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Strategic Biomass Initiative working on commercialization

Mississippi has a wealth of biomass materials ranging from wood waste from the state’s massive forestry industry to chicken litter from poultry houses. Turning that waste into energy could improve the environment, provide economic opportunities to farmers and entrepreneurs and also help address the state and country’s energy security.

The Mississippi Technology Alliance (MTA) has a Strategic Biomass Initiative (SBI) whose purpose is to strengthen targeted biomass research and development among Mississippi universities and the private sector to break down the hurdles to commercializing renewable energy resources.

“Biomass feedstocks include plant, animal, forest waste and commercial outputs such as pulp and paper and furniture, and form one of the largest resources in Mississippi,” said Sumesh Arora, director of SBI. “SBI seeks to achieve the above goals by assisting the commercialization of new and late-stage technologies that convert biomass resources to energy or higher value chemicals. SBI also seeks to evaluate and deploy newly developed biomass technologies at facilities in Mississippi and assists with seeking funding for such projects.”

SBI is funded in large part through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and cost share from the award recipients. As of May 2007, 13 projects with a combined value of $3.6 million have been funded under the SBI. The projects are divided into three product categories: cellulosic ethanol (four projects); biodiesel (five projects); and bioenergy (four projects).

“MTA has partnered with a wide range of entities in the private and public sectors to accomplish the objectives of the SBI,” Arora said. “These include the four Mississippi research universities that form the Mississippi Research Consortium (Mississippi State University, Jackson State University, University of Mississippi and University of Southern Mississippi), plus the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Mississippi Land Water and Timber Resources Board, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Tennessee Valley Authority, John Deere Corporation, Potlatch Corporation, TreyCo Inc., North Mississippi Biodiesel Inc., University of Arkansas-Monticello and the Quinton Mills Dairy.”

Arora said MTA-SBI is supporting a multi-state project headed by Association of State Energy Research and Technology Transfer Institutions to establish operational protocols for anaerobic digesters that are used to transfer biomass into fuels. The MTA-SBI staff regularly consults with and assists several developers and technology suppliers who are considering bioenergy, biofuels and other renewable energy projects in Mississippi.

Arora, who was appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour to serve on the regional Governor’s Ethanol Coalition, said SBI has received a specially marked flex-fuel Chevrolet Avalanche through the General Motors-Governor’s Ethanol Coalition outreach program.

“It is serving its purpose well of educating the public about the benefits of using biofuels for lowering our dependence on fossil fuels, especially those imported from politically unstable regions of the globe, as well as raising the awareness of the availability of automotive technology that can use biofuels,” Arora said. “MTA-SBI has been successful in developing projects where academic researchers are working with the private sector companies to speed up the development and deployment of new technologies. Most of the projects under the SBI have the element of cross-collaboration. For example, a demonstration of an approximately $500,000 piece of equipment manufactured by John Deere was carried out on timberlands near Cypress Bend, Ark., in conjunction with efforts from the Potlatch Corporation and the University of Arkansas-Monticello with the project being lead by Dr. Phil Steele, a professor of forest products at Mississippi State University.

“The equipment, known as a slash bundler, is capable of compacting the waste wood left after a timber harvest and making large, compact bundles weighing about 1,000 pounds such that the waste wood may be transported out of the woods easily. At present, there is only one slash bundler in the country, and it was brought down by John Deere from Michigan especially for this project.”

MSU researchers hope to determine the energy value of these bundles and how they may be used to make gaseous fuels from wood that would otherwise be wasted. University of Arkansas professors and students studied the efficiency of the wood collection and bundling on the timber harvest location.

“By funding such projects that involve multiple entities, we hope to encourage more industries in Mississippi to rely on the universities for solving technical challenges and jointly develop new technologies to utilize biomass resources,” Arora said.

One type of biofuel that is already in the marketplace is biodiesel, which is made from agricultural products like soybeans, or from vegetable oils and animal fats. Arora said biodiesel is an attractive form of energy, because it can be used in engines that run commercial diesel, with only minor modifications.

“This means that it can be used anywhere that diesel fuel is used today,” Arora said. “Even better, because of its additional lubricity, biodiesel can add to the life of diesel engines even in fairly low percentage blends.”

The SBI is working with a number of different initiatives around the state to promote a biodiesel industry. Mississippi has a strong agricultural industry from which to draw soybean production. This can help add value to farmers’ crops, as well as provide flexibility with their feedstocks. This flexibility creates an excellent environment for technologies to emerge and presents a better product for the end user.

Arora said that currently because of the high cost of soybean oil in today’s marketplace, the biodiesel industry is facing challenging times.

Biodiesel is not exclusive to soy diesel by any means. Many times, excess grease from restaurants or from industrial food processors can be recycled and used, leading to emissions that may smell like French fries. However, only relatively small quantities of excess grease are available for processing into biodiesel, making this primarily a cottage industry.

Arora said other feedstocks are being studied that could help lower the cost of biodiesel. Cutting edge research at the Mississippi State University is investigating making biodiesel from sewage sludge.
More information about the Strategic Biomass Initiative is online www.technologyalliance.ms.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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