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‘Low-hanging fruit’ in bioeconomy

“Low-hanging fruit” for Mid-South farmers wanting to invest in the budding bioeconomy include ethanol from sweet sorghum; ligno-cellulosic-based ethanol; oilseed crops and crushing facilities; and the production of co-firing biomass used in coal-fired power plants, a new study shows.

The study was coordinated by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and carried out by Battelle, a non-profit research company, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, with input from BioDimensions, based in Memphis, Tenn.

The study, which was presented to the Delta Council in Stoneville, Miss., and at a farmer meeting in Tunica, Miss., in September, focused on bio-based business opportunities in five states — southwest Kentucky, west Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and southeast Missouri. It was funded by a diverse group of 23 companies and organizations, including the Mississippi Technology Alliance and Mississippi Development Authority.

The study estimates that the Mid-South can grow enough crops to support an $8 billion green industry. “In 10 years, we estimate that we’ll generate 25,000 new jobs in rural areas of the Delta. In two decades, we will double that number,” said Randy Powell, a consultant for BioDimensions.

Building the bioeconomy will be challenging, according to Powell. “It’s a complicated picture, but the good news is that we’re beginning to see the paths we need to take and the technologies we need to develop. The Mid-South is perfectly situated and has growing conditions well-suited to biomass production, while other regions of the United States are more suited to developing solar or wind power.”

The study indicated four near-term opportunities, which Powell described as low-hanging fruit for Mid-South farmers and investors to consider.

Solid fuels for burning for energy. Biomass produced in the Mid-South can be pelletized into a form that can be co-fired with coal in existing electrical generating plants. “This is going to be driven by policy at the state and federal level,” Powell said. “There are several states with renewable power standards and the federal government is looking into it as well. When it happens, facilities will be required to generate electricity from renewable sources. Some will do it with solar, others will burn biomass.”

The study estimated that if 15 percent of the coal burned in power plants was replaced with biomass, it would require 20, 150,000-ton-per-year pellet plants that would use crop residue, woody biomass and possibly dedicated energy crops.

Ligno-cellulosic ethanol. This is ethanol produced from switchgrass and other crop residue. The study indicated that the Mid-South region could produce about 59 million tons of renewable cellulose annually which would produce 4.7 billion gallons of ethanol. “That’s more than we consume in the region,” Powell said. “So ultimately, as this region develops out, we will be a net exporter of liquid transportation fuel produced from biomass.”

Sweet sorghum ethanol. It’s a crop with a history in the Mid-South and grows well here. “We have farmers who grow sweet sorghum and use it mostly for syrup,” Powell said. “It gives you an immediate sugar stream that you can convert to ethanol easily. I call it ‘easy ethanol.’ You don’t need enzymes or any sophisticated technology.”

New oilseeds and crushing capacity. Currently, the Mid-South region has the capacity to crush only 12 percent of the oilseed produced here, said Pete Nelson with BioDimensions. “We’re essentially growing a crop with no value-added capture. There is room for us to play by adding value with the right crops.”

The right crops could be canola and sunflower, according to Nelson. “Sunflower establishes a stand quickly, suppresses weeds and can potentially boost yields in other crops. As for canola, we only use about a third of our current acreage on winter wheat, so we have excess acreage to dedicate to it.”

A big benefit of fuel made from biomass will be an ability to reduce dependency on fossil-based fuels. The result could have both economic and environmental impact, according to Powell. “The United States imports its liquid fuel from countries that don’t like us very much. Since we have to buy the bulk of our petroleum offshore, a tremendous amount of the wealth of our country is leaving. Over time, biofuel is going to start bringing it back. And as we begin to transition away from fossil fuels, we’re going to get a huge benefit from bio-based materials that have a much lower carbon footprint.”

While fuel gets most of the attention in bioeconomy discussions, Powell points out that biofuel comprises the lowest value product made from biomass. “The reason we start with the lowest value products is because the federal government has put all the research and development money into research for developing fuels.”

Higher value products are on the table however, Powell said.

“Just about everything we touch in our daily lives is made from chemicals made mostly from petroleum, from plastics to finishes on wood, paint and rubber. We can make those products from renewable bio-based crops.”

Powel says a surprising number of companies are interested in these crops. “But what they tell us is that they want the same or better properties that they are now getting from petroleum-based products. They are saying, ‘We like green, but we’re not willing to pay a significant price for green.’”

To get there, investors and entrepreneurs have to start small and share risk, according to Powell. “This is not about fast money. This is about building factories, growing new crops, and putting together supply chains. There’s good money, but it’s not easy money.”

Powell urged farmers attending the Tunica meeting to start thinking about the biomass possibilities. “Each farmer or group of farmers can assess specific things they can work on, whether it’s canola, sunflowers or sweet sorghum or pelletizing crop residue. As our farmers start to figure out what’s coming, they’ll figure out the business opportunities. We’re trying to present the opportunities.”

Tunica, Miss., producer Jon Bibb, was impressed by what he heard at the meeting noting, “At some point we have to switch from petroleum, and we have to go to something else.”

Billy Pegram, who leases about 1,400 acres around Dundee, Miss., said the higher the value of crops on land he owns, “the more rent I can get. I like the sweet sorghum idea. We used to make molasses from it.”


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