Drive by a field that's ready for biomass harvest and you'll think you're too late. The grain is gone and it's just broken stalks and leaves everywhere.
"To the general public, they may think that you've taken the grain off and so all that other stuff out there, that's just -- the old term we might have used was 'trash,'" said John Holman, an agronomist with Kansas State University Research and Extension. "Well, it's not trash. We know there's a lot of value to that."
Graphic courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy
In western Kansas, crop residue is valuable in preventing soil erosion. But this biomass the plant material that is left after harvest is also a source for ethanol.
It's a tricky science, though. Ethanol producers have been working on developing a biomass-to-ethanol conversion for more than a decade. And now, Kansas is poised to be home to one of the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol refineries in the United States.
"There's no doubt we will be one of the first, whether we are the first or not is not critical to us as long as we complete it within our time frame," said Chris Standlee, executive vice president for Abengoa Bioenergy's U.S. division.
The global energy company expects to open a commercial scale cellulosic plant in Hugoton, Kan., in 2013. It's expected to create 300 construction jobs, and 65 permanent jobs with an annual payroll of almost $5 million.
Rival company POET is developing a similar plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, also with a 2013 target year. Construction has begun on the two facilities each expected to produce around 25 million gallons of ethanol a year. But it's a pricey endeavor.
In 2011, Abengoa was given a $132 million federal loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. That money will help finance construction on the more than $400 million refinery. POET also was offered more than $100 million in a federal loan guarantee, but recently turned the offer down after partnering on the project with another company.
For ethanol from biomass, it's about following the crops. Iowa is the national leader in corn, while Kansas brings together a substantial amount of corn, wheat and sorghum.
Standlee said that's what attracted Abengoa to southwest Kansas.
"That area of the country is kind of a convergence of multiple feed stocks," Standlee said.
In preparation for the Abengoa operation, agronomist Holman and his colleagues are studying the effects of removing biomass from the Kansas soils and how best to go about it.
Historically he said, farmers either graze cattle on their harvested cropland, or leave the residue be to retain moisture for the next planting season. That moisture can be especially important in the highly productive, but water strapped farmland of western Kansas.
"Not removing all that residue, just removing enough to get some benefit and not cause detrimental harm. I think that's a good approach to take," Holman said.
Six counties around the Abengoa facility in southwest Kansas are enrolled in the USDA's Biomass Crop Assistance Program. The program provides financial incentives for landowners to grow switchgrass and other perennial grasses that are suited for biomass production.
A Kansas State University study found that in Kansas, one full-grown acre of switchgrass equals about 450 gallons of ethanol. It takes several years for a newly planted switchgrass field to reach full biomass production.
Holman said that high commodity prices make it difficult for a grass to compete with some grain crops, but its success growing under limited irrigation makes it attractive for those farmers with less water on their land.
"If a grower was in a situation with a declining (water) well, then a perennial system like switchgrass may be an option," Holman said.
Many other projects across the country have received government support to convert such things as wood and solid waste into fuel. That's critical because the Renewable Fuel Standard sets an annual goal of 36 billion gallons from all renewable fuels by the year 2022.
As the map above shows, the biomass potential for cellulosic biofuel is there, but the next couple years will determine whether the infrastructure can meet that demand.
The cellulosic ethanol industry has yet to meet the yearly production levels set by the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007. That forced the Environmental Protection Agency to slash the standard to less than 9 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel in 2012. Many analysts believe that even that is too high.
Standlee said that with Abengoa and POET soon to come on board commercially, the industry is moving in the right direction.
"We certainly believe that cellulose will continue to grow," he said, "and will be able to meet the expected levels within just a matter of a few years."