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Natural resources, waste products play major roles in alt fuels

As fuel costs continue to climb, interest — and cutting-edge research — in alternative fuels grows. The Mississippi Technology Alliance (MTA) is taking an active lead to find new energy products with its Strategic Biomass Initiative.

Sumesh Arora is leading that effort as director of the Strategic Biomass Initiative, having joined MTA five years ago as a project development engineer for the Mississippi Alternative Energy Enterprise. The 43-year-old attended high school in India and Thailand. He received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s in materials engineering from the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He is now pursuing a Ph.D. in international development at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Last week, the Mississippi Business Journal caught up with this busy professional to find out the latest news from the alternative fuels front.

Mississippi Business Journal: Overall, what is the status of the biomass initiative?

Sumesh Arora: The Strategic Biomass Initiative (SBI) is funded in large part by the United States Department of Energy through their Office of Biomass Programs. SBI was launched in July 2005 and is about building upon successes and lessons learned during the course of the Mississippi Alternative Energy Enterprise.

We deployed solar and wind technologies at three residential sites across the state, but soon realized that biomass, which can be loosely defined as any organic matter derived from plants, tress, crops, animals and some waste materials, is the greatest resource in Mississippi for generating renewable energy.

SBI is focused on conducting applied research and development at Mississippi’s research universities on projects which would have commercial implications as well as funding projects in the private sector. Thirteen projects have been funded to date with individual awards ranging from about $30,000 to $260,000. The projects typically involve private sector partners.

MBJ: Tell us about a few projects.

SA: An excellent example of relationship building between the public and private sectors is the “slash-bundler project.” The slash-bundler is a piece of equipment manufactured by the John Deere Company to collect the tree-tops and limbs which are typically left as waste material in the woods after the timber is harvested.

SBI brought together researchers from Mississippi State University and the University of Arkansas-Monticello to work together with individuals from John Deere and Potlatch Corporation to conduct the very first demonstration of the slash-bundler in the southern United States. At the time there was only one slash-bundler in the entire country which was transported down here from Michigan for evaluating the efficiency of this machine in making the 1,000-pound bundles of waste wood.

Results compiled by Dr. Phil Steele’s group at MSU showed that as much as an additional 20% of merchantable timber can be collected using this equipment. These bundles are being studied at MSU as a potential fuel source for creating bioenergy.

Some very cutting edge research projects at Ole Miss and JSU are focused on figuring out unique ways to produce cellulosic ethanol form sources such as wood chips and grasses. The United States is actually the top producer of ethanol in the world with the ethanol industry having developed over the last 30 years. Most of this ethanol is derived from corn by converting corn starch into sugars and then converting the sugars into ethanol, much like a Jim Beam or Anheuser-Busch distillery.

Going forward, we are seeing a clear shift to no-corn based ethanol production, but most of these technologies are in the early stages of development. The US Department of Energy is making significant investments to make these technologies economically feasible within the next few years.

SBI has also funded projects related to biodiesel, both at the commercial production level and research into making the process more profitable for biodiesel producers by extracting additional value from the byproducts.

MBJ: Which ones do you think are the most viable commercially?

SA: One of the projects funded by SBI is at the University of Southern Mississippi where Dr. David Wertz has developed a proprietary process to separate the rubber from the steel in used tires. He figured out a way to combine the rubber with different types of biomass to produce an “energy-enhanced-biomass” material, which can be burned with excellent heating potential. Dr. Wertz has seen a tremendous amount of interest from the private sector to produce this fuel on a commercial scale.

SBI is also funding a feasibility study being conducted by Dr. Liam Leightley and Dr. Sandra Eksioglu to evaluate the potential for producing cellulosic ethanol in Mississippi. MTA has funded conventional ethanol and biodiesel feasibility studies in the past which have been used by groups looking to site such plants in the state. Upon completion of the cellulosic ethanol study, I believe we will be among just a handful of states to have such information, which project developers can rely on.

MBJ: Is interest in alternative fuel projects growing?

SA: Yes! Something about this $3, no wait, $4 gallon gasoline has thrust alternative fuels into the media limelight. Unfortunately, many of these processes are still evolving, but the race is on.

For example, just two to three years ago, research was confined primarily to government or university laboratories to make biofuels from algae. Today there are almost fifteen companies who are pushing the limits of science to produce diesel and gasoline substitutes from controlled growth and harvesting of “pond-scum.” Mississippi offers some ideal locations to locate an “algae-oil” facility.

The recent surpassing of the one billion dollar mark for annual venture capital investments in clean-energy technologies is also an excellent indicator of the growing interest. We now have some very high profile businessmen like Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Airlines Group and Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems and the country’s top venture capital investor, making huge investments in biofuels facilities.

MBJ: What opportunities exist for Mississippi farmers?

SA: Mississippi is primarily a rural state and Mississippi farmers are well positioned to take advantage of the growing interest in renewable fuels. We have five projects underway where manure from cows, pigs and chickens is being converted into energy for offsetting the energy consumption of these farms. These projects are at various stages of development and it has definitely been a learning experience of the do’s and don’ts for such projects. The poultry litter-to-methane conversion systems are among the first of their kind in the nation. According to Bunge-Ergon, their 60 million gallon-per-year ethanol plant in Vicksburg has created an additional local market for 22 million bushels per year of corn.

As new technologies develop, there will be opportunities to grow dedicated energy crops such as switch grass, sweet sorghum, or miscanthus to supply the next generation of biofuels production plants.

The timber industry in Mississippi is also a vital part of the growing bioenergy and biofuels sector. We already have a large wood pellet plant in northeast Mississippi and another one has been announced for the southern part of the state. The Amory plant exports these pellets to Europe.

MBJ: Isn’t there quite a bit of research going on at Mississippi universities?

SA: Faculty members at all institutions are actively pursuing their energy related interests. The Sustainable Research Center was formed at MSU to conduct research on a broad range of topics ranging from feedstock production to making the biofuels. Feed stocks are defined as the materials which are derived from biomass sources and then converted into energy using one of many processes available.

SBI partnered with the Mississippi Research Consortium to fund projects at four universities in the state — UM, JSU, USM and MSU.

MBJ: What natural resources does the state have that will be helpful in developing alternative fuel?

SA: Mississippi has very distinct patterns of land use: we have the delta region which is primarily crop land; we have the forested areas in the eastern and southern parts of the state; and we have the fourth largest poultry industry in the country.

The forestry and poultry industries combined have an annual impact of approximately $12 billion on the state’s economy. We already have ethanol, biodiesel and methane production facilities based on agricultural products.

The challenge in using natural resources is to match the resource with the technology to convert its energy because all biomass is not created equal. In other words, different plant or animal based materials have different physical properties. A cookie-cutter approach for conversion usually does not work.

MBJ: What is the Mississippi Technology Alliance’s E85 vehicle and why is it important?

SA: MTA has the use of a flex fuel vehicle, also known as an E-85 vehicle, courtesy of General Motors. We have had the Chevrolet Avalanche with the bright corn logo on the sides and back since December 2006. It will soon be replaced with a new Chevrolet Tahoe which has a different logo on it signifying a shift to the cellulosic materials. We received this vehicle after Gov. Barbour appointed me to represent Mississippi on the Governor’s Ethanol Coalition. We have used the vehicle for education and outreach purposes by taking it to various events around the state.

I have also met with many school children to engage them in a discussion on renewable energy. The big picture why we need to be talking about renewable energy is that we are dealing with a finite resource when it comes to oil. The United States only has 2% of the world’s oil reserves yet we are the single largest consumer of the energy in the world. With only 5% of the world’s population, we use 25% of the world’s energy.

But that really is an indicator of how large our economy is. The goal is not to shrink our economy by using less energy, but we need to improve how efficiently we use it. The world will still be relying on fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas for the next several years, but we need to include other choices in the mix so that we are not dependent on just one or two resources.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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