raw biomass can have on the process. Even within the same species, biomass is physically and chemically very heterogeneous due to the agronomy practices, water and nutrients management, weed control, harvest and storage, seasonal changes, and age. Rather than designing a biorefinery around an ideal source of a given feedstock, it is preferable to understand how we can process heterogeneous feedstock. How can we alter the heterogeneous biomass to provide the maximum yield of hydrolysable and fermentable sugars from whatever is available?

In this presentation we discuss how by preconditioning of biomass, online reaction control, techno-economic and life cycle analysis we can deal with heterogeneous biomass such as switchgrass, sugarcane bagasse and hybrid poplar. We will present that by improving the uniformity of heterogeneous biomass in terms of moisture content, we could improve sugar yields by 28 percent. Another means of dealing with heterogeneous biomass is to improve overall process control by increasing the level of data collection. We will show how Raman spectroscopy could provide early detection of feedstock heterogeneity, leading to increased real-time awareness. Finally, when processing heterogeneous biomass, overall results of the techno-economic analysis have to be incorporated into life cycle assessment work to estimate life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from mixed lignocellulosics.

Join us on tomorrow to learn more!

BBL Graphic © Renata Bura.