EDITOR’S NOTE —K.C. Das is an associate professor of engineering with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the director of the Biorefining and Carbon Cycling Program and manager of CAES biofuel research. The following is an abridged version of a Q&A on the status of bioenergy research in Georgia and its future. It originally appeared in the 2009 CAES Environmental Report magazine.
Does Georgia have an advantage in bioenergy production?
Yes, because we can grow great quantities of biomass through our agriculture and forestry industries. Universities like University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and others provide the technology. The UGA Complex Carbohydrate Research Center is strong in the biological sciences. In addition, the Agricultural Innovation Center and the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority assist companies interested in getting into the business through their “One Stop Shop.”
How much petroleum-based energy can be replaced with bioenergy in Georgia?
About 30 percent of our energy needs can be met with bioenergy today. By patching together multiple strategies, we can achieve this amount. This would include burning chicken litter to heat farms in north Georgia, fermenting outdated cola products for ethanol, generating biogas from cow manure on dairy farms, harvesting landfill gas for electricity and producing cellulosic ethanol from pine waste in south Georgia. All of these projects exist today in Georgia and many more are coming on line.
Cellulosic ethanol is being promoted as part of the next generation of bioenergy. Is it economically viable?
Yes, at the current price of oil, it is economically viable. But we must mass produce it. It should be in large scale production in five years.
In your opinion, is any one feedstock more viable than another?
Algae shows great promise because it grows rapidly in warm climates like what we have in Georgia. It can produce 2,000 gallons of oil per acre. Soybeans generate approximately 50 gallons for each acre. Extracting the oils from the algae is difficult, and we are working to resolve this problem.
What kind of biofuel research does your team at UGA conduct?
Essentially, we try different processes on a variety of agricultural and forestry wastes and fuel crops to create bioenergy. The wastes include peanut shells, poultry litter and forestry residues and promising fuel crops include algae, bamboo and kenaf. We’re not opposed to trying any feedstocks as long as there are great quantities available. Through a thermochemical process called pyrolosis, we heat biomass in the absence of oxygen to produce oil, gas and charcoal. UGA engineers and soil scientists collaborate to characterize the char and determine its value as a fertilizer or soil amendment.
We examine the entire carbon cycling process. Gasification is another thermochemical process we can use to make liquid fuels. This is done by heating the feedstock with a little oxygen. UGA CAES scientists work with researchers in the UGA Warnell School of Forest Resources to convert wood waste from sustainably managed forests into cellulosic ethanol. We look at the full life cycle of making biofuels and part of that involves pre-processing the waste. Biomass is heated at low temperatures to increase its energy density and remove less desirable properties. This works well for wood waste and makes it easier to transport and more efficient in co-firing with existing power plants.
Do you think we will achieve the goal set by the national 25 by ‘25 Alliance to produce 25 percent of our energy from the nation’s farms and forests?
With the current high price of oil, there is a strong incentive to meet it. However, we need more investment in research, development and production. The Europeans are advanced in bioenergy production because they have a high tax on gasoline that is used to fund it.