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Biomass won't replace fossil fuels, experts say, but use will grow

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The people who know most about biomass don't think it will replace fossil fuels or other energy sources. But the experts all agree that biomass has a role to play.

"Biomass is in the mix," says Gerald Groenewold, director of the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota.

Biomass is organic material made from plants and microorganisms, including corn and other crops, wood and garbage.

Biomass can often be used as a substitute for petroleum and other fossil fuels, to produce fuels, power and chemicals. Even so, fossil fuels will continue to play the dominant role for the next few decades, says Chris Zygarlicke, the Grand Forks center's deputy associate director for research.

"Oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear -- all working together to supply this huge demand we're going to have for electricity and fuels," he says.

The growing use of natural gas, in particular, will impact biomass development, he says. Renewable energy sources, including solar, wind and biomass, currently provide only a small portion of energy needs, but their use will grow, he says.

The extent of that growth will hinge on several factors, including:

- The cost and availability of feedstocks or the type of biomass being used.

- The availability of brokers, or people who can identify feedstock streams and markets for these streams.

- Federal and state incentives.

- The ability to process biomass.

Zygarlicke put in a good word for algae, which has received growing attention among biomass supporters. "Algae is a feedstock of the future," he says. "There's a huge potential there." However, "It's something that's probably a little bit more down the road," he says.

So far, biomass development has focused largely on ethanol as a gasoline replacement, says Corrine Valkenburg, technical adviser with the Office of Biomass Programs, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy.

But gasoline is just one of the products made from petroleum. With ethanol replacing gasoline, refineries eventually will need "to focus their product slate on lower-value products, which then likely will increase the price of those products," she says.

So her Office of Biomass Programs is taking the approach of what it calls "displacing the entire barrel of oil. We do this by taking on the entire supply chain," she says.

Biomass can be used to produce energy as well as fuel. Europe, which has emphasized renewable energy development, has made much more progress in this area than the United States, says Margo Shaw, senior biologist with Golder Associates in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where she manages a broad range of renewable energy and environmental impacts.

The European Union receives three times as much power from biomass as the U.S., she says.

"Levulinic ketals" isn't a term that's likely to pop up in casual conversation.

But Segetis, located in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley, already is making commercial use of this chemical building block and sees even more uses ahead for it, says Brian Mullen, principal scientist and research and development leader at Segetis.

The company, founded in 2007, has come up with a way to turn biomass into levulenic ketals, which, in turn, can be converted into chemicals such as solvents and plasticizers, additives that make the material to which they're attached more flexible.

Using biomass to produce these chemicals saves the petroleum that otherwise would be used in their production, Mullen says.

A third-party analysis found that 2 gallons of gasoline is saved per 1 gallon of Segetis product, he says.

He notes that one of the company's products provides the active ingredient in Method detergent, which is sold at Target.

Jonathan Knutson writes for Grand Forks, N.D.-based Agweek, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.