Biobased products energy solution?

Proponents say this can result in new markets for farmers, new economic opportunities, solutions to environmental problems, and employment of new technologies.

While there was a flurry of activity and research directed toward biobased products and energy in the wake of the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, interest waned as petroleum-based energy and product prices declined, making alternatives more costly.

But, the picture may be different now, with new technologies making biobased products and energy more feasible.

Ron Buckhalt, coordinator of biobased products for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the federal government "has set the goal of tripling U.S. use of bioenergy and biobased products by the year 2010.

"Meeting this goal could create $15 billion to $20 billion per year in new income for farmers and citizens of rural America. It could also reduce annual 'greenhouse gas' emissions by an amount equal to as much as 100 million metric tons of carbon -- the equivalent of taking more than 70 million cars off the road."

The USDA projects that the number of biobased startup companies will increase from only 200 last year to more than 600 by 2003.

The much-publicized energy crisis in California and unstable, extremely high natural gas prices throughout the U.S. have further focused attention on biobased initiatives, including liquid fuels, energy, chemicals, lubricants, plastics, paper, building materials, advanced composite materials, and a host of other products, all made from farm-grown plants.

Tennessee is among states launching initiatives to promote biobased products. The legislative effort is led by Rep. Kathryn Bowers, vice chair of the state's House Agriculture Committee, with support from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Public Power Institute, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the Tennessee State University Extension Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the University of Tennessee Extension Service, and several private companies.

The legislation would mandate the creation of an Internet-based network, connecting relevant public and private entities in the state with each other and their counterparts throughout the world.

Peter A. Nelson, president of AgroTech Communications, Inc., a Memphis, Tenn.-based information and technology business, says biobased non-food, non-feed agricultural products, used in a variety of commercial and industrial applications, "harness the energy of the sun to provide raw materials."

During the 20th century, he says, petroleum products were utilized based on their low cost and ready availability, with not much regard for the environmental consequences of their use.

"In the 21st century, farm-based raw materials will begin to replace petroleum for industrial uses," Nelson says. "This transfer from petroleum to farm-grown will be driven by a wealth of scientific knowledge, concern for the environment, rising costs of petroleum, and numerous other factors."

At the recent USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum 2001 in Washington, Barbara A. Miller, technical director for The Dow Chemical Company, said the new century holds promise of new plastic products from bio-derived oleochemicals.

"Discovery research and development is occurring now through an Oilseed Engineering Alliance to discover options for enhancing plant oils so they can be used to replace traditional petrochemical-based raw materials in chemical manufacturing," she said, citing a Cargill-Dow announcement of plans for a plant to produce polylactic acid (PLA).

"Polylactic acid is the first polymer produced from renewable resources that competes with high volume products such as nylon and polyethylene in a multitude of large operations." About a third of PLA's energy requirements comes from sunlight, she noted. "This includes all energy needs from cradle to grave, from farming input for corn to the disposal of the material."

This change to biobased methods, Miller says, will have "a truly revolutionary impact on society."

Cargill Dow LLC says its products made from PLA represent "a revolutionary technology," in which "corn is replacing petroleum in consumer products like carpeting, clothing, cups, food containers, and numerous other applications."

The company calls it "The Agri-Dustrial Revolution," combining "the best of agricultural processing with the best of industrial processing." It's NatureWorks PLA has made it "the leader of this revolution" by using annually renewable resources to replace petroleum as the feedstock for fibers and plastics applications around the globe.

"In the past, it was harder for consumers to help the environment because they were forced to sacrifice product cost and performance," says Dr. Pat Gruber, vice president and chief technology officer for Cargill Dow. "Now, with NatureWorks, consumers can be more sustainable and help the environment as part of their everyday lives."

The technology used to create the polymer allows the company to 'harvest' the carbon that corn plants remove from the air during photosynthesis. The carbon and other elements are then used to make plastic through a process of simple fermentation and separation. Future plans call for the use of other biomass sources such as wheat, sugar beets, and agricultural wastes.

"There's no limit to the possibilities of using renewable, plant-based resources in a wide range of commercially competitive applications," Gruber says.

Denise Swink, deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Industrial Technology, says the process "combines the best of agriculture and industry to create products that establish alternatives to petroleum use, while saving substantial energy."

Although the Bush-Cheney Administration has signaled its commitment to a continued development of oil, coal, and gas resources, a number of groups and organizations are urging that the federal government become more involved in biomass programs.

Brent Erickson, director of the Industrial & Environmental Biotechnology Industry organization, says the current and future demand for energy in the U.S. requires that the nation "be prepared to develop a wide range of energy sources."

The worldwide biomass "represents a huge pool of untapped energy and source material for biobased products," he said in a recent letter to Vice President Cheney, urging the Bush Administration to "consider a major initiative" to support a full-fledged cellulosic biomass energy industry.

Among the suggestions offered:

- Create and fund industrial biotechnology research centers at universities in every region of the country to unite all the disciplines necessary to conduct research on cellulosic biomass conversion technologies.

- Support full funding for the Lugar-Udall legislation for support of biocatalyst development.

- Create consortia made up of national research laboratories, industry, and academia to conduct special research and development projects and to provide greater integration of research.

- Support legislation to authorize creation of private sector consortia to bring together many different areas of expertise to solve problems of cellulosic biomass conversion and to encourage private sector involvement and cooperation.

- Direct the USDA to study cellulosic biomass infrastructure development to generate more knowledge on biomass gathering, transportation, and storage requirements.

- Direct the Department of Energy to fund more research on advanced biorefineries to handle a wide range of feedstocks and to produce a wide range of products.

- Direct the Environmental Protection Agency to study how biorefineries fit into the concept of 'industrial ecology,' such as co-location of biorefineries near conventional oil refineries or other facilities.

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