Norm Olsen: We look at the situation in the Mid-East. It looks at times like it’s going to get a little calmer over there. But in general, I don’t think most people have a lot of faith that it’s going to be a real settled area. So, for a variety of reasons, economic, national security, uh, we think that it’s almost one of the most important issues for the United States that we get off of imported petroleum.
The upside, if you made your own energy in the United States, you could create about a 400, 500 maybe 600 billion dollar industry. It would be one of the biggest single industries in the United States. So, our jobs problem would go away. Our national security issues would go away. On the negative side, our economy could probably boom. So, I think it’s the single most important tissue we could address.
Matt Helmers: We see things going in with bio reactors under the Mississippi River Basin initiative of NRCS and then cover crops are something that, you know, not necessarily the blue grass or pure clover, but more the annual winter rye is going in. We see that as part of incentive programs, that more and more people are putting in cover crops.
There’s a cover crop working group in the State of Iowa and I have a number of cover crop demonstrations throughout the state. So I think we’re starting to see some of that. It’s going to take some time but I’m optimistic that we might see some change in the not too distant future.
Narrator: Welcome to the Dream Green Series with co-hosts, Stuart Tanner and James Moore on solar powered KRUU-fm. Iowans creating a greener tomorrow, today. A journey of discovery across the state featuring innovators, cutting edge projects and communities leading the way to an energy independent and sustainable future. Visit our website at GreenIowa.org.
James Moore: And here we are right now pulling up to the Beacon Facility. That’s the biomass energy conversion facility, 10 miles the opposite side of Ames. We see some solar panels out front. A nice little pond. We’ll be going inside and speaking with Norm Olsen; all about what BECON does. The role it plays.
Stuart Tanner: Yeah, another biomass facility. Speaking of which, I actually could do with a bit of biomass. Have you got some chips down there?
James Moore: I do. Some chips and one of those little tasty, uh, energy bars. You know, made from natural products.
Stuart Tanner: It’s been some time since we had our muffin.
James Moore: It’s true. We have a full day. Another day tomorrow. Great to be up here though in the land of ISU, Ames, Leopold Center, Beacon Facility, Bio Century Farms. A lot of great action in this neck of the woods. So we’ll be back with you. We’ve pulled in now. We’re a little bit early. How about that, folks? And we’ll be back with the Dream Green Series in just a moment. Speaking with Norm Olsen.
James Moore: And this is James Moore. You are listening to the Dream Green series right here on solar powered KRUU-FM. Our website is GreenIowa.org. Today we have come to a beacon of hope for all of the State of Iowa. It’s not spelled that way. But we’re at the BECON Facility, that’s the biomass energy conversion facility. We’re going to learn about what its role is. We’re going to speak with the man in charge here, Norm Olsen.
Norm, thank you so much. How are you doing today?
Norm Olsen: Great. Thanks for coming up and visiting us. Appreciate that.
James Moore: Well, we picked a hot one as it turns out. The corn has grown almost a foot, I think, in about 10 minutes.
Norm Olsen: Well, uh, it’s growing fast. You know the old, old wives’ tale about you could hear the corn growing at night in Iowa at certain times. Almost wanted to go out tonight and see whether that’s true or not, because it’s really popping.
James Moore: Well, you know what? We’re radio people here. So we’ll see if we can catch it on – give us a little background. How you – long you’ve been here. Just the basics about the Beacon Facility.
Norm Olsen: Ah, see, my background started basically with the first Arab oil embargo in the 1973, ‘74 time frame. I was uh, a student in mechanical engineering at Ohio State at that time. And, uh, it always seemed like a pretty bad idea to me that the small group of countries could tell the United States when to shut down their economy.
And I thought, that’s a pretty high risk deal. If that small group can tell us when we can have gasoline and when we can’t – we have the nat- -- gas lines, you know, rationing, things like that at that point in time. That shaped my career. I’ve been here at the energy center for almost 18 years now. We first drew up the Beacon Facility on a little scratch piece of paper there in 1992. Got it built in about 1999 and we’ve been going fairly strong since then.
James Moore: Why don’t you give us just the overlay of how these organizations uh, overlap.
Norm Olsen: Well, the Beacon Facility stands for biomass energy conversion. And we do like that beacon of light image. In fact, we were going to have a natural gas or methane flare at one point in time. But we haven’t implemented that one. But, uh, the Beacon Facility is part of the Iowa Energy Center. And the Iowa Energy Center is a center at Iowa State University. The BioCentury Farm is another, you know, like entity, like Beacon, on the west side of town, there.
So, that’s kind of how the groups we’ve talked about today interrelate.
Stuart Tanner: Actually, I would like to start, if it’s all right with you, on the big picture, and then move into the facility and what it does and what it can achieve.
Why is it so important to produce bio fuel now? What is the big picture? What are the drivers and what is the global picture as regards to oil and petroleum economy? What are your views in this area?
Norm Olsen: Well, as I said that first OPEC oil embargo shaped my whole career. And since then I thought it was a high risk proposition for the United States economy and every other nation as a whole. Our inordinate dependence on imported petroleum is, is a national security risk. It’s an economic risk since we consume so much petroleum in the United States. The statistics are something like 28 barrels of petroleum oil per person in the United States. China consumes two to three barrels of petroleum.
And for the first time in the history of the automobile, a country other than the United States bought the most automobiles in a given year. China did that just a couple of years ago. So, you can see there’s going to be increasing pressure on limited resource. A resource whose delivery system is fairly fragile.
I was watching the history channel uh, the other day and they showed the, uh delivery supply lines of petroleum throughout the world. And there are seven narrow channels that could be easily disrupted at any point in time by uh, a pretty small force. So we look at those things. We look at the situation in the Mid-East. It looks at time like it’s going to get a little calmer over there, but in general, I don’t think most people have a lot of faith that it’s going to be a real settled uh, area.
So, for a variety of reasons, economic, national security, we think that it’s almost one of the most important issues for the United States that we get off of imported petroleum. Uh, the upside, if you made your own energy in the United states, you could create about uh, 400, 500, maybe 600 billion dollar industry. It would be one of the biggest single industries in the United States. So, our jobs problem would go away . Our national security issues would go away on the negative side. And our economy could probably boom.
So I think it’s the single most important issue we could address.
Stuart Tanner: Yeah. The logic behind that is completely compelling. And I believe it’s about 400 billion dollars or more that goes out of the economy each year that’s probably going up, not going down. I want to ask you a further question around that. But first, perhaps, you could give us a little assessment on this term peak oil? What does that actually mean?
Norm Olsen: Well, a lot of people think that that means you’re going to run out of petroleum, which we won’t run out of petroleum. But the problem is, and if you look at a curve. And I wish we had a little picture of this one. But, uh, the rise into the petroleum era was fairly steep. We came into that era fairly quickly, especially in terms of human kind. And almost every expert agrees that we will decline out of that petroleum era very quickly as well.
So, it’s just going to be a fairly steep decline in your ability to supply the needs in terms of petroleum. Now, that can happen for a few reasons. Uh, we know the United States oil production peaked in the early 70’s. We know that North Sea oil has peaked. Saudi Arabia seems to hide their numbers a little bit. So I don’t know if anybody’s quite sure exactly where they are.
The problem is it’s going to take decades to prepare for the consequences of peak oil. To the United States the consequences are going to be more severe than just about any other country in the world because of our huge reliance on petroleum and our over consumption. I guess I’d have to say it that way. We really consume too much.
Stuart Tanner: Since that is the case and we’ve seen this coming for quite some time; and since it is so clear that if you were able to invest that 400 billion a year back into the U.S. economy the benefits are so wide, substantial and so on, that’s not a recent revelation that’s something that’s been the case for quite some time. Why are we not further down the road in terms of a switch over to the new economy based on renewable energies?
Norm Olsen: Uh, I’d say it’s uh, basically on the shoulders of leadership in the United States government. There’s no other way to do it. Small groups cannot make this change. It’s going to have to be a nationwide change. And unless the U.S. government at the highest levels makes a decision to do this, it just won’t happen. It can happen in a big way.
James Moore: Well, wouldn’t you say they have taken some steps. There are those that say the industry is being helped. Certainly the ethanol quotient uh, in the gasoline, some of those kinds of things. Are you talking about a more comprehensive view, because that does really seem to be lacking. But, yeah, just break down that a little bit.
Norm Olsen: I’d say a really comprehensive effort has not been made. Ethanol was started more or less as a result of another oil price surge in the Jimmie Carter era. The story goes he talked to Marty Andreas of ADM and said, “We need an alternative fuel.” Henry Ford liked ethanol way back when in the 1940’s. And he said, “Well, this might be a good alternative fuel and we can raise farm commodity prices at the same time.” ‘Cause corn was a fairly low priced back in those times. So, it was a pretty good match at that point in time.
It’s going to be difficult to meet all our energy need with biomass or any other single source. And yet ethanol is probably the highest volume alternative fuel we’ve ever had. Uh, biodiesel is a distant second. They’ve made a couple runs at hydrogen which our new Energy Secretary Chu says needs, I don’t know how many, four or five miracles to take place before it can become practical and cost effective. And I agree with that position. It’s going to be very difficult to make hydrogen cost effective.
Then we’ve changed electric vehicles. And I think automobile manufacturers like Toyota and Honda think there’s huge problems if you want one car to fit the bill for all electric. The range and quick charge capabilities are going to be an infrastructure and technically very difficult to achieve. So we kind of got a position of where, what fuel do you pick as an alternative? Now, T. Boone Pickens of course says natural gas is the answer. You can read some positive and negative things about the new fracking and horizontal boring technologies that are out there. And I’m kind of on the side that uh, thinks it’s probably not a long term answer uh, for us.
James Moore: What does encourage you? What do you seeing here or around the world that does offer some light?
Norm Olsen: Well, we’re in a somewhat fortunate position in that we don’t have to deliver uh, real products immediately. We do a little research and we can step back and say, “In an ideal world, what might the ideal fuel look like?” And so we laid out characteristics for what we thought the ideal fuel should look like. And some of our criteria were: You should be able to make it from any primary interview source. It should be able to be made from wind, solar, biomass, coal, nukes, hydro, whatever you can think of.
If you can make it from any primary energy source, that’s a great starting point. Because any country in the world then could be energy independent in terms of transportation fuels. Want to be cost effective of course. Environmentally friendly. Um, if you can use it in any type of engine. One fuel fits diesel, gasoline and say fuel cells: That would be a huge benefit. And then made in your country. And since we’re the United States we always say made in the U.S.
And so, what we’ve done is we’re looking at a fuel, anhydrous ammonia, and it’s not mentioned very often and, uh, we’ve been holding conferences for a little over six years now on that. And some of the major automobile manufacturers in the world are jumping on board with this. Because, in a nut shell, it’s just an easy way to store and deliver hydrogen. And that’s the problem with hydrogen, it’s not easy to store and transport cost effectively. And, and, anhydrous ammonia is in the top three chemicals stored and transported worldwide and it meets all the criteria that we hit.
Stuart Tanner: I suspect, like myself, a lot of people would not have even heard of that. They would not, like me, have heard that that is a possible alternative bio fuel. So, why is that the case? And is this just sort of come onto the scene recently? And there’s been some break through in this area or?
Norm Olsen: Well, it’s nothing really new. There’s been buses running in Europe in the 1940’s when petroleum was shut off. It makes people scramble for solutions. And in, in Europe at that point in time, during World War II, people were scrambling for solutions. And anhydrous ammonia was one of the ones they tried. Now, there are some issues around the use of anhydrous ammonia. It’s uh, used as a fertilizer. And uh, that’s why it’s a high volume chemical transported worldwide because we put it on so much of our agriculture production that we do. Including corn, of course. Um, but it’s just not well known because people didn’t think of it as a fuel. They thought of it primarily just as a fertilizer.
Uh, but we did a little work and a little research and it turned out, it’s one of the most energy dense ways to carry hydrogen. There’s more. About 20 to 30% more hydrogen in a gallon of anhydrous ammonia than there is in a gallon of liquid hydrogen. Uh, that doesn’t make sense to people when they first hear it uh, because one pure substance in liquid form should be pretty high in terms of energy density. But because of the chemical packing of hydrogen around the nitrogen, it stores much more hydrogen per gallon than pure hydrogen would.
Stuart Tanner: Um, where does it come from? I mean, what’s, what’s the source material in order to make it?
Norm Olsen: Well, hydrogen is one key element, of course. And that’s the most prevalent element in the universe is hydrogen. And the other part is nitrogen which is 78% of the air we’re breath right now. We like the oxygen part. The nitrogen just goes along for the ride. But 78% of the air we breathe is nitrogen. So any place on earth where you have a source of hydrogen which could be water. Which cold be bio mass. Which could be coal. Which could be natural gas. It could be any of these things. And air to breathe; you can make anhydrous ammonia.
Stuart Tanner: Does it take much energy to produce it? And some source is better than others?
Norm Olsen: Definitely. There’s, there’s an energy penalty to pay anytime you go from one form of energy to another. So, what you have to look at is the overall economics of doing that. And in general uh, anhydrous ammonia is cost competitive with gasoline and has been for several decades. And in terms of water use, it takes about a gallon of water to make a gallon of anhydrous ammonia.
James Moore: And how is that ratio wise for other energy sources?
Norm Olsen: Well, you know ethanol might be in the three to six gallons of water per ethanol. And I understand why gasoline gets a free ride in a lot of cases. I mean, we’re bashing ethanol nationwide right now, which in my mind almost anything’s better than imported petroleum. So, ethanol may not be perfect, but I think it has some advantages over imported petroleum. Especially when you’re making it form cellulosic raw materials.
Stuart Tanner: I suppose one of the things people would say is, “Okay, but oil comes from under the ground. So, you’re not using anything on the surface. And you’re certainly not using land that would otherwise be used for food.” So, that’s the access of a lot of people’s problems with bio fuels is the displacement of land which could be used for the production of food which may not be such an issue in the U.S., but when tracks of land start being bought up in other countries for this, that’s the dynamic that there’s concern around. What’s your view on that?
Norm Olsen: Well, in the near term we’re really a protein short world and ethanol production from corn doesn’t take any protein out of that cycle. But long term I think you’re right. It, it, you know, as population pressures continue to increase, even marginal land can grow grass which could grow animals of some type there. That’s one of the reasons we think that the ideal fuel, if you’re going to look at it, should be able to be made from wind and solar and even nuclear. We, uh [laughter] don’t discriminate against any form of energy. You’re, uh, we’ll let the rest of the world decide which primary source they want to use for sources.
That’s one of the reasons we like anhydrous ammonia so well, because you could make it form wind, solar, and really I think solar is set to, to make big strides.
Stuart Tanner: Could you explain that process of how you make it from solar.
Norm Olsen: There’s a couple of different ways. You can do it and, and it’ll involve cracking water one way or the other. Either thermally or electrically. So, either electrolysis of water to get the hydrogen. And then take the nitrogen out of the air we’re breathing and combine the two. Um, with some energy penalties, of course. And, so that’s the primary way. But some of ‘em are thinking that concentrating solar collectors can get temperatures high enough that if they’re cracking over a catalyst, you may be able to crack water thermally and that’s really uh, uh, uh, more research based type approach.
But in general, it’s going to involve cracking water, one way or another.
Stuart Tanner: Cracking being –
Norm Olsen: – splitting –
Stuart Tanner: – splitting up into those chemical constituents. How far down the road do you think you are in terms of making this economically viable?
Norm Olsen: One of the top two people from Toyota has been at our conference for the last four years and they just uh, have a patent pending process that you can view publically now, in January of this year, that shows that they’ve made pretty significant progress. They could show you, [laughter] if they wanted to show you a vehicle that would run on it.
In the meantime, we’ve got smaller groups around the world working on this issue. And it’s kind of like the backyard bio diesel type. The way bio diesel started: We had a little Volkswagen and a couple of people with some waste oil and they made bio diesel. Made it run. That’s kind of the stage we’re at right now with anhydrous ammonia. It’s, it’s smaller entrepreneurs creating ways of running vehicles, mainly gasoline and diesel engine vehicles on anhydrous ammonia. So, how far we’re off on that depends on, again, a national boost.
James Moore: I was just going to ask: Is – has there been subsidy at all for this from the government? Or even state level or, what, what about, you know, all the possible sources. Obviously, you’re being funded somewhat for this. So?
Norm Olsen: Right. We’re a state funded group. So, it’s not like they gave us a mandate specifically to look at anhydrous ammonia. But, our funds do allow us some latitude in looking at this. The Department of Energy has been very difficult to engage on this topic. And that’s one of the key issues that groups like Toyota think needs to happen for this to go forward. It’s still a fringe element. There’s no question about it. And uh, for it to occur in a big way, it would have to go into federal assistance to get that type of thing going. Just engine testing alone costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to run anhydrous ammonia tests to make sure emissions are right.
So, I should say emissions from burning anhydrous ammonia are going to be cleaner than hydrogen is what we say.
Stuart Tanner: Hmm!
Norm Olsen: And the reason for that is the ammonia when it combusts will turn back into nitrogen, which is an H20 vapor. There are some nox uh, emissions included. But the way we clean up nox emissions in diesel engines and at coal fire power plants is to inject a little ammonia slip stream and combine it with that nox over a catalyst and it breaks it into nitrogen and then water vapor. So it’s got its own inherent clean-up capabilities built in.
James Moore: This just reminds me. We were talking on the way over. What about when ethanol is burned? It’s talked about as a neutral. Do you understand my question?
Norm Olsen: Yeah. I think I do. And I kind of agree with that premise that what, what made that corn plant grow was carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. And then that’s the main items that it takes. And then of course, there’s nutrients. But it takes carbon dioxide out of the air. Puts it into the corn kernel. And then when you burn that corn kernel, one way or another, either in the form of ethanol or its in your little wood burning stove, the carbon dioxide’s re-released. So, it’s – to me, it’s pretty much a circle. Now, it’s a little more complex than that. That, that’s, I think that’s, that’s pretty close to reality.
Stuart Tanner: Would the complicating factor come into the equation that if you’re displacing land that’s used for food production, then you have to grow the food somewhere else and there’s a sort of CO2 equation there.
Norm Olsen: Yeah. That’s the indirect land use. And there’s a lot of raging debate on that. Whether that’s legitimate or not. It’s, uh, the premise is that the people in Brazil will plow up more land because we’re uh, turning some of the corn into ethanol. So they can balance the food needs out there. And in my opinion, that’s a little bit of a stretch. But, again, I’m very anti-import petroleum. [Laughter.] So anything looks good compared to that. So I’m pretty easy on anything but petroleum.
Stuart Tanner: Well, I wanted to go back to that because, huh, I suppose that as a species in the world that I’d call oil watchers. And I would count myself amongst them. Whereby you’re watching the dynamics unfold of something that we’ve known is going to happen for quite some time. And when that really begins to hurt is where the price of a barrel of oil keeps just gradually going up. And when it’s expected to go down, such as in a recession, in the rich nations, it doesn’t so much because it’s a new world where you have other economies that are still growing throughout Asia. So, us oil watchers are standing by the side and thinking: Now what level is going to be the level at which the governments of the rich will say, “Okay. That’s it. We’re putting hundreds of billions into greening the economy from now. We’re subsidizing all these areas of research and the new energy and the research. We’re really going to do an Apollo program on this.” So, what’s your take on that?
Norm Olsen: I don’t disagree with anything you just said. I think it’s going to take an Apollo moon shot or Manhattan Project to get us going. And it’s really going to take some leadership. Because if the United States declares that they’re going to go energy independent and not do import petroleum, you will see the prices drop. And, and they could drop for quite an extended time period just because we consume 25% of the world’s petroleum in a given year.
So, when you make that move there’s going to be decreased pressure on petroleum and people will say, “Well, see. There you go. You didn’t need to do that.” So it’s going to take somebody’s little sales ability, uh, sales and marketing I think, and a long term view, to make this move go forward. And it’s not going to be an easy sell. Because there’s going to be all kinds of people with the opinions on the other side saying, “Petroleum is good forever.”
James Moore: Leadership, the political will – I’m, I’m wondering: From your perspective you’ve been at this a while. Where do you feel Iowa is at and where can we go as a state?
Norm Olsen: Well, I think for energy, it starts with energy efficiency first. Energy efficiency is a given. You can do it. It’s cost effective. It’s good for you. [Laughter.] It’s good for the state. It’s good for the economy. We could be doing that in a bigger way in my opinion. The next thing we looked at is alternative fuels to petroleum. You know, you look at natural gas in the United States. If you’re just going to keep using as a home heating fuel, it’s pretty reasonable in costs. It’s fairly clean as far as fossil fuels go. I don’t see an emerging situation there right now. Unless we start using it as a transportation fuel and as power generation, then it’s going to put pressure on natural gas as well.
Coal, you know, the United States has more coal than any region in the world. If you could do clean coal cost effectively, wouldn’t that be great.
James Moore: I don’t mean to interrupt here. This is one of those things that the idea of clean coal technology – I, I know you can be cleaner than completely dirty. But I just, it’s one of those things you try to locate where that is. What’s the facility? What does it mean? Can you just shed a little light on that?
Norm Olsen: Well, I think what they mean when they define that as you’re, you’re going to sequester the carbon dioxide at one ratio. The particulate they could probably figure out. You know, they have ways of doing that. You could get the particulate levels down to where you need to go. And still not be too cost prohibitive. But putting carbon dioxide underground or in a solid form and storing it forever has been cost prohibitive so far. So that’s the goal. If they can do that, then, you know, coal is old bio mass. If you can put the carbon dioxide uh, away. That’s what they’re intending to do. So, it’s a big technological challenge though.
Stuart Tanner: Yeah, well, it’s a case of good luck and call us when you’ve’ cracked it.
Norm Olsen: It won’t be us. It won’t be us. We’re the bio mass people.
Stuart Tanner: The research that goes on here – obviously, this is what this is all about. Something of a nexus for research here. And a number of researchers involved and different institutions can play their part. Can you give us an overview of that?
Norm Olsen: Well, yeah. First of all, describe our business model so to speak. Um, what we try and do is, is anticipate which types of technologies may make economic sense and, and go out and create jobs in the long run. So our first job is try and guess which direction this whole business is going. And, uh, we spread our bets pretty significantly. We look at six primary different ways of turning bio mass into chemical and fuels. And we always say chemicals first because I think that will be an important issue. But we have thermal gasification. We have birolysis. We have anaerobic digestion. Uh, we have alcohol type fermentations. We have bio diesel production. And uh, a more researched based one called super critical fluids processing. That’s a mouthful, but uh, it’s just using high pressure fluids to process plant materials into chemicals and fuels. And it may be something like what happened, uh, uh, according to the theory that bio mass and plant materials buried under high pressure temperature conditions for long time periods uh, created the petroleum oil in the first place.
I mean a lot of people believe that that’s the way petroleum came about. So, that technology we’re using to do that type of research as well. Again, we usually start with graduate students from university with a project idea. And if the project moves forward and, and shows some level of success. Then eventually we hope the private sector shows up; moves the technology forward on their dollar and then takes it out and builds facilities based on these technologies. That’s the model.
Now, we’re, we consider ourselves in direct competition with petroleum. Most people don’t talk too much about uh, petroleum products outside of diesel fuel and gasoline. But the petroleum companies make hundreds of chemicals and thousands of products from a barrel of petroleum. And the reason they do that is because it makes good economic sense. They make the higher value chemicals all the way up to pharmaceutical grade chemicals. And then specialty chemicals. Commodity chemicals. Some of the lowest value things they produce from a barrel of petroleum are diesel fuel and gasoline. Only road tar gets much lower uh, than that. But, uh, we need to copy that business model from an economic standpoint. And so we’re going to try to make food first, from our bio mass materials. Then chemicals. And then fuel additives. That’s the model we see working the best long term.
Stuart Tanner: It’s very interesting in the area of employment and jobs and the transformation of an agrarian economy in a way. Which is what Iowa is predominantly. It seems to me that you’re not creating a Silicone Valley, but a Celilosic Valley sort of thing. Where you’re creating new jobs within the Iowan economy. And so, it could have, therefor, quite an impact. What do you see in developments in that area?
Norm Olsen: That is one of our main goals. As we get rid of imported petroleum, by making all these products, that we improve real economic development situations. We think there’s lot of good jobs coming if you do this. And the Bower Finery approach you just mentioned that as opposed to the oil refinery, uh, that’s the model that exactly we want to emulate. But we want to do it probably on a smaller scale. Uh, we think the economy’s scale aren’t there as bio mass as they would be with a petroleum facility for the simple reason that I can buy a bushel of corn as cheaply as Cargill or ADM can. I can go out to my farm friend. So my main cost of doing business, which is my bio mass materials, er, there’s no large economy whose scale shipping that. Plus we think that local processing, not only benefits the local economy, but it also allows you to take the nutrients that are left over from processing back to the soils and we think that’s absolutely critical for long term health and sustainability of this process.
So we think local processing for the economy and for the soil. And basically environment, is a crucial part of the plan that, that we see being the optimal case for bio mass to chemicals and fuels.
Stuart Tanner: Do you see any political risks on the downside that things could even maybe slip backwards let alone go forwards?
Norm Olsen: Well, to tell you the truth, I view this subsidy of ethanol thing as somewhat a negative instance because it’s getting so much negative publicity against a fuel that is certainly more renewable than petroleum. Although there are some people that claim that that’s not even the case. So, I, I think we’re slipping back a little bit because I don’t see any viable alternatives being brought forward. I mean, Ethanol’s not perfect, but what else are we proposing then if we wipe that off.
Stuart Tanner: So, if you have the ear of the government right now. What’s your shopping list. What would you say: This is what I want you to do, one, two, three, four.
Norm Olsen: Well, my list would be pretty simple in terms of fuels. I think you know we like the bio refinery approach for what we have here in Iowa to turn the plant materials into a wide variety of things in a sustainable fashion. But for the federal government, you know, I’d like them to say, “Pick your fuel of choice and make a big move towards it.” We would, of course, uh, promote anhydrous ammonia. Anhydrous ammonia is the other hydrogen. It, to me, has all the benefits of hydrogen and its still cost effect. So, that’d be our single point sales pitch. Let’s pick a fuel and we lobby hard for anhydrous ammonia.
James Morris: And here we are. We are in the backroom. What I call the backroom. It looks like a some uh, very, very big moonshine place. There’s pipes and wires and this is very massive, I will let the director of the Beacon Facility explain more where we’re at. But this is impressive looking.
Norm, tell me a little bit about what we’re looking at?
Norm Olsen: Well, we’re in the big building called the high bay. And this is where most of the action takes place out here at the Beacon Facility. We have six different primary conversion technologies represented here that can turn plant materials into chemicals and fuels. The one we’re standing in front of right now is called a thermal gasification unit. Uh, you can see by the scale of this, and of course we can’t transmit this on the radio, but it’s a significant size.
James Moore: Let’s say very big. It’s about two or three stories I would say.
Norm Olsen: It’s almost 30 foot tall and occupies a pretty significant footprint out here at Beacon. But, uh, we hope that this technology and the other technologies we have out here are at the right scale that with just one step we’re at a full commercial operation, like an ethanol plant or a bio-refinery type operation. So, we’re definitely trying to learn all the lessons that you can here at this scale that helps with investors – if they can come out here and see systems working at this scale, uh, they’re much more confident in investing in this type of thing.
This particular unit has been scaled up and is installed at full scale at an ethanol plant in Benson, Minnesota. So, the company that built this unit is working on it, is going forward with that full scale commercial operation. It’s been in operation for several years. One of the things they plan on doing with this particular unit is using the gas that they produce and turning it directly through a chemical route into diesel fuel.
So, you’re going from cellulose and waste biomass materials directly to a drop in diesel fuel replacement. It’s called a Fisher Trope Diesel Process and, uh, the Germans invented it a long time ago when their petroleum supplies were shut off during World War II, so.
James Moore: Well, fantastic. I understand that you have a number of, I don’t know, partners or different corporate interests working here. You mentioned this one. How has that developed over the years.
Norm Olsen: There’s about six private sector groups out here right now. And so, we’re real happy with that. Four of our original six technologies that we had in place ten years ago have been picked up by the private sector. So, at this point it’s no tax dollars going into it. It’s private sector dollars. And their goal is to create jobs and install their product out there. So, it – hopefully it’s a win for everybody involved.
James Moore: The students, the research, the development, up the chain to the private sector; talk about a sustainable loop, and how important academics, research and all these things are. Perfect example. Wow.
Stuart Tanner: If you’re looking at this unit behind here. What goes in and then what comes out?
Norm Olsen: In this particular unit, the thermal gasification unit, we can put just about any type of dry biomass material in. Switch grass or corn stalks, or wood chips, uh, just any type of dry or biomass that you have. We like to see less than 20% moisture. So a wide variety of products go in. What comes out is mainly what’s called syngas. And it’s just carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The two main chemicals.
And from that you can use it as a natural gas substitute or you can put those together like basic Leggo building blocks for chemists. Into a variety of things including alcohols and diesel fuel substitutes. Gasoline, plastics, just a wide variety of materials you can make from that synthetic gas.
Stuart Tanner: That’s a part of a picture which I think perhaps, again, people are less aware of: Is the fact that you’re trying to create an infrastructure that’s not just about a fuel, but it’s about a whole series of products.
Norm Olsen: Exactly. It’s a, it’s a bio-refinery as opposed to an oil refinery. And that’s an important concept if you want to make money. And we think, for this to be a good sustainable model, you’ve got to be self sufficient in terms of economics as well. And the way you can optimize your dollar output is to make sure you make these wide variety of valuable products.
Stuart Tanner: Could you tell us about yourself, who you are and what you’re up to?
Sivo Poinzella: My name is Sivo Poinzella [Phonetic 00:35:25]. I’m an associate scientist here at the Beacon Facility. And I work on the, uh, Department of Energy, um, So Pac [Indiscernible 00:35:34] for its projects.
James Moore: Fantastic. What have you found working on that?
Norm Olsen: We are taking biomass and putting it under conditions where we use different solvents at, at temperatures when we run them above what’s called a Criscall [Phonetic 00:35:40] temperature, Criscall pressure. The reason why we’re doing that is things like cellulose biomass are not easy to break down. Because if you look at the structure of cellulose, for example, it’s a very complex structure. So, our idea here, we are trying to utilize the properties of uh, solvents above the Criscall temperature and pressures to break down the structures and be able to convert cellulose into sugars that can eventually be taken down and be used for ethanol. Plus you not only have sugars forming there, you also have other hydrocarbons and organic acids.
So, a number of people out there, researchers are already looking at how they can take those hydrocarbons further into fuels and chemicals.
James Moore: That’s one of the six planks we learned about form Norm Olsen the director here. Any other questions, Stuart?
Stuart Tanner: Where are you from?
Sivo Poinzella: Originally South Africa. Yeah. I’m South African. I suddenly got my permanent residency in the U.S. So, I still consider myself South African, but I call myself a true Iowan in a sense that I’ve been here for 14 years. I came here thinking I’ll only be here for four years, but 14 years later, I’m here.
Stuart Tanner: You’re retained your South African accent.
James Moore: [Laughter.]
Stuart Tanner: I’ve been here four years and I’ve retained my British accent, I think. So, we’re not converting to the Iowa accent, James. Why is that?
James Moore: Well, I think it takes a little more assimilation. And, great work. I’m assuming that you came to the ISU system?
Sivo Poinzella: Yes, yes. I came through in ’93 through U.S. Aid because I loved it so much here. And I had a lot of friends. And I’m continuing to stay here and I love it.
James Moore: Delightful to meet you. Johannesburg? Or where?
Sivo Poinzella: Uh, from Deben. I’m from, it’s – as you can tell, today’s hot and humid. I feel like I’m back home. Along the ocean, Deben, along the Indian Ocean.
Stuart Tanner: Okay. I’ve got to question you on that because, you know, you’re from South Africa. You live by the ocean, you have all that diversity and beautiful lands, and you love it here. Okay . And we look out the window. It’s very flat. There’s an occasional silo and so on. Don’t you miss your land and the beauty of South Africa?
Sivo Poinzella: South Africa is a beautiful country and I love it. My family is there. I try to travel home, you know, at least once a year to spend time with them. But, you know, I think home is where your heart is. I mean, my heart is here in Iowa, but South Africa will always be my home. And, when I get a chance I do go there and spend time. I got torn. In South Africa I miss Iowa. When I’m in Iowa I miss South Africa.
Stuart Tanner: What do you miss about Iowa?
Sivo Poinzella: I think uh, people. Just um, safety for me. Is very important. And, uh, opportunities is another thing. And the infrastructure for, for the type of work that I’m doing, it’s very, very important. You have the Iowa Energy Center that has so many opportunities for some of the infrastructure on the alternative or energy program. So, that makes a big difference. I’m hoping I’ll take some of the knowledge to contribute in South Africa at some point.
James Moore: I’m sure you’ll be doing that. And also, when you go to South Africa, next time, we’ll go with you. Hey, Stuart?
Stuart Tanner: Well, I do go and visit the Spam Museum that’s apparently around here. Knock yourself out with that one.
James Moore: We saw that at the motel where we’re staying. The Spam Museum. They mean actual Spam, not the digital spam, so –
James Moore: Don’t mind us. We’ve had a long day. Thank you so much for –
Sivo Poinzella: - Yeah, my colleague –
James Moore: – Give, give us your name.
Phillip Carey: Phillip Carey [Phonetic 00:39:20].
James Moore: Where are you from?
Phillip Carey: Originally from Kenya, Africa.
James Moore: From Kenya, great. At our University, a very good friend is from uh, Kenya. What is your role here?
Phillip Carey: I am Sivo’s right hand man. I’m his research assistant.
James Moore: Fantastic.
Stuart Tanner: Have you fallen in love with Iowa as well?
Phillip Carey: I’ve been in Iowa for the past four years and I love it here. My sister has lived here for around seven years too. So, it’s nice. The people are great. It’s a very friendly community. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with Palo, Iowa? I went to Palo for a year and a half and it’s a really small community and, you know, that was my introduction to Iowa and the people are great. So, I love Iowa.
James Moore: Yeah, tulips and everything there. It’s a beautiful – it’s a beautiful little, Dutch, right, kind of – background. But, um, well, fantastic. Great to meet you. What’s it like working here?
Phillip Carey: Oh. The people are great. First of all, the learning experience is amazing, you know. From being a young man from Kenya, you know, I never expected, by the time I’m 23 to be doing, you know, the kind of research I help do, you know. It’s really good. I enjoy it.
Stuart Tanner: Excellent. Thanks for talking to us. Both of you. And keep up your great work. It’s important work and it’s nice to feel that Iowa is a center that you guys can come to and carry out the research in an area that you love and want to work in. That’s fantastic.
James Moore: Yeah, you know, what I always say about the ocean: In Iowa the ocean is the people.
James Moore: The Mississippi isn’t quite the ocean. It’s close as it comes, but there are some treat lakes a little bit ways off. But I love that you said home. South Africa. But home is where your heart is. I’m glad you enjoy this weather. Above a hundred I start, I, I start questioning it a little bit. Thank you guys both so much. And, uh, we’ll be back with the Dream Green series in just a moment.
We’re here from Beacon. The Beacon of light here, the bio-energy conversion facility outside of Ames.
Stuart Tanner: A Beacon that’s reaching around the world, James.
James Moore: Thank you guys.
James Moore: Continuing on our journey across the State of Iowa looking at green issues, energy efficiencies, sustainable, renewables – all that good stuff. And, uh we are up in Ames, Iowa, just driving outside of it right now. Following a man I’ll let Stuart introduce in just a moment, who is taking us out to a field of prairie grass.
Hmm. Prairie grass. What does that have to do with biomass? I almost feel a rap coming on here. Some flat lands as we drive by. Who are we following?
Stuart Tanner: We’re following Matt Helmers [Phonetic 00:42:09] to a field which has prairie grass in it. He’s a researcher and, uh, looking into prairie grass and its uses and sustainable agriculture and applications of biomass as well. He’s just taking us to the field where they’re doing their research. So we’ll be hearing all about that.
James Moore: So, uh, stay tuned with us right here on the road for the Dream Green series up near Ames, Iowa.
James Moore: And here we are pulling over at Violet Avenue. Violet was my mother’s name. Interestingly enough. But we’ve been driving through really a – rows and rows and rows of corn. And now, here we come to a little area. Prairie grass. It appears like there may be some students out there already. We’re just pulling up and over. So, we’ll be meeting with Matt here in just a second.
We have stopped our journey here. Looks like the fields are relatively dry in a hurry. How’re you doing, Matt?
Matt Helmers: Oh, great. Great. Beautiful morning out here in Central Iowa.
James Moore: We were noticing row after row of corn. Field after field of corn. Now we’re pulling over to something special. Why don’t you give us just a little bit of a breakdown of where we’re standing.
Matt Helmers: Yeah. This is our comparison of biofuel systems project site south of Ames. We’re studying a few different production systems. Looking at biomass production. We have a normal corn, soybean rotation for grain. We have two continuous corn systems where the uh, portion of the corn stover is removed for biomass. One of those though, we plant a winter rye cover crop after the corn is harvested. And then we also have two diverse restored native prairie systems.
James Moore: This has been going for how long, this particular project?
Matt Helmers: Uh, we established these plots in 2008. So, just a few years we have 24 plots here. Six treatments with the corn, soybean in there. And, so we have four replications and then we’re monitoring a host of, of environmental factors and, and also biomass. Both above ground and below ground productivity as well as water quality, soil moisture and some greenhouse gas emissions.
James Moore: Fantastic. Stuart, you want to jump in?
Stuart Tanner: Yeah. What do you mean by below the ground?
Matt Helmers: Yes. So, Matt Liebman is a research, professor in the Department of Agronomy and the Wallace Chair of sustainable agriculture, and he’s looking, or his graduate students are really monitoring root growth below ground. Um, and then looking at uh, carbon in those roots among other things. But really trying to look at with our prairie systems, versus our annual cropping systems, do we see uh, increase biomass production below ground. Root production. And we do. And we also see some difference between the fertilized and unfertilized prairie. With more below ground biomass uh, with that unfertilized prairie than with the fertilized prairie, ‘cause those, those roots are scavenging for, for nutrients.
James Moore: Um-hmm. Like they do. Those little scavengers. Well, we’re walking towards right now the, some of these areas that, uh, that we’ve been talking about. I, I’m wondering. This is just a random, sort of general question. So much corn and soy beans, of course, in Iowa. What, what do the farmers make of a prairie grass uh, set-up here. What’s their take on it?
Matt Helmers: We’ve had some farmers and uh, farm organizations here. I think they’re quite interested in it. You know, right now there’s maybe not the uh, the economics there for growing that, the perennial biomass. But I think people are interested in the potential. Especially for environmentally sensitive lands. You know, can we grow something that, that has a really good root structure and grows a greater percentage of the year than maybe our annual row crops systems.
Stuart Tanner: What’s, uh, this crop over here?
Matt Helmers: These are some, some extra, that Emily Heaton, from the Department of Agronomy is working on, where we have uh, switch grass. Switch grass and then corn systems, and they’re looking at different harvest strategies and biomass production under those, those systems.
James Moore: Well great. For the average Joe, of which I am including myself here, is there a layman’s difference between switch grass and prairie grass, uh, simply?
Matt Helmers: Well, switch grass would be, we’d see some of that in the prairie. But our prairies are a diverse mix. At least 30 different species of a mixture of warm season grass which the switch grass is. But we also have Indian grass. Big blue stand. And then we also have some of the cool season grass, specifically Canada wild rye. And then many forbs and legumes in there as well.
James Moore: Fantastic. So, yeah, the prairie grass then just means the whole diversity is included in that mix and, and we know from our traveling around and talking with many different people already, this early into the series, we’re in our sixth or seventh show now; that we keep hearing this idea of diversity versus the mono crop concept where something gets wiped out. With prairie grass if one goes down there’s still something going. Is, is that part of it?
Matt Helmers: Yeah. I think that’s right. You know, these systems kind of evolved over time. And so we, if we have a wet cold year, there’ll be certain species that do really well. And if it’s a hot, dry year there, there’ll be other species that do well. So, they’re kind of resilient to the type of climatic conditions that we might get here in the Central U.S.
James Moore: We’re, we’re walking now, just to explain again, we’re walking towards where?
Matt Helmers: We’re now in some of our uh, corn systems, um, right here. And then we’ll be walking toward the prairie. The part that I’m working on is the water quality side. And so we have a system of subsurface drains, and each of these plots that we’re monitoring for how much water, kind of moves through the root zone and is captured by a drain. And then what’s the quality of that water? Specifically, what’s the, the nutrient concentration. And what we’re most worried about is the nitrate concentration. And so what we’ve seen is that those prairie systems we’re losing very little nitrate.
Uh, the concentrate of nitrate coming out of those tile lines is around 1 part per million versus about 10 part per million from our, our continuous corn and our corn, soybean systems. That’s been one of the interesting findings. Even when we’re fertilizing that prairie, we’re seeing a dramatic reduction in the nitrate coming out. So, from a water quality standpoint, that’s very interesting and useful as we evaluate the overall benefits of a perennial base system.
Stuart Tanner: Could you give us the overview about how this research ties into sustainable agriculture.
Matt Helmers: The systems that we’re studying, we’re trying to look at, what’s the overall impact on the soils. The soil quality, because what we’d like to do is build soil quality over time because we think that would be a more, more sustainable than if we’re degrading soil quality. We’re able to study that with the perennial base systems. We think there’ll be some benefits.
But then, even with uh, the continuous corn, we are putting a cover crop on there as well that would, hopefully, even though we take some of that stover off, we’re growing that cover crop to try to return some organic matter to the soil. You know, have some living system out there, a greater percentage of the year to try to least maintain the soil quality uh, perhaps in some cases, build soil quality.
Stuart Tanner: What is a perennial system then?
Matt Helmers: Yeah. So what is a perennial system, well it would, in my mind it grows year after year. We don’t have to replant it. Um, and so the prairie is a perennial system. If we look at, you know, the corn and soybeans, those are an annual system. We plant them every year. Um, if we use a cover crop, it’s still primarily an annual system even with that cover crop. But we’re maybe getting some of the benefits of the perennial system in trying to have living cover on the land a greater percentage of the year.
There are also some things within a continuous corn system that some folks are looking at a living mulch. Kind of a year round more perennial cover crop. Some people, uh, Kira clover, some other clovers. Um, some folks at Iowa State are looking at bluegrass for that. It’s kind of living under the corn canopy and then would come on in the fall the year of the spring of the year. So it’s kind of a perennial base cover crop.
Stuart Tanner: So, if you were, for instance, say, you had using a cover crop such as bluegrass. So that grows along with the corn but it tends to, you know, come at a time of year which makes it possible to have it in the field at the same time the corn’s there. So, that system, therefor is going to do two things: Reduce the amount of nitrate going into the water and presumably, also, offer greater protection for the soil against an- – soil erosion?
Matt Helmers: That would be exactly right. Yes, we would expect that it would provide a benefit from reducing nitrate leeching and that’s what we’ve seen with Kira clover cover crop. We’ve reduced the nitrate leeching when we have that growing under there. But then, that’s exactly right. When you take that corn crop off in the fall, there’s still some time for whatever that uh, underneath vegetation is, clover, bluegrass, to grow and then it provides an excellent protection in the spring of the year when we get erosive rainfall events. And especially we can get erosive rainfall events when there’s no soil protection within, within a lot of our agricultural systems.
So it would provide a lot of those, those uh, protection benefits that we might get from a, you know, a perennial based system, um, and still having that corn or soybean crop in either case growing out there.
James Moore: Just one other question on this. What you mentioned about the strips. That’s something that Iowa’s doing a pretty good job of? This is something that’s helping with this issue of runoff?
Matt Helmers: Yes. Certainly in Iowa we have a lot of buffer strips next to some of our streams. I think we can still do a lot more with that. You know, a lot more protection next to our streams, our sensitive areas. And also, maybe looking at how we design those a little bit differently. Maybe a little more strategically or targeted. You know, a lot of times it’s just a uniform width strip next to the stream. But water doesn’t enter uniformly into the stream. And so, can we provide more protection in those areas where we’re getting more flow.
James Moore: That makes sense. I think my brother used to say it best, you want to go with the flow. Nature goes where it goes. And it’s not always in a square is what I’m trying to say. We’re standing in it. We’re ‘amongst it now. We’re in the prairie grass. It looks sort of like a French poem to me in a way.
Stuart Tanner: So, what’s the purpose of the prairie grass? Why grow it?
Matt Helmers: One of the reasons we’re looking at is for the biomass production. In here, at least. How much biomass could we produce with these systems, especially if we went to, uh, you know, cellulosic ethanol type of system where biomass was needed. This could become, you know, potentially a viable strategy.
Stuart Tanner: How soon do you think some of these ideas and research results are going to be scaled up and we’re going to see them applied across the land?
Matt Helmers: Ah. That’s a great question. And I think with some of that, we’re seeing it. We’re seeing there are about 70 of those Iowa conservation reserve enhancement program wetlands in throughout the kind of the, the Des Moines lobe of Iowa. So that’s happening. But it needs resources to do that because we’re taking some land out of production. We’re doing uh, engineering and design for those wetlands. We see things going in with bioreactors under the Mississippi River Basin Initiative of NRCS and then, cover crops, are something that, you know, not necessarily the blue grass or Kira clover, but more the annual uh, winter rye is going in. We see that as part of incentive programs that more and more people are putting in cover crops.
There’s a cover crop working group in the State of Iowa, and have a number of cover crop demonstrations throughout the state. So I think we’re starting to see some of that. It’s going to take some time, but I’m optimistic that we might see some change, uh, in the not too distant future.
James Moore: Great. I want to think you so much Mike Helmers for spending some time with us, out here. You’re outstanding in your field. And so are we. Boy, there’s a joke. I bet no one’s ever used before. At any rate, we are here outside of Ames – Stuart Tanner, James Moore, part of the Dream Green Series and boy we are seeing green here.
So, uh, this has really been a great opportunity to learn a little bit about what’s going on here with the switch grass and prairie grass. It is something you hear about more and more. I hope our listeners have enjoyed –
Female Voice [singing]: Follow the rain. All the way down to the hate hills, naphtha [Phonetic 00:59:33] felt the shame. Thousands of years of faded gills. None o’ nain [Phonetic 00:55:30] to reprimand your only hands. Aye, aye, aye, aye, aye. Aye. Aye, aye, aye, aye, aye. Aye.
Cedar. Cedar. Cedar, on the horizon. Cedar. Cedar on the horizon please. Cedar on the horizon, please all the people. People.
Follow the rain. All the way down to the hate hill. Now feel the shame. Thousands of years of faded gill. None know its name. None know its name. Aye, aye, aye, aye, aye. Aye Aye, aye, aye, aye, aye. Aye.
James Moore: And that is Taylor Ross. Taylor Ross on the Bedrooms and Basements a CD compilation out of the beauty shop in Fairfield. A beautiful, haunting tune.
Thank you so much for joining us once again on this journey of discovery across the State of Iowa. Want to remind you: Coming up next week. We have uh, a wonderful installment. A visit to the City of Davenport with Mayor Bill Gluba. And we will be traveling to a number of very, uh, very profile, I would say, uh, facilities, like the wastewater facility there where methane gas is being trapped; saving the City $800,000 to a million dollars a year. We’ll visit there.
We’ll also visit the compost facility, which was one of the largest in the country when it was first established. We go through the whole process there. Which is quite amazing. Also a visit to the 9,600 square foot lead certified police department in Davenport. A visit there with the chief of police; some rooftop gardens. Also Nahan Marsh will visit briefly and much more.
Very, uh, intriguing action going on in Davenport. So stick around. That’s coming up next week right here on the Dream Green series. From solar powered KRUU-fm.
Narrator: Produced by Stuart Tanner and James Moore at solar powered KRUU 100.1 fm in Fairfield, Iowa. Online at KRUUfm.gov. This series is funded in part by a grant from the Iowa Office of Energy Independence and nearly 70 individuals, companies and organizations.
For a list of sponsors, visit our website at GreenIowa.org. Archives available for download under creative commons license. Music from Zila and Taylor Ross.