College of Engineering / Research / Centers / Center for Bioenergy and Bioproducts / Focus Areas

Bioenergy and Bioproducts Focus Areas

Members of the Bioenergy and Bioproducts Center committee have identified seven universal gaps that are barriers to the development of alternative fuels/energy in general (not specific to Auburn University). We also identified the capability that Auburn University possesses to address each of these gaps. The following are focus areas and program objectives that the Center will address in the coming year. Links are provided for more detailed information about each objective.

Objective 1: Resource Assessment

Assess the amount and status of natural resources available for production of feedstocks for biofuels and bioproducts.

Objective 2: Biomass Feedstock Production and Processing Systems

Develop a sustainable, cost-efficient production system as the foundation for an economically viable natural resources-based economy in Alabama.

Objective 3: Sustainability

Identify economically viable means for elimination of obstacles to sustaining supplies of forest and agricultural biomass.

Objective 4: Fuels, Chemicals, and Power Production

Develop and optimize processes and technologies for the optimal production of fuels, chemicals, and power from feedstocks derived from Alabama's natural resources.

Objective 5: Advanced Biobased Products

Identify opportunities for advanced biobased materials and products, overcome technological challenges leading to economically viable production of these products, and provide assistance to encourage creation and marketing of new biobased manufacturing industries in Alabama.

Objective 6: Economic and Societal Impact

Optimize the use of Alabama's natural resources for the production of value-added fuels and other products and assess the state-wide economic and societal impacts of the resulting industrial and community development.

Objective 7: Education and Outreach

Develop strategies to integrate research findings into education curricula and outreach/extension activities and incorporate these strategies into existing university instruction and outreach functions.

Objective 1: Resource Assessment

Production of feedstocks for biofuels and biobased products includes forest-based and agricultural biomass. The resource assessment includes inventory volume, production rates, current and theoretical, type of material, availability, costs to produce, and energy potential by type of product.

Inventory volumes that are available for use as feedstocks for biofuels and biobased products will be taken from secondary sources, such as current Forest Inventory Analysis (FIA) data, Agricultural Statistics, and other publicly available reporting sources. These volumes will be reported in a common unit of measure and energy value. The annual production rate per acre of each form of material will be calculated to reflect the potential energy production capacity. Additionally, modeling will be conducted to determine the capability to maximize the productivity of a site with varying levels of additional inputs to increase productivity. Availability of these materials will be estimated and will include an analysis of the impact of market pricing levels.

Production capacity will include the use of energy crops as a key area of potential feedstocks, and investigation of short-rotation wood and agricultural energy crops will be conducted. A key component of this research will be to develop techniques for optimizing energy yields per acre.

Multiple product management systems will be included in this analysis. These systems will utilize adaptation of existing species and management schemes to efficiently produce energy products in combination with agricultural stalks and grasses, conventional timber products, small stem harvesting, and forest residue recovery. The costs to produce these materials will be evaluated on a roadside delivery, and transportation costs can be modeled to deliver varying distances to a biofuel production facility.

Production costs will be important to include in an analysis of biofuel feedstocks. Comparative fuel economics will be used to reflect the cost per million BTU's produced.

Objective 2: Biomass Feedstock Production and Processing Systems

Research and education programs will address the systems to produce and process the various types of agricultural and forest biomass in preparation for further processing. Biomass production systems will be developed to ensure long-term sustainability for Alabama natural resources and profitable conditions for Alabama farmers and forest landowners. Current systems are not necessarily optimized for the production of biomass. Rather, many are targeted at only producing a grain crop or pulpwood or solid wood product. Therefore, research is needed to ensure that production methods are available to produce biomass at the least cost. This may involve research on plant genomics, plant establishment and cultivation techniques, optimal fertilization strategies, etc. These production systems also will be devised to produce biomass at a least cost per unit of energy.

Optimal biomass harvesting techniques will be developed and new processing technologies will be evaluated to determine efficient forms of material composition for delivery to a processing point. Again, current harvesting systems are not necessarily optimized for the types of biomass products that may result from Alabama's agricultural and forest lands. More efficient and technologically advanced harvesting systems will be needed to ensure that biomass feedstocks can be produced at least cost. Current harvesting techniques will be evaluated and new techniques and combinations of machines will be devised to adapt to the current infrastructure for transportation and handling.

More efficient biomass transportation systems and infrastructure will be designed to provide lowest cost biomass delivered to the final processing plants. Separation of various raw materials should be evaluated to determine the need and potential to mix and co-process various forms of biomass feedstock. Additional work will focus on advanced logistics techniques using the latest technologies to optimize transportation of biomass feedstocks.

Sustainability of the biomass production system will be evaluated to determine the economic, environmental, and sociological values. The total contribution of the biomass will be analyzed to determine the contributions to societal values. This includes the economic input/output costs for production; environmental impacts, including impact on water and air quality, soil protection, provision of biological diversity and habitat; and sociological values related to aesthetics, recreation, and multiple, sustainable benefits from the land.

Objective 3: Sustainability

We need to know the rates of biomass production that can be sustained and how these can be maximized. Issues such as site productivity, water quality, and other factors will need to be addressed. Also, any potential environmental impacts associated with manufacturing and production processes will need to be clarified and minimized as well.

It is critical that we understand how rapidly our state's resources of woody and agricultural biomass can be replenished as well as the obstacles to maximum production. Although the Alabama climate is generally conducive to high production rates, we often fall far short of maximum production due to restricted soil productivity. Repeated intensive harvests will increase demands on soils and, consequently, we must understand how to maintain and increase site productivity within a framework of economically viable options. The natural biomass resources of Alabama can supply enormous amounts of energy; however, in order to permanently reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we must ensure sustainable biomass production. 

As larger proportions of our energy needs begin to be met by biomass, issues related to environmental quality may arise. As examples, broader spatial distributions of resource extraction coupled with higher frequency of harvests may imply greater risks to water quality and quantity. A significant portion of our biomass resources occur on sites that are prone to erosion and, consequently, frequent extractions there could have implications for sediment loadings in streams. Similarly, altered vegetation patterns within watersheds may have positive or negative impacts on hydrology (i.e. the amount of water available for consumption). Given that reduced availability of water is widely recognized as a major, rising problem within the Southeast, any implications for water supply stemming from biomass-related issues must be addressed.

The conversion of Alabama's natural resources to fuels, power, or chemicals requires manufacturing facilities that have potential negative environmental impact in the form of air emissions, liquid effluent, and solid waste. These impacts need to be reduced to the absolute minimum by a combination of in-plant controls and end-of-pipe treatment, which simultaneously recover by-product value from waste streams and eliminate all potentially harmful environmental effects. The guiding principles are embedded in the disciplines of sustainable engineering and green chemistry.

One of the chief sources of revenue derived from natural resources in Alabama is leasing of lands for hunting. Broader cultivation of biomass crops and forest extractions may have positive or negative implications for wildlife habitat at small scales. Consequently, we need to understand how biomass production may affect the value of land for leases so that landowner revenues can be maximized.

Objective 4: Fuels, Chemicals, and Power Production

Energy and fuels production from Alabama's renewable and other abundant natural resources is a centerpiece of the alternative fuels initiative with a three-pronged program focused on: 1) the range of potential raw materials that can be used as feedstocks to produce various fuels, chemicals, and power; 2) processing technologies for efficient and environmentally sound manufacture of fuels and chemicals; and 3) determination of the optimal combination of products to be manufactured. Raw materials to be evaluated include agricultural crops and residues, forest biomass and pulp mill wastes/spent liquors, and coal. Both biochemical processing and thermochemical pathways are to be investigated. Attainable products range from ethanol, gasoline/diesel and biodiesel to other transportation fuels such as DME/methanol, all the way to hydrogen. Process integration strategies will be implemented to optimize the processing steps in a holistic manner to ensure efficient use of energy and materials resources in these fuel production strategies. 

Researchers at Auburn University are developing technologies that enable the production of fuels and chemicals and power from the wide range of feedstocks available in Alabama. This project seeks to further engineer these emerging technologies into technically viable, efficient as well as economical and environmentally sustainable production strategies. It is highly unlikely that one single technology would be implemented as it would be highly vulnerable to changing market prices and consumer demands. These concerns are alleviated through polygeneration facilities involving the co-production of several fuels and chemicals along with power.

The biomass and coal feedstocks can be thermochemically converted into fuels (e.g. diesel, hydrogen) and chemicals (e.g. ethanol, sugars), processed into highly valuable chemical intermediates, or simply combusted for power production. A central enabling technology in this initiative involves gasification of carbonaceous feedstocks to syngas, a gaseous mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Syngas is the common starting point for a plethora of established catalytic chemical production schemes including hydrogen, methanol, Fischer-Tropsch liquids (gasoline, diesel, heavy waxes), DME (dimethylether), ammonia and other high value chemical intermediates such as a-olefins. These technologies have proven technical and economical viability. Therefore this initiative will investigate the technical feasibility of producing fuels and chemicals from biomass derived synthesis gas along with direct conversion strategies including power production.

Biological processes provide additional reaction pathways towards the production of fuels and chemicals. The biological processes to be examined include the enzymatic and/or microbial conversion of biomass feedstocks into value-added products and chemical intermediates such as methane, alcohols (methanol, ethanol, and higher alcohols), carboxylic acids (polylactic acid), and esters (biodiesel). Biological processes have the inherent benefit of being highly selective and customizable; however, these processes often suffer from long processing times and low production rate. Therefore, biological conversion techniques will be combined with established high-throughput chemical processing to significantly enhance the technical feasibility of large scale production. 

The number of process configurations and possible products than can be derived from biomass is quite extensive. Determining the optimal combination of processing steps and desired products is a highly complex problem that cannot be solved by heuristics, simple rules of thumb, or qualitative process knowledge. The most profitable set of products and their associated production schemes will be determined by employing holistic process integration and systematic optimization techniques.

Objective 5: Advanced Biobased Products

Alabama's abundant natural resources may be tapped to produce more than just energy. Activities under this objective will focus on finding the optimal uses and creating new business opportunities for our natural resources by developing the technologies for a diverse portfolio of biobased products. Worldwide, the petrochemical industry has spent the last 100 years perfecting techniques to convert petroleum resources into industrial plastics, polymers, solvents, etc. However, to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, now is the time to find new ways to use the hydrocarbons present in lignocellulosic material and other natural resources to manufacture these industrial chemicals and polymers in Alabama. A revitalized biobased industry in Alabama will stimulate our local economies by creating new jobs in the sectors that produce the agricultural crops and forest biomass, in the newly developed or expanded biochemical manufacturing industries, and in the multitude of service businesses that provide support for these production and manufacturing functions.

Biochemical and thermochemical processes can be used to create a wide variety of advanced biobased products in addition to biofuels. In fact, many such biobased products may be byproducts resulting from the processes that create biofuels. These biobased products include a wide range of plastics, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, advanced composites, natural-fiber reinforced products, and industrial chemicals. Industrial chemical products include solvents, phenolics, adhesives, furfural, fatty acids, acetic acid, paints, dyes, pigments, inks, and detergents.

Natural-fiber reinforced products might include new lightweight, sound-absorbing composites made from wood or agricultural crops such as flax or sisal. These natural fibers are ideal replacements for traditional glass fibers because they are up to 40 percent lighter than glass fibers and they have excellent mechanical properties. By developing the technology for natural fiber reinforced components and other biobased plastics, we can supply biobased parts for the automotive and building products industries in Alabama and across the southern U.S.

Research under this objective will identify opportunities for new products from our biological and natural resources. This will involve conducting technical feasibility studies to determine the optimal uses for the various components of biomass feedstocks. This work will be conducted in concert with that of other objectives focused on production of biofuels to ensure that the final biorefining processes are developed to maximize the value produced from our natural resources.

Research and education activities will also solve the technical and economic challenges to allow the successful production and manufacture of these biobased products. This research will include topics such as developing biochemical processes to product chemical feedstocks, development of new biobased plastics, and development of natural-fiber reinforced composites.

To foster the growth of these new biobased industries in Alabama, additional research and outreach efforts will emphasize technology transfer. Research efforts may focus on decision support systems to help businesses determine optimal locations for their operations. Outreach efforts will educate entrepreneurs and venture capitalists on the possible biobased products and feedstocks available in Alabama and market opportunities available for these products and feedstocks.

Objective 6: Economic and Societal Impact

This impact thrust area of the alternative fuels strategy consists of two interrelated dimensions (economic and societal), each focused in turn on two key aspects of the outputs from the program. The first key impact assessment is the optimization of resource production and transport, the product mix and the process steps to ensure the most efficient use of available resources. The second key impact assessment is the quantification of the increase in Alabama's gross state product flowing from the full implementation of the optimized alternative fuels technologies combined with corresponding calculations of community impacts in terms of job creation and personal income. Included in this second assessment is an analysis of the effect of public policy on the commercial implementability of the emerging technologies.

It is timely and prudent to start the strategic planning for how Alabama's industries can alleviate dependence on crude oil derived raw materials. Furthermore, the bioprocessing industries, i.e. the forest-based and agricultural industries, are facing a growing need to explore alternative avenues to increase profitability in an increasingly competitive market. The integrated biorefinery concept provides the opportunity for a strong, self-dependent, sustainable alternative for the production of chemicals and fuels. This will satisfy both state and national needs while moving toward sustainable development. The focus is on a combination of novel biomass conversion processes with conventional production capabilities to include a wider range of products, e.g. fuels, chemicals and/or renewable energy along with traditional bioproducts, e.g. paper and agricultural products.

There is a critical need for a systematic means of connecting the results of each individual project in the initiative so the results can be evaluated holistically. It is highly unlikely that only a single technology will be implemented. It is much more plausible that each application will implement a combination of different technologies based on specific requirements. As it is hardly practical or economical to investigate experimentally all those combinations, it will be necessary to scale-up the experimental results and evaluate the impact on the overall system when integrated with additional processing steps. The development of mathematical models for the individual processes can alleviate these problems and thus provide a common interface through which the wide-ranging projects can be connected. Determining the optimal processing route and desired products is a highly complex problem that cannot be solved by heuristics, simple rules-of-thumb, or qualitative process knowledge. In addition, since the objectives and constraints of the problem change as market prices and trends vary, it is of great importance for decision makers to be able to identify how the product distribution and process configuration should be altered to compensate. Finally, plant-wide considerations such as environmental impact and resource utilization requirements need to be evaluated on a production scale, which the developed models will enable.

The potential total impact of full implementation of the resulting technologies on Alabama's economy is to be quantified in the development of a state-wide pro forma. This pro forma is to include a comprehensive evaluation of the value of all possible value-added fuel, energy, and biobased products provided from Alabama's natural resources; a corresponding estimate of the costs of all the forest-based, agricultural, and other feedstocks; and an estimation of the associated manufacturing costs. The bottom line result of such a pro forma is anticipated to be a realistic evaluation of the net incremental state-wide manufacturing income realizable from the outputs of this initiative.

From the details of the pro forma, it then is possible to derive corresponding figures on state-wide job creation and increase in personal income. Both direct and indirect job creation estimates are to be covered using standard multipliers. From the state-wide impacts, local and regional impacts can be derived.

In addition, a public policy analysis is to be conducted to assess the influence of policy, legislation, and regulation on the ability of the state and its citizens to realize the full potential of this initiative. Both existing public policy barriers to implementation and necessary legislation and regulatory enhancements are to be identified.

Objective 7: Education and Outreach

Research in alternative fuels is multidisciplinary in nature ranging from raw material production to transportation logistics to energy conversion systems. This offers a unique opportunity for the faculty and students in different colleges to collaborate and be involved in a process from conception of an idea to research and development of the idea, and ultimately commercialization. The components of this initiative in education and outreach consist of three main areas: interdisciplinary curriculum development, K-12 and public outreach, and technology transfer.

Curriculum Development: The broad and multidisciplinary nature of this initiative is ideal for the establishment of a certificate program and/or a minor in "Alternative Fuels" at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Although there are numerous courses in our existing curricula that are directly related to alternative energy and fuel processing, these courses are restricted to specific disciplines. We will, under this initiative, develop new courses that integrate content across disciplinary boundaries to give our students a comprehensive view of the subject, ranging from natural resources to conversion to economics. These courses will be developed and team-taught by faculty from different colleges. Many of these courses will be cross-listed in different departments to give the students the option of using these courses for their majors or for a coordinated minor in "Alternative Fuels." Two examples of such courses are "Natural Resources and Conversion Systems for Alternative Energy" and "Alternative Energy and the Environment." Since the alternative fuel industry is a growing sector of our economy, graduates with training in this area will provide the human resource that is needed to help the industry flourish.

K-12 and Public Outreach: The public is aware of the importance of alternative energy to replace our dependence on fossil fuel. This alternative fuel initiative is a logical avenue to develop an outreach program to educate the public with accurate information in this topic and what Auburn University is contributing in this area. Efforts will include maintaining Web content with pertinent information, periodic newsletters, and, most importantly, visits to our K-12 schools, youth organizations, and communities across the state. These visits consist of presentations and demonstrations of the various alternative fuel concepts and how the general public can be involved. The outreach personnel will work closely with the university's Extension System to ensure that local businesses and farmers are also aware of these visits. The state of Alabama is rich in agriculture and our businesses can benefit from alternative energy either as an energy supplier (such as energy crops) or as an end user or both. Auburn University is available to provide technical assistance to better incorporate alternative fuel opportunities into their business to enhance their competitiveness.

Technology Transfer: Faculty members are innovators and they are the drivers for this alternative fuel initiative. Research from their laboratories will result in intellectual properties that will facilitate better and alternative use of our natural resources. The university's Office of Technology Transfer will be the avenue through which faculty can patent their research and can commercialize their ideas through licensing and partnerships. The Auburn University Research Park will also be available for developing technologies that have high commercial values creating quality employment opportunities.