June 13, 2008

An international biotechnology firm with headquarters in Jessamine County is moving forward with plans to build a rural community biorefinery in Washington County. Researchers at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and Center for Applied Energy Research will play an instrumental part in the research and development end of the innovative project. Alltech’s plan for a biorefinery in Springfield is funded by a grant of up to $30 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and an $8 million incentive from the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority. According to a company press release, this will be one of the first biorefineries in the country to use up to 30 percent cellulose, the structural material in plants, to produce ethanol and value-added by-products. Examples of cellulosic materials include switchgrass, corn cobs and corn stover. “Right now we typically make ethanol by using enzymes to break down the starch in corn kernels into a sugar,” said Czarena Crofcheck, associate professor in the UK Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering and one of the researchers on the project. “While we’re breaking down those sugars, we’re using something that could be food. We need to be utilizing other things that are available and not within the food system.” Crofcheck and fellow Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Associate Professor Michael Montross will be developing ways to harvest, store and move the cellulosic materials, for instance corncobs. “The goal right now is to produce grain, so we need to shift that around and do the legwork and the research and development to figure out how to make it so the corncob’s the product,” she said. “The rural community biorefinery is truly a missionary of new technologies,” Pearse Lyons, president and founder of Alltech, was quoted as saying in a company press release. “Cellulosic ethanol utilizes raw materials which are readily available and which alleviate the current demand for grain for ethanol production. With commodity prices reaching an all time high and with ethanol production forecast to account for 30 percent of the U.S. corn harvest by 2010 we must focus our attention on a sustainable path to alternative energies.” Part of the biorefinery’s sustainability is a result of its smaller size. “There are some economies of scale associated with this kind of smaller, community biorefinery concept that will be very advantageous,” said Scott Shearer, UK biosystems and agricultural engineering chair. Montross said the idea is to transport biomass inputs from no farther than a 30- or 40-mile radius. “A big issue with moving plant material to make ethanol is the transportation. The material is not very dense, and it’s difficult to transport. There are two competing models right now,” he said, referring to the typical larger biorefinery design and Alltech’s smaller scaled version. “I don’t think anybody’s really asked the question, do you want to see 400 trucks a day going by your house hauling biomass to an ethanol plant. I think most people would say no. So in many ways, Alltech’s idea is a good one. You keep the refinery smaller so the transportation is less.” If it’s important to examine the handling of inputs, it’s also important in a sustainable system to find uses for the resulting by-products. That is where UK Center for Applied Energy Research comes in. CAER researchers, in mutual collaboration with College of Agriculture researchers, are investigating ways to use the residues of the fermentation process. Normally, when grains are used for ethanol production, the byproduct is distillers grains, which can then be used for livestock feed. But cellulosic parts of the plant do not have a feed value. “This lignin-rich stream currently doesn't have a use. We are planning to test the performance of thermochemical processes to convert that stream into something of value," said Rodney Andrews, CAER director. “One of the options is we can use it to produce heat and power for that plant. The other is some of the collaborative work we’ve been doing with Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering in converting it to chemical feed stocks that you can sell to the chemical market, so that it’s not just a waste stream. You’re actually getting value from much of it, as well.” The center will also be doing a process model of the entire system for integrated heat and power. “I think it will present some interesting opportunities,” Shearer said. “What Alltech is attempting to do is minimize any of their waste streams or byproduct streams that would have to be transported elsewhere…. Only time is going to tell, obviously, but I think it is a very unique idea, and if they’re successful, it’s something that could be replicated in virtually every other community in the state of Kentucky.”