WILLMAR -- From corn cobs to sugar beet pulp, researchers and entrepreneurs are studying how to turn biomass into a feasible -- and cost-effective -- source of renewable energy. But it's a complicated journey, full of challenges both technical and economic, experts told a local audience Tuesday.
"We're moving much more slowly than I would have anticipated," said Denny Timmerman, project director at the Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.
The key, however, is to keep moving forward, he said. "We need to lay the groundwork. ... I think we can get there. The ultimate goal is to add value to Minnesota commodities."
Representatives of the AURI, a research and science lab for developing innovative new uses for agricultural products, were among the featured speakers Tuesday at a biobusiness forum sponsored by the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission. The forums are hosted quarterly to foster local networking and discussion about the biosciences and renewable energy.
It's likely to be some time before homes, businesses and schools are routinely heated with pellets made from corn stover, straw or cow manure.
The potential, however, is more real than you think.
At the AURI in Waseca, scientist Kevin Hennessy has been working for the past year and a half on ways to efficiently dry agricultural residue for use as food, fertilizer or livestock feed.
One of the challenges of reducing corn stover or sugar beet pulp into pellets is their high moisture content, Hennessy said. It's critical to find cost-efficient technologies for drying these crop residues, otherwise it won't be economically feasible to manufacture, market and use them, he said.
"Economic analysis is an important first step in what we're trying to do," Hennessy said.
What technology would work best? Innovators have been trying several approaches: microwaving, high-speed air drying and even wicking, which one company has been testing with algae. Some early trials of new technologies suggest the cost of drying moisture-laden biomass could be reduced by as much as 50 percent.
Solving this challenge will be a big step forward for the fledgling biomass industry, Hennessy said.
There are plenty of examples to be drawn from some of the early adopters of biomass technology.
Timmerman described a farm that's manufacturing its own pellets, using biomass from the farm operation, and heating a greenhouse with the resulting fuel. Closer to home, the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company in Benson has been using corn cobs to feed its gasifier.
The Minneapolis Biomass Exchange, founded in 2009, uses the Internet to foster the growth of the biomass industry.
"We're here to connect buyers and sellers and make it more efficient through our web portal," said founder Kevin Triemstra.
Several features of the website are still in development, but once it's up and fully running, it will help facilitate everything from pricing to supply chain management, he said.
Along with the economic potential of biomass, lessons have been emerging about what some of the challenges are likely to be. Some of them are practical: for instance, how to efficiently transport raw biomass materials such as corn stover or straw, which are fluffy rather than dense. Producers can balk at collecting corn cobs during the corn harvest because of the extra time it takes, Timmerman said.
But one of the biggest obstacles remains the low cost of coal and natural gas. As long as it's cheaper to burn fossil fuels, there will be little economic advantage to using biomass as an energy source, Timmerman said.
At some point, however, energy prices are certain to rise -- and when that happens, the picture could change dramatically, he said. "It's important to be ready when things change."