Huge challenges in scaling up biofuels infrastructure

Huge challenges in scaling up biofuels infrastructure
Swithchgrass being stored for bioenergy generation.
( -- Ramping up biofuels production to replace fossil fuels and provide a significant portion of the nation's energy will require nothing short of a transformation of the U.S. agricultural, transportation and energy sectors in the next few decades, according to a bioenergy expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Major changes will be needed to grow, handle, transport and store the immense quantities of -- mostly lignocellulosic feedstocks such as switchgrass, crop residues and forest wastes -- necessary to continually feed electric power generation stations and produce biofuels for transportation, noted Tom Richard, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, who is director of the University's Institutes of and the Environment.

In an article, titled "Challenges in Scaling Up Biofuels Infrastructure," published in the Aug. 13 issue of the journal Science, Richard contends that converting to a system in which biomass provides much of the country's energy will require new ways of thinking about agriculture, and rural economic development.

"It is estimated that bioenergy has the potential to provide up to 60 percent of the world's primary energy, and biomass seems poised to provide a major alternative to fossil fuels," he wrote. "The International Energy Agency estimates that a 50 percent reduction in by 2050 will require an exponential increase in bioenergy production, to 20 percent of our total energy supply in less than 40 years."

But the massive demand for lignocellulosic biomass will require major changes in supply chain infrastructure, Richard warned. "Even with densification and preprocessing, transport volumes by mid-century are likely to exceed the combined capacity of current agricultural and energy supply chains, including grain, petroleum and coal," he wrote. "To reach the International Energy Agency 2050 target for primary energy from biomass would require 15 billion metric tons of biomass annually."

To gain some perspective on the quantities involved, consider the volumes of related commodities currently being managed. For agricultural commodities, the sum of rice, wheat, soybeans, maize and other coarse grains and oilseeds will approach 2 billion metric tons in 2010. Current global volumes of energy commodities are somewhat larger, with 6.2 billion metric tons of coal and 5.7 billion metric tons of oil transported in 2008.

"Thus, the combination of expected growth in energy demand and the lower density of biomass imply that by 2050, biomass transport volumes will be greater than the current capacity of the entire energy and agricultural commodity infrastructure," Richard wrote.

If managed poorly, Richard noted, this additional traffic could degrade rural roadways and increase safety concerns. But increased demand for biomass could also provide a strong incentive to improve rural transportation infrastructure, facilitating agricultural and economic development in concert with renewable energy.

The size and efficiency of bioenergy-conversion facilities will determine how far these huge volumes of biomass and biofuel will need to travel, and thus influence transportation's contribution to the energy, economic and environmental impacts of biomass use. Decentralized systems have the potential to source feedstock locally with minimum infrastructure costs.

The delivery of finished biofuel also would stress transportation systems, Richard wrote. "For example, a large biofuel plant would require 16 to 20 tanker trucks or railcars per day to move the fuel to market, increasing both traffic and costs."

But regardless of the fuel product, massive investments in new pipe, rail and highway infrastructure are needed to move those fuels from a new biorefinery network dispersed across the landscape, Richard wrote. Densification strategies including baling systems for grasses, crop residues and forest trimmings, as well as higher-density pellets and cubes, will be key.

Biomass-production operations must occur year-round because it is difficult to amortize capital costs for facilities that are used for only a few months of the year. However, many biomass feedstocks have optimal harvest periods that may run for only a few weeks.

"There are likely other seasons during which harvesting should not occur due to weather or various ecosystem constraints," Richard wrote, adding that agricultural producers have demonstrated how to store biomass.

"Livestock farmers have been facing a similar problem supplying forages to their 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year milk- and meat-producing animals for over a thousand years, and have developed effective wet (silage) and dry (hay) storage systems for grasses and crop residues," he wrote.
The amount of nearby land dedicated to energy crops also will greatly affect the costs of feedstock supply, Richard suggested. Even short supply chains can significantly increase the cost of some biomass resources between the field and the biorefinery gate.

"The push-pull between economies of scale for conversion facilities and diseconomies of scale for feedstock supply chains suggest three distinct business models for biomass feedstock supply: independent local suppliers, large contiguous plantations and regional or global commodity markets," Richard wrote.

Independent local feedstock suppliers can work well for smaller biomass energy facilities, including combined heat and power plants that require a few truckloads of biomass each day or week. Such operations would have relatively short haul distances and little need for specialized equipment, and the extra expense required for densification would not be required.

"Local supply chains are currently common throughout the world, supplying everything from firewood for charcoal to waste oil for biodiesel," he wrote. "A second model of biomass supply chains is the plantation approach, where a single company controls a large contiguous land area. Plantations have long provided concentrated production of agricultural and forest products for high-volume processing and international markets."

This strategy is being used today for bioenergy crops in many regions of the world, including sugar cane and soybeans in South America, oil palm in Malaysia, and canola in Ukraine, according to Richard. "Most plantation systems have been structured so that the company needing the feedstock directly owns the land."
The third business model is the commodity biomass market, which would parallel the trading operations for other agricultural commodities (such as grains and livestock) as well as energy resources (such as petroleum and coal).

The transformation of American society to one in which biomass produces a major fraction of our energy is daunting but possible, Richard concluded. "It will require an innovative, informed and motivated citizenry -- entrepreneurs, farmers, foresters, neighbors and a host of new workers throughout the feedstock supply chain," he wrote.

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Citation: Huge challenges in scaling up biofuels infrastructure (2010, August 23) retrieved 19 April 2019 from
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Aug 23, 2010
How would industrial hemp manufacture help with biomass feedstock supplies?

Aug 23, 2010
The firing and felling of tropical forests for planting of oil palms can destroy the rest of life environment irreversibly. In addition, the biomass energy is not recoverable source, as it drains minerals and humus from soil. One centimeter of humus is generated few hundreds of years.


It's actually a much more dangerous, then the burning of coil. The advantage of biofuels is just at low scale infrastructure in form of burning of communal and agriculture wastes - but at large scales it will wipe out our civilization fast. If we want to survive and to save life environment, we should invest into cold fusion research ASAP.


Aug 23, 2010
Bio-mass energy is a waste of time, effort, cropland and input resources. You are correct but every year millions of tons of straw and wood waste from lumber production is burned in order to get rid of it. As of this moment it is free potential energy nobody wants.

Aug 23, 2010
"Bio-mass energy is a waste of time, effort, cropland and input resources." - You are correct but every year millions of tons of straw and wood waste from lumber production is burned in order to get rid of it. As of this moment it is free potential energy nobody wants.

Aug 23, 2010
Biomass is already being used.Wood,straw,peat,rice hulls,manure is available.Modern farms, sawmills,processing plants or pulpwood mills can produce biomass, solar or wind energy,but the grid must be expanded,and become far more efficient.

Aug 23, 2010
There are lots of biomass sources, as robbor mentioned above. Agricultural waste, food waste, wood waste, paper waste, basically any kind of biodegradable waste. Biofuel could basically be a kind of recycling to take care of these tings we want to get rid of anyway. Also, switchgrass doesn't need to be grown on crop land, so there is no real competition with crops, and it is not hard to replenish the minerals and other nutrients by replacing them after fuel is made, since they are mostly removed from the biomass before it becomes usable fuel. Additionally, solar may get more watts per square meter, but you still have the yet unsolved problems of energy storage, daily and seasonal variations, and the huge capital investment needed to even set the panels up.

Aug 24, 2010
Why consider only the capacities of the agriculture and energy sectors - how about logging and paper- what sorts of tonnages do they move each year. And shouldn't there be a reference to tonne-km as opposed to simply tonnes.

Aug 24, 2010
I am horrified at the presumptions about using land to produce energy that is over and above ordinary food producing agriculture. It should not be being planned for at all. The only worthwhile biofuels to plan for are ones that derive from bacterial action. The waste of water for producing fuel from crops on land is gigantic and no right-minded scientist worth his or her salt would recommend that our society take that route. Electricity should come from nuclear, wind and solar (all to be very well planned and not in the face of anyone, other species included). Fuels to come from any other source but using up valuable land that either belongs to food production or to other species for habitat. Their rights count as well and I wish there were laws in place to protect them.

Aug 24, 2010
We need to get serious about switching our primary energy production to breeder reactors, my bets are on Thorium thermal breeders. These produce both lots of electricity and lots of heat. Using this we could directly synthesize fuels by splitting water and perhaps from carbon capture. Most transportation should switch to battery or fuel cell power. The biomass or synthesized fuel is needed for jet travel.

Aug 24, 2010
I personally like the idea of ethanol producing algae. There is no need for biomass processing, ethanol just evaporates from water and is collected.
Cheap and effective, just put your reactor outside and you have an infinite source of alcohol.

Aug 24, 2010
Wind, solar, and nuclear are all great, but they don't solve the energy storage problem. Electric cars are not mainstream yet because of the expensive, huge, heavy, toxic batteries they need. Never mind the incredibly slow charging times. A thought occurs to me just now as I write this, why not just got to a "gas station" with your electric car and simply pump out the spent anion and cation fluids from your liquid battery and pump in fresh ones. The tech for this must exist, right?
I also saw an article on here not long ago about genetically engineering algae to literally exude biodiesel that needs almost no processing. Perhaps you could grow them in enclosed greenhouses to conserve water?

Aug 24, 2010
Wind, solar, and nuclear are all great, but they don't solve the energy storage problem.
Generate with nuclear, store with hydrogen, nice and easy.

The reason why this is feasible is the fact that oyu can electrolyze grey water and most other waste waters for hydrogen without affecting the agricultural or drinkable infrastructures to great extent.

Aug 28, 2010
Nuclear, nuclear, nuclear. Fission or fusion take your pick. 4th gen. fission is out of this world, it could be built tomorrow and is the perfect "stop gap" between now and whenever they get fusion to work.

We've been a fire culture for, what, about a million years? Time to move on...

Aug 29, 2010
This feels allot like linear extrapolation of a non linear process. Direct fuel grade bio-diesel extracted from engineered bacteria or hydroponic algae pumped directly into pipelines or tankers.


Sep 01, 2010
Transportation can be minimized by using sewage and trash as the first raw material. Methane gas, from landfills, is already being used. In some cases trash is being shipped far away from cities. It could be used for energy on site instead.

Fresh biomass should be used nearby where it is grown, or converted to electricity, or another medium before being transported.

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