By WHITNEY PANDIL-EATON
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Researchers are counting on microscopic fibers to protect the tractor’s experimental hydrogen fuel tank from the elements when it makes its debut on North Dakota State University test fields next spring.
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Alkar Tall Wheatgrass, one of seven perennial grass species planted on North Dakota State University research land for study of potential to transform into ethanol gas.
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Taken through an electron microscope, the photograph shows wheat straw nanofibers. Researchers are hoping these small fibers will one day play a large role in the manufacturing of everyday items.
Imagine driving down the highway in a car fueled by the very grasses you speed past, as you make your way to Lake Sakakawea, boat in tow, for a leisurely weekend of fishing.
Now imagine that the boat you are towing is made using that same grass material to form the composite shell that keeps you afloat and dry.
The yellow-green and gold-speckled ocean swaying in the strong North Dakota breeze you see everyday could someday replace the fuel in your car and the petroleum used to make many everyday items. At least, that is what governments, organizations and researchers around the world are hoping for, to replace fossil fuels with biomaterials.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization even declared 2009 as the International Year of Natural Fibers in an attempt to raise awareness and promote the development of natural fiber industries worldwide.
This past March, The Department of Energy released a multi-year biomass program whose mission is to develop and transform renewable and abundant biomass resources into cost-competitive, high-performance biofuels, bioproducts and biopower.
The 10-year-plus program is focusing on research, development and demonstration, with the ultimate goal of creating a biomaterials industry with support from the public and private sectors.
The biomass program has already set some lofty goals one being a 20 percent reduction in gasoline use by the year 2017. As technology advances and manufacturing becomes more efficient, the government estimates that cellulosic ethanol gas could be as low as $1.33 per gallon by 2012 and drop to $1.20 by 2017.
In June, The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 was signed into law. It mandates $118 million in funding per year through 2012 for research, development and demonstration projects for biofuels and bio-based chemicals and products.
On the state level, Gov. John Hoeven recently signed into law SB2288, a bill that created a Renewable Energy Council. The council will make research recommendations to the Industrial Commission. The bill also authorized $20 million in general and special funding to be used on research and instructed the Board of Higher Education to create one or more North Dakota Biomass Centers.
While all of the recent legislation has created a public awareness and will help fund future projects, researchers at North Dakota State University, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust and others are already years into some interesting and potentially ground-breaking agricultural experiments on campus and in fields throughout North Dakota. Three in particular are trying to solve our fossil fuel-dependency dilemma from the ground up. Between them, they are tackling each aspect of the problem: how to grow them successfully and cheaply, how to utilize them in everyday products, and how to run a business with them.
All of the research projects are focusing on biofuels, particularly the cellulosic fibers found in many perennial grasses. Simply put, biofuels are energy sources derived from living organisms, such as plants, and cellulose is the structural component of the primary cell wall. It is the most common organic compound found on Earth and is already used to make paper, cellophane, rayon and is a vital component in the textile industry. Now, researchers are hoping to expand biomass uses and eventually replace fossil fuels with it.
STEP 1: GROWING
RESEARCH: Evaluation of perennial herbaceous biomass crops in North Dakota.
FACTS: Phase 1 of a 10-year study cost of $75,000.
OBJECTIVES: Determine yields and composition, determine optimum harvest dates, compare annual and biennial yields, evaluate carbon and storage, evaluate bottom line compared to competing crops in state.
Ethanol gas is currently only made using corn or other starch grains, but researchers at North Dakota State University and the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust believe that perennial grasses have the potential to be a more cost-effective and a more environmentally friendly option.
They argue that once established, perennial grasses require lower inputs like fertilizer, improving local water quality, reduce soil erosion because they do not require irrigation like food crops and need less overall maintenance, resulting in a reduction of greenhouse gases and cost.
Researchers also state that these crops would be wildlife-friendly because it would provide a habitat and would be harvested after the nesting season for ground birds.
The project began in the spring of 2006 with the seeding of five plots in Hettinger, Williston, Minot, Carrington and Streeter, as well as one irrigated plot in Williston as a comparative measure.
Seven different species of grasses were planted alone and in different combinations, and were scheduled for annual or biennial harvest. All but one of the locations was mowed and chemically sprayed at least once during the mostly dry summer of 2006 and 2007. In September 2007, the annual plots were harvested.
The above average results of the first harvest, compared with similar previous studies in other states, hints to a bright future for North Dakota.
"There's a lot of promise for perennial crops. We still have a lot of work to do, but we have early indications of high profitability and tremendous potential for biomass," said Karen Kriel, a biologist for the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust. "The plots have been established and we are surprised how well they are adapted to areas naturally."
Switchgrass harvested in Carrington had the highest yield at 6 tons per acre, which researchers attributed to higher precipitation in the area. In drier locations, wheatgrass fared the best, ranging from 1 to 3 tons per acre depending on the location. The irrigated plot also did well, but had more input cost. Kreil said they chose to irrigate the plot, not only because it had the capability, but, "we didnt want to rule anything out - some circumstances might make it (the practice of irrigation) apply."
As for the second phase of the project, "Things are going well," Kreil said. "We will be harvesting the biennial plots from 2006 and the annual sometime in September after the first frost."
Kreil said this next phase of the research will focus on the economics of perennial crop production. "The research will be geared toward finding out how much biomass yield would be needed to be produced within a 50-mile radius of a cellulosic plant to feed it."
STEP 2: UTILIZATION IN PRODUCTS
RESEARCH: Development of biocomposites.
FACTS: 4-year study to end in March 2011 cost of $156,660.
OBJECTIVES: Use agricultural byproducts, create material development and manufacturing industry in region, reduce dependency on petroleum-based products and create more environmentally-friendly products.
The basis of the research is to utilize flax fiber as reinforcement to replace fiberglass, which despite some potential health and safety concerns, is used in a wide range of products from car parts and home insulation to pools and even windturbine blades.
Chad Ulven, lead researcher for the project, said, "Natural fibers provide an outstanding potential as reinforcement in composite structures due to their low density, relatively high toughness, high strength and stiffness, good thermal properties and biodegradability."
Flax fiber is normally burnt, Ulven said, because it is hard to plow or is baled and used in specialty paper. But he believes there is a much higher value for the "waste" that can be utilized by farmers, which in turn would help spur economic development in rural areas.
Ulven and his team created and tested two different methods for utilizing flax fiber.
The first was to develop a flax fiber and polyurethane foam biocomposite with help from SpaceAge Synthetics of Fargo. After obtaining the raw flax material, researchers performed a series of different chemical treatments and then bonded it to polyurethane to create the foam composite. The board was then tested for flexibility and strength and was determined to be as durable as construction plywood.
The second experiment was to create a flax fiber and vinyl ester resin biocomposite, which would be used as a structural part similiar to a laminant, and could be used to replace fiberglass in boat hulls and other products.
Again the strength and stiffness were tested, revealing that while the biocomposite measured 11 percent lower in the strength test than fiberglass, it measured 14 percent higher when it came to stiffness. Researchers believe these initial results prove that biocomposites of flax fiber and vinyl ester are able to compete with traditional fiberglass products.
Ulven is taking his flax fiber potential outdoors for a real-world application test. His team recently created a flax fiber reinforced polyester biocomposite shroud and mounted it onto one of NDSU's experimental tractor's hydrogen fuel storage tank. They are hoping the biocomposite shroud will protect the tank from exposure to ultraviolet light, heat, wind, rain and the potential impact from flying debris and tree limbs. The tractor will be used in the spring of 2009 and Ulven and his team will monitor the shroud for performance and environmental stability over the coming years.
"It's frustrating because the U.S. is not pushing for this as much as other foreign collaborators," Ulven said.
In response to this, Ulven said he went outside the United States for funding, finding contributors in Canada, Australia and South Africa.
"The technology is there, so if we could get some investors to invest in a flax fiber processing plant, we could have it (a commerical market) in the next five to 10 years," he said.
Ulven added while utilizing an agricutlural 'waste' material is good for the environment, it could also provide cost-savings to producers and consumers.
Ulven said depending on the cost of baling, transportation and processing, natural fibers could cost about one-third less than glass, which is roughly at $3 per pound.
STEP 3: BUILDING BIOMASS PLANTS AND INDUSTRY
RESEARCH: Development of Biomaterials industry.
FACTS: One-year program cost of $800,000.
OBJECTIVES: Study technical and economic feasibility of building pilot-scale production facility.
In the first phase of the project, started three years ago, the researchers looked at using wheat stock for an ethanol biorefinery as well as using the waste from ethanol production to create fibers that could be used in future products.
Initial results indicated that it could be done and it would be profitable, striking the interest of some state decision-makers who decided to award North Dakota State University $800,000 to investigate the potential of building a pilot plant.
F. Larry Leistritz, an NDSU agricultural economist and lead investigator, went to work with his team on conducting an analysis of engineering and biomass yield requirements as well as the potential cost return of a commercial plant for the surrounding area and the state. The results of the analysis was a detailed engineering plan for a pilot plant that could process 3,000 pounds of wheat straw per hour.
"The whole situation in the effort to make ethanol and biofuels from biomass is that people have shown you can do it at the lab-scale, but it is a big step for a commercial plant," Leistritz said. "That's what we are trying to do now go from the lab-scale to the pilot-scale and then ultimately to the commerical-scale."
North Dakota is 90 percent farm and grazing land, a fact which could potentially make the state a leader in biofuels in the future.
Leistritz said that the results indicated the possibility of 16 bioplants in the state, each with a capacity of 50 million gallons per year and the annual contribution of these plants would exceed the entire coal industry in the state, which is more than $750 million per year.
Besides the economic opportunities, Leistritz said the plants would also need a minimum 80 employees per plant to function, not including the farmers, balers and transporters. He noted that those numbers could save some rural communities.
By the end of the year, Leistritz said they will have a business plan and investment prospectus available for those interested.
He said that the private sector will be a critical component to putting the plan into action, but he said the team will also look for any possible federal funding to get the construction started. If everything goes smoothly, construction on the state's first ethanol biorefinery pilot plant could begin within the next two years.
Leistritz said the reason the team chose to build a pilot plant rather than going for the commercial venture is three-fold.
First, they want to scale up production from the labs by 10-fold to get more data.
Secondly, the smaller-scale facility will enable them to fine-tune the design so there will be fewer potential problems in a commerical plant.
Lastly, the pilot plant would provide a large sample of nanofibers and nanocomposites, which would be critical to developing a market for these materials.
"To convince potential buyers to make the investment in these materials for their products, they are going to want to be able to test them to see if it is comparable to what they use now," Lesistritz said.
He also discussed reasons why there has been such slow progression toward developing biofuels.
"The whole industry has known these things were possible for a long time," he said. "But for many years oil was at $30 per barrel so it was very hard for people to put money into (wheat) straw because of how cheap oil was. But over the last few years the increase in oil prices and environmental concerns has translated into the state and the federal governments taking biofuels from the test tube level to commerical plants."
While a biomaterials industry might still be years away, researchers in the studies assert there is an enormous potential for biomaterial application in the manufacturing sector which would positively affect rural communities, the economy and the environment.