Ethanol's Ugly Sister: Solid Biofuels

By Luke Simpson, Associate Editor, Chem.Info

Solid biofuels aren’t getting as much coverage as the other biofuels currently being developed, and who’s surprised? Wood pellets are not nearly as sexy as fighter jet biofuel (Navy To Test Biofuels In F-18A Super Hornets).

Algae is certainly the current media darling — just look at ExxonMobil’s prime time advertising campaign promoting algae biofuel as a “beautiful” alternative to fossil fuels.

And a report released last week claimed that the market for biofuels will triple by 2020, but failed to even mention solid biofuels as part of the equation.

So you can imagine my surprise last Friday, during a solid biofuels webinar run by The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, when Dr. Richard Straub from the University of Wisconsin announced that they would be converting the campus’s coal-powered heating plant to 100 percent biomass by the year 2013, spending over $250 million in the process.

Like second and third generation ethanol and biodiesel, carbon capture is getting a lot of exposure, thanks in part to Dow and Alstom launching a pilot plant that uses amine-based carbon scrubbing technology already proven in other applications. But even with the pilot plant up and running, this technology will not be widely available for many years, assuming it proves to be viable and storage issues are overcome.

It turns out that Wisconsin is embarking on a plethora of solid biomass projects in response to a mandate that requires 10 percent of the state's electricity to come from wind turbines, solar panels and other renewable sources by 2015.

Reports have indicated that paper companies in the state are not too happy about this newfound interest in their main feedstock, raising concerns about over harvesting and increased wood prices. Being a print publication, the last thing we need is higher paper prices.

Is this the start of a wood vs. fuel debate?

Even environmentalists are wary about the impact on the state’s North Woods and the lack of data comparing carbon emissions from coal and biomass plants.

I think there is a lot to be said for innovating and being a leader in the shift to renewable fuels, but there seems to be a touch of blind faith going on here.

ISO is currently in the early stages of developing standards that define values and properties of feedstock, along with handling and logistics standards. The technical committee is currently looking for input from industry and hopes to have the standards finalized by 2011.

To its credit, the UW admits that it needs these standards in place to properly convert the site, and is playing an active role in the technical committee.

I just hope that the public is given the facts when it comes to coal vs. solid biofuel, namely:

  1. How much CO2 is emitted per unit of energy produced for each?
  2. What are the logistical ramifications of switching fuels? That is, will we expend more energy getting the less energy dense biomass to the plant?

Even with ethanol destined for a place in the future biofuels landscape, it’s still hard to get answers to critical questions like these. I don’t think we can afford to spend billions of dollars and four years developing a dud technology.

Can you think of a better way to spend $250 million? Drop me a line at