7 November 2006

Straw Into Gold: New Uses for Wheat Straw

The economic impact of another refinery would be substantial, especially in rural North Dakota, a recent report says. Turning out fuel and by-products, it would bring in jobs and dollars to lagging rural communities. But instead of using oil or corn, researchers are looking at a refinery based on the state’s largest agricultural commodity: wheat.

Truly, any sort of wheat straw or biomass refinery is at least a decade away, researchers say. But North Dakota researchers recently released an economic feasibility study on a new technology that could make such refineries rival the economic impact of oil and ethanol refineries.

This “cellulosic” technology is being researched at North Dakota State University: It’s turning wheat straw, or other plant fibers, into ethanol, and by-products into a Fiberglas-like material, much like the way an oil refinery turns oil into fuel, propane and lubricants, said Larry Leistritz, professor of agricultural economics at NDSU.

“Rather than leave (wheat straw) on the field, we’d be baling that up and hauling it to the plant,”Leistritz said. Currently, the state is lagging behind its neighbors in renewable energy fuel plants, specifically ethanol. But researchers at NDSU have been working on using other plants, such as wheat straws, to pump out ethanol. But the economic viability of simply obtaining ethanol from wheat may not be as profitable as corn, until the by-products are put into play, Leistritz said.

The capital cost of a plant, using approximately 900,000 tons of straw a year and producing more about $54 million gallons of denatured ethanol a year, would be $185 million. The total annual operating costs, excluding by-products, were estimated at $92.4 million a year.

Revenue from ethanol sales, assuming the production cost of ethanol is at $1.56 a gallon, was estimated at $98 million a year and $7.5 million a year from electricity. Earnings, before interest and income tax, would be at $13.1 million a year. But that’s before the by-products.

“Crystalline cellulose won’t break down,”Liestritz said. “From the cellulose, we’d be trying to extract the very small fibers. When mixed into a biobased resin, it produces a substitute for Fiberglas.”

Adding extra equipment to the plant, equipment that would produce cellulose nanowhiskers would double the profitability of the plant, Leistritz said. These fibers could produce a co-product that rivals Fiberglas, which is used most often in the automobile industry. Production of cellulose nanowhiskers is estimated at 57 cents a pound and could very well rival the profitability of ethanol produced from the plant.

The Midwest is well-aligned to be at the forefront of creating pilot plants, or, in the long run, the first successful biomass plant, Leistritz said. “It could be a tremendous thing for the Upper Midwest,” he said. “Our states are the leading states in biomass potential.” Neal Fisher with the North Dakota Wheat Commission agreed.

“A lot of folks are using wheat straw in a productive way… it already has an application, it already has a use,”Fisher said.”But it’s always good to have competition for the raw material, because it tends to get our prices to rise.” Although beans and corn are rivaling wheat acreage, wheat still continues to cover the most land in North Dakota, Fisher said.

According to the study, the state’s wheat straw supply, investors and research help with the feasibility of locating a plant here. But building up even a pilot plant is several years down the road. “The whole technology at this point is kind of at the same level as personal computers were 25 years ago,”Leistritz said.

The research is still in its early phases. The next phase is more research and development, he said, and at the end of phase two, they can begin to see if it’s feasible to move forward with a pilot plant. Because ultimately, as Fisher points out, the need for more alternative fuels is definitely there.

“We watch the gas prices go up to $3 or more with the dependency on foreign oil,”Fisher said. “It’s a concern of consumers across the country. I think we are starting to understand that we are simply going to have to grow our own food and energy in the future.”

Source: Bismarck Tribune Nov. 05, 2006.

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