Waste Not . . .
by Jennifer Donovan
Partnering with industry, Michigan universities are blazing a trail to an energy-efficient future. And, as a university partner in three of the state's six Centers of Energy Excellence, as well as a partner in two new federally funded biofuel and plant biotechnology research centers, Michigan Tech is at the forefront of that pioneering venture.
What does the future of energy look like? It looks like forests, like grasses, like culled potatoes and sugar beets. It's based on plants instead of petroleum. It makes use of the waste as well as the primary product. And it involves much more than turning corn into ethanol.
"In our Centers of Energy Excellence, we're looking for ways to turn problems into possibilities, to turn a waste stream into a revenue stream," says David Reed, Michigan Tech vice president for research and a key player in the development of the three centers. "That's the only way to make a bioeconomy economically viable.
"Each Center of Energy Excellence focuses on a different piece of the bio-energy puzzle. In the partnership between Michigan Tech and Working Bugs LLC, for example, the East Lansing–based company operates a bio-refinery, using fermentation processes to make products like fuel additives and solvents from biochemicals rather than petrochemicals.
Up to now, most of the world's energy requirements have been met by nonrenewable petroleum. Biochemicals, by comparison, are a sustainable source of energy and chemical products, since they rely on raw materials that can be planted, grown, harvested, and grown again.
Economical mass-production of biofuels such as ethanol is one key objective of bioenergy research. One of Michigan Tech's Centers of Energy Excellence—a partnership between Michigan Tech, a new company called Frontier Renewable Resources (FRR), and Michigan State University—focuses on biofuel. The center is funded by a $2 million grant to the universities from the Michigan Strategic Fund.
FRR was established by Boston-based Mascoma Corporation and JM Longyear, a natural resources firm based in Marquette, Michigan, that has extensive forest land holdings in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Together, the partners will construct the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States, located at Kinross, in the eastern UP.
Michigan Tech's expertise in forestry, environmental science, manufacturing, and sustainable energy makes the University the perfect research partner for a venture like this.
"It's absolutely crucial for new energy companies to partner with institutions like Michigan Tech," says Stephen Hicks, director and CEO of Frontier Renewable Resources and a member of the University's Board of Control. "The exchange of ideas and technology between a premier research university like Michigan Tech and the private sector can help bring the best technology to the public and make the Upper Peninsula a twenty-first century energy leader.
"The goal ultimately is to create well-paying jobs and attract new energy investments to the UP and Michigan."
A team of researchers is heading Michigan Tech's Center of Energy Excellence partnership with FRR. They include Robert Froese, associate professor of forest resources and environmental science; John Sutherland, director of the University's Sustainable Futures Institute; David Shonnard, Robbins Professor of Sustainability in Chemical Engineering; and Maria Janowiak '05, '07, outreach scientist in forest resources and environmental science. Their work will focus on "what goes on before you get to the gate of the manufacturing plant," says Froese.
That includes evaluating land that could provide the raw materials—the biomass—to make biofuel, increasing the availability of the trees or grasses on which biofuel is based, and assessing the most efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly ways to harvest, handle, and transport the raw materials to the biofuel production plant. The project will address a spectrum of sustainability issues, including biodiversity, ecological concerns, carbon sequestration, convincing land owners to grow appropriate biomass, and finding ways to use land efficiently without degrading it.
"It's an ideal partnership between people who know the process and people who know the land," says Froese.
Turning waste into revenue
But, as important as it is, biofuel is only part of the bioeconomy equation. Much of the biomass used in producing biofuel is wasted. Unless we find ways to turn the waste from biofuel production into marketable products, biofuels might simply cost too much.
That's where Michigan Tech's other two Centers of Energy Excellence come in. Both are led by Shonnard. One is the partnership between the University and Working Bugs.
Working Bugs is one of a new generation of bio-based industries that are finding ways to create higher value products from biofuel production co-products. Working Bugs puts non-pathogenic microorganisms to work fermenting the sugars generated by biofuel production, producing bio-chemicals that can be used in products such as aromatics and solvents. The partnership between biofuel and biochemical production adds economic stability to the industry.
"Our philosophy is, always look for the best possible use of resources and materials," says Dianne Holman, managing partner of Working Bugs.
A civil engineer herself, Holman is thrilled to be working with Michigan Tech to find new ways to treat and prepare the biomass that her "working bugs" ferment. "Michigan Tech has a reputation for being extremely innovative and easy to work with," she explains. "It's good to bring new minds in to look at what we're doing. It opens new avenues for research and gives the University faculty and students a chance to work with industry to solve real problems, while producing revenue ideas for the company."
The partnership between Tech and Working Bugs is supported by another $2 million grant from the Michigan Strategic Fund.
Tech's third Center of Energy Excellence is a partnership with American Process Inc. of Atlanta, Valero Energy of San Antonio, Texas, and Decorative Panels International, of Alpena, Michigan. Its goal is to convert the hemicelluloses in the waste stream from panel manufacturing into products such as cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel, and a biodegradable road de-icer derived from acetic acid—new revenue streams—while cleaning the waste-water for reuse in the manufacturing plant.
"This is an exciting project that turns a waste stream into marketable products, leveraging Michigan Tech's and API's knowhow in the field of cellulosic ethanol," says Theodora Retsina, president of American Process. "It's a formidable partnership. The experience and knowledge we gain from this project will help us replicate it at other sites.
"This Center of Energy Excellence is supported by $4 million from the Michigan Strategic Fund.
Recently, a $1.4 million US Department of Energy appropriation was approved to fund a Forestry Biofuel Statewide Collaboration Center jointly operated in Escanaba by Michigan Tech and Michigan State. The two universities also will share in new federal funding for a nationwide Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, supporting agricultural research at universities across the country.
Reed sees Tech's Centers of Energy Excellence as a highway to energy independence. "We're going to be making fuel for Michigan from sustainably produced Michigan resources, creating jobs, attracting industry to the state, and finding ways to turn the waste from that fuel into economically viable consumer products," he predicts. "That's what the bioeconomy is all about."