Michigan Tech a Partner in Three Major Biofuel Projects

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

From plants to transportation and back again, the life cycle of biofuels
From plants to transportation and back again, the life cycle of biofuels

Biofuels hold promise for lightening humankind’s carbon footprint while reducing dependence on petroleum. Like fossil fuels, plant-based biofuels release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when they are burned. But, unlike fossil fuels, they also sop up atmospheric carbon dioxide as the plants grow after re-planting, creating a closed cycle, at least theoretically. Reality is more complicated. The true impact on a biofuel’s greenhouse-gas emissions, be it wood chips, switchgrass or algae, can only be determined if the entire production process is examined, from planting, harvesting, transporting and processing the feedstock to measuring exhaust from the tailpipe.

David Shonnard, the Robbins Chair Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Michigan Technological University, will be conducting just such cradle-to-grave, life cycle analyses for two major alternative-energy projects recently funded by the US Department of Energy. They are among 19 industry-led projects receiving grants totaling $564 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as federal stimulus funds. Shonnard will also be involved in a third DOE-funded project, working to turn wastewater pollutants into ethanol.

The aim of the projects, according to a Dec. 4 DOE release, is to validate refining technologies and help lay the foundation for a full-scale biomass industry in the US.

Shonnard directs Michigan Tech’s Sustainable Futures Institute, which will be involved in life cycle studies conducted on behalf of two projects led by the Gas Technology Institute and UOP, a Honeywell company.

“Our research will provide a better picture of greenhouse-gas savings for advanced biofuels,” said Shonnard. “As they develop their processes, data will flow back to our group, and we’ll provide feedback on whether their greenhouse gas emissions are getting better or worse. This allows the companies to improve the carbon footprint of advanced biofuels.”

UOP received $25 million in DOE funding to produce green gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from agricultural residue, woody biomass, energy crops and algae. The project will be based in Kapolei, Hawaii, and includes a three-year contract for a life cycle analysis to be conducted by the Sustainable Futures Institute at Michigan Tech.

The Gas Technology Institute aims to engineer a process to produce green gasoline and diesel directly from woody biomass including lignin, agricultural residues such as the leaves and stalks of corn; and algae. The institute has received a one-year, $2.5 million award from the DOE for the $3.1 million project, based in Des Plaines, Ill. Shonnard’s research group will receive $50,000 to determine greenhouse gas emissions savings.

In addition, Shonnard will be working with American Process Inc. The company has received a DOE grant of $17.9 million toward a $28 million project to produce ethanol and potassium acetate, an industrial chemical. For a feedstock, the process uses effluent containing wood sugars generated by Decorative Panels International’s hardboard manufacturing facility in Alpena. Rather than pay to have the effluent processed as wastewater, the pilot plant will use it to produce up to 890,000 gallons of ethanol and 690,000 gallons of potassium acetate per year starting in 2011. Shonnard will receive $65,000 to further research on using enzymes to make fermentable sugars out of unfermentable carbohydrates.

Not everyone has embraced biofuels. Some worry that they will displace food crops. Others have asked what will become of America’s forests if wood becomes a major feedstock. And how much will biofuels affect greenhouse gas emissions, when all is said and done?

“Our research is trying to answer these questions,” says Shonnard. “What is the carbon footprint of the supply chain? How much land will be required? What will be the impact on the land? Our projects won’t provide all the answers, but in the long term the Sustainable Futures Institute will help decision-makers in industry and government make more-informed choices.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.