Larry Johnson: At Iowa State University we have probably 150 faculty who are working in various aspects of this biofuels sector. We're also connected to faculty in universities outside the state. We are developing joint projects. I think we are the leader when it comes to putting the pieces together and having the big picture in mind. Now, other universities and other institutions, they have good pieces, but nowhere else are they trying to bring all the pieces together. That's what's unique. Iowa is really doing a masterful job in putting those pieces together. I think we’re at the forefront.
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: This is James Moore with my co-host Stuart Tanner. We are on the road again on a very, very beautiful Iowa day. Not a single cloud directly above, I see a little bit of haze on the horizon. We are going to be visiting Ames, Iowa. Actually we are just passing Iowa State University, as we speak, and we'll be heading momentarily to the BioCentury Research Farm. That’s all about bio renewables we'll be talking about today with some great people. But let’s bring Stuart into the discussion today. How are you doing, Stuart?
Stuart Tanner: I’m very good and it’s a beautiful day and I just had an English muffin which is wonderful America obviously influenced a little bit by British cuisine there and going for the English muffin was a good choice I think.
JM: Is there an American muffin?
ST: Well, if you find one, let me know and I’ll try it.
JM: Fair enough. Hey, give me a little bit of your two cents. I know we are just about arriving at our destination, the BioCentury Farms. We're going to be speaking with the Director. Give me your two cents as we head into this next piece of our great adventure here in the world of green sustainability, energy efficiency and renewables.
ST: It's going to be interesting talking to the researchers. These individuals are deeply into the biomass equation, so we should get a very rounded picture of the dynamics of biomass, and what of the future holds for biomass. We know that there is a little controversy surrounding biomass in terms of at least making ethanol from corn. There's a lot of debate at the moment about whether to continue the subsidies for the oil companies to produce ethanol. Some people object to producing ethanol from corn because of the economics of it and, you know, channeling what would otherwise food products towards fuel products. So it'll be interesting to see what they have to say about these critical issues and where they see the future lies and whether the picture is going to get a lot better due to their research.
JM: Well, fantastic. As we speak, we're passing the big 'welcome to Ames' water tower. Thank you so much for joining us on this journey of discovery in terms of renewables, energy efficiency and all the good green stuff across the state. We look forward to learning more today, so don’t touch that dial. Stay tuned. You're listening to the Dream Green series right here on solar-powered KRUU-FM. Also greeniowa.org, we’ll remind you, is the website. Go check that out. It’s a great resource as well and feel free to leave comments. We'll be back in just a moment.
ST: Actually, didn’t you just flash a leaflet at me about going to a Spam Museum? A Spam Museum, James?
JM: Yeah, we don’t mean digital spam. Yeah, a Spam Museum. We were looking at the motel lobby, different things and it caught my eye--the Spam Museum, I don’t know why that attracts me so.
ST: How can you make a museum out of spam? It's a highly processed form of food that was invented not that long ago actually.
JM: Neither was the U.S.
ST: Well, there you go. You've got to make history where you can find it, I suppose.
JM: We make history at the drop of a hat.
ST: You make history out of spam.
ST: We're going through a dust cloud here.
GPS: "Drive point two miles to destination. On right."
ST: Woh, we're going through a dust cloud.
JM: Dust bowl here, we just hit a dust bowl. We are approaching BioCentury Farms right now and a big piece of farm apparati is coming right our way in a cloud of dust on a gravel road which makes us feel at home. And we’re just about there. We're hoping our GPS lady will give us the go ahead. There is a truck with...
GPS: "Arriving at destination on right."
JM: Thank you, ma’am, we appreciate that. Here we are, BioCentury Research Farm. We’ll be going in, in just a moment so stay with us right here on the Dream Green Series.
JM: And this is James Moore, we have entered the building, not with Elvis, but we are here in Boone, Iowa at the BioCentury Research Farm, sitting here with the Director of the BioCentury Research Farm and we are really excited, as we’ve been talking about, to learn just what this facility does and the scope of bio renewables for the State of Iowa. ISU, in this area obviously one of the critical pieces in the Iowa puzzle for bio renewables, we will bring Larry Johnson straight into the conversation. How are you doing today, sir?
Larry Johnson: Good.
JM: Good to see you. I gave a decidedly tiny introduction. The Director of BioCentury Research Farm, I would love if you would flesh out just a little bit, how you got here, your background and about this facility.
LJ: Okay. I’m Larry Johnson, I’m Director of actually two centers at Iowa State University. One is the BioCentury Research Farm, where you're at right now, and the other is the Center for Crops Utilization Research, which is housed on the Iowa State University campus. I was trained as a cereal scientist, a cereal chemist. With cereal, I don’t mean breakfast cereals, I mean grain, corn, soybeans. I got my Ph.D. at Kansas State University developing uses for soybeans. The biofuels area exploded, as most of your listeners would recognize, I like to say about 5, 6 years ago. Then the program at the Center for Crops Utilization Research expanded to then move into this BioCentury Research Farm that is largely focused on biofuels and bio-based products.
JM: Iowa was early into the game, if I'm not mistaken, some of the first legislation in the country I think. How has that impacted the BioCentury Farm here?
LJ: Well, it was really the renewable fuels standard number two passed in 2007 that really has kicked off this biofuel production and the interest in it. Before that it was largely farmer driven, corn growers seeking to find more markets for their commodities, but the Energy Security Act of 2007 really drove this to where we're at today. In Iowa, we’re consuming about 60% of the corn supply for biofuels. Nationally it's about a third and so it's really growing great guns due to that federal legislation.
ST: I just wanted to ask you, though, to give a view for our listeners of what it means when we say biofuels. Presumably there's a number of possibilities. The one what has been the case so far is making ethanol from corn. But could you give us the nuts and bolts, or the corn and the husk, of the process?
LJ: Sure. Well, today we use corn, this grain. We’re primarily after the starch component. That gets converted to fermentable sugars and then it's fermented. But I don’t want to forget that we also have biodiesel. That's a product where we take the vegetable oil and we react it with methanol and we make a product that’s more suitable for fuel.
So today we really have two fuels. We have ethanol based on corn starch and biodiesel based on soybean oil. This facility is designed to take us to the next generation. The next generation, it may not be ethanol, it may not be biodiesel. There are many other possibilities. My own view is that we will always have ethanol. We will always have some biodiesel. But if we're really going to make a dent in the biofuels need, we need to expand beyond just grain uses. So today's industry is based on grain. Tomorrow's industry may be based on corn stover. It may be based on prairie grasses. It may be based on fast-growing trees. My view is we need all of them. There is not a silver bullet to solve all of our problems.
ST: Is that something of a back-to-front process that's evolved in literally a kind of organic way? That because it was a corn growing state, it was corn that was used to produce ethanol. Whereas if you were starting from scratch, say, and you were trying to choose the best source material for generating ethanol, what would you choose?
LJ: Well, I think I would still choose corn. We don't see a better crop out there than corn right now. It may happen and I certainly have dreamed with a lot of our biotech folks how could we tailor a crop for biofuels production? Genetic engineering affords that opportunity. But I think most of the scientific community still believes that corn is the ideal feedstock for this area and probably for this country.
ST: Now, obviously, when you’re channeling 60% through to the production of ethanol, that’s actually, if you like, very successful. Clearly that’s a successful program--creating extra uses for the corn. Now, what has been the dynamics therefore of the effect on the price of corn? And obviously that’s going to make the farmers who are producing the corn very happy, but perhaps there'll be other parts of the economy that are not so happy.
LJ: Right. Any time you have a shift of wealth, a shift of income, there's always controversy. Those who it's shifting from complain and those who receive are very happy. And you're right, that has occurred in Iowa. Also clear, it's 60% in Iowa, but nationally it's only about a third of the corn crop. That has raised prices. I would submit that that's good. We have a healthier agricultural economy today than we had years ago.
I would admit that there has been at least a modest increase in food prices and feed prices that our livestock producers have experienced. But, you know, I submit that cheap grain is one of the things that’s been a demise of agriculture. It has driven the small producer out because he can't make a profitable living. In 1971 corn was priced at $2 a bushel. We have not changed that dynamic very much until this last year. We’ve virtually had $2 corn for 40-some years. Tell me any other commodity that has stayed at the same price for forty years. If you apply the consumer price index. which is just inflation, to corn selling at $2 a bushel in 1971, corn would be fairly priced at over $9 a bushel. So we have benefited, the American consumer has benefited, with cheap grain and cheap food prices.
In 1947 my parents put about 22% of their disposable income into food. Today we put in less than 9%. Now that's benefited our standard of living, but it's been at a cost and some could argue at the demise of the agricultural system, the profitablity of small farms and whatnot. So, you know, it’s from what perspective do you come at it? I submit that food is still cheap. There's also another issue that's important and that is are we better off with ethanol than if we didn't have it?
And there was a study done, that was done in 2008, and I admit that the dynamics of that might have changed a little bit, but I think the lesson, the take-home lesson, is still valid. This group of economists looked at how much savings our consumer got per household over a year's time due to having less expensive gasoline with ethanol. That amounted to, I’m remembering the numbers, it was somewhere around $500 per family in benefit. Then the study also looked at what was the cost in terms of higher food prices and it was roughly $15, or something like that. per year per household.
Yes, consumers are correct in seeing food prices go up a little bit, but they are ignoring and don't see the benefit that they got through cheaper fuel prices and we’re better off with it.
ST: I suppose in addition to that, one of the interesting sort of dynamics of the whole renewable energy field that we’ve been investigating and discovering is that, part of its underlying purpose is to not be putting money out of the state to buy energy in some form or another which is going out of the state and quite a lot out of the country. So perhaps you could comment on that in a way that it internalizes that expenditure.
LJ: Yeah, well, in a sense we would like to import into the state less energy, but we’d also like to not export raw commodities out of the state, we would like to add value and create economic development in the state.
I did a cost analysis, again it's, we’re picking up things that are little bit dated--it was back when corn was selling for $3.5 a bushel--but I calculated that the ethanol industry means directly $2 billion in this state in value added. Then what has it done to the price of corn? It’s also added another $2 billion. So this ethanol industry in my mind, has created at least $4.5 billion to the Iowa economy. If we didn’t have that added economic benefit to the state, can you imagine what kind of perils we would be in our state funding issues?
ST: So there has been significant subsidies for the agricultural sector in the American economy for quite some time. Maybe in the current climate though these will come under pressure. The subsidies for production of ethanol, which are given to the oil companies, that is something that’s already coming under pressure and there's support from both parties to get rid of that. Where do you stand on that?
LJ: I have always favored, see a need for, subsidies during the initial development. Now we can debate whether now is the time that that should go away. Many folks do and I'm probably – I'm certainly willing to consider seeing those subsidies either decline or disappear. However, what I do want to see is, I want to see a level playing field. And the problem that I see is that there's a lot of tax benefits, subsidies that the petroleum industry is receiving and that’s never talked about, when we talk about doing away with the subsidy on ethanol. So let’s talk about a level playing field and let's let corn ethanol play on a level playing field.
JM: Well, I think that’s fair enough and I also want to remind listeners we're speaking with Larry Johnson. He's the Director of the BioCentury Research Farm in Boone, Iowa, just outside of Ames. I would like to just take a step back from this consideration, or a step across for a moment. and just ask a little bit about BioCentury Research Farm.
LJ: Well, this farm is – well, it’s more than a farm. It is an integrated biomass production and processing facility. So we go all the way from, even plant genomics where we can tailor a crop for biofuel, through plant breeding, through harvest storage and transportation, through then biomass conversion and the purpose of this facility is to bring all the pieces together. Nowhere else in the country is this kind of approach being done. We're looking at it as a total system.
We have learned that things that you do down in the production affect how the material processes. We would not have learned that had we not been working as a total system. There is about 1000 acres of land around this facility where we can grow different types of biomass. Do it under different conditions looking for the sustainability of that system. We also have at this site a first-generation biorefinery. Probably I ought to define what I mean by a biorefinery.
LJ: Because it is different from today's ethanol industry. If our listeners would--many of them have probably been down at Houston, sort of the hub of much of the petroleum industry--and if you go to a refinery, you will see, not only oil processing into fuels, but you will see industrial chemicals, plastics, adhesive companies located all around also it. Also a petroleum plant shifts from, in the winter time, to producing more heating oil, it can shift between gasoline and diesel fuel.
Also a petroleum plant will take different kinds of petroleum in the front door. So what they are doing is maximizing profit by selecting the cheapest feedstock and producing the highest value products out the back end.
Okay, I think there is a lesson there to be learned. The question is how can we apply those strategies with biofuels production and I think we can. And my dream is to help today's ethanol industry transition into biorefineries. I don’t view today’s ethanol plant as a biorefinery. It only produces two products. They are locked in. They don't have much flexibility, typically only bringing in corn today. So that some of the kinds of things we’re wrestling with is, can we take corn stover or can we take fast-growing trees, forest waste? Select the cheapest feedstock at the time and bring it in.
At the same time, we're looking at the tail end producing more than just ethanol and maybe different kinds of fuels. It may be a gas that can be used for energy. It may be industrial chemicals. It may be biomaterials. It will also likely be a fraction that needs to go back onto the land for sustainability issues. So I see this biorefinery as being to select the cheapest feedstock and maximize the profit through selecting the different products at the backend.
ST: It’s actually quite tough, isn’t it, to compete with hydrocarbons because of the energy that's packed into hydrocarbon petroleum? And as far as I understand the ethanol doesn't compete quite as well with that and that also applies maybe to some of the spin-off products as well. Could you sort of outline some of the challenges there are?
LJ: Sure. Well, carbohydrates which is what we use--either cellulose or starch--contains more oxygen in it than say the hydrocarbons that petroleum has in it. That is very true. And ethanol is not necessarily the ideal fuel, it will take moisture out of the air, it could separate if you got enough water in it. It also doesn't have as much energy content so fuel economy is not quite as good. Sure, I will agree that ethanol doesn't necessarily have the ideal characteristics that the petroleum industry would like to see.
Some of the kinds of work here going on in this biorefinery could change that dynamic. First of all, anything you can dream of making from petroleum, I can probably find a microorganism that can make that. The economic issue is often in dilute streams and it’s uneconomical today. So we're working on the economics of that.
One potential example, and which you've probably heard some of the petroleum industry talk about, is butanol. You can select a bug to produce butanol. Butanol has the advantage--it's more energy dense; it can drop into petroleum and it can be shipped through the pipeline and it can solve a lot of those – a lot of the complaints that we hear. But there's also other strategies. There is a thermochemical process called fast pyrolysis, which we have a - such a plant in this prototype biorefinery right now, that can produce a liquid oil that looks much like petroleum and can be upgraded much like petroleum.
Some of them can be converted into hydrocarbons that look all virtually identical to gasoline or diesel fuel. We, in the scientific community, we're not wedded to ethanol. We needed ethanol to get us to the stage we’re in today, but long-term--and I don't think ethanol is ever going to go away--but I think we will transition to producing other fuels that will have maybe a little more desirable characteristics.
JM: Can you give us a sense of the pace of progress? Is it still a slog and we are looking 5, 10 years down the road before there's things that will make a big transition?
LJ: We are actually behind the renewable fuel standard when it comes to cellulosic ethanol. Many people projected that we would be at least producing small amounts upon commercial scale. We’re not there; there are still some hurdles in place. However, maybe some of your listeners are aware that DuPont is now just locating a prototype plant on cellulose-to-ethanol over in Nevada, Iowa. They are now starting to build the plants. Now, these are mostly demonstration plants--they're going to be small ones--but we have to learn to walk before we can run.
Now, the renewable fuel standard calls for as much fuels coming from cellulose as today we are producing from corn by the year 2022. Department of Energy is investing big dollars now. The investments have been pretty trivial up until the last couple of years.
JM: I just wanted to follow-up on that, is it – is part of the issue with the cellulosic--with things like poplar trees--is it the process, the time that it takes to break down?
LJ: We’ve dreamed for probably 50 years of making ethanol from cellulosic crops or corn stover. The impediment there has been the ability of the enzyme to break down this cellulosic material into fermentable sugars, but we can’t do it as cheap as we would like to. We have invested for, I don’t know, 20 years in the biological conversion and making modest successes. Now we are turning to a whole radical new technology of thermo-chemical conversion. My own vision is that ultimately the two pieces are going to come together. One's not going to win out over the other one. We're just now looking at how we can bring those pieces together.
JM: Explain for our listeners a little bit what that means--the thermo-nuclear component?
LJ: Not, noy nuclear.
JM: Excuse me, thermo-chemical! [Laughter.]
LJ: Thermo-chemical. What we do is we take heat and pressure and we meter in, either no oxygen or in other cases and gasification, we meter in some oxygen. But it's in a oxygen limiting environment, for sure. Fast pyrolysis will produce two products, a liquid oil that looks just like crude oil and can be converted like - almost like crude oil. And it also produces a bio char, which has this – it looks like charcoal, you know, charcoal briquettes before they are compressed together that's what this material would like. The char contains the nitrogen, the phosphorus, the potassium and we envision that going back on to the soil.
Now you can also make a gas out of corn stover. In this case you go to a higher temperatures and a little bit of oxygen and I can make what we call syngas. It’s a synthetic gas that's very much like natural gas. That gas can either be – it could be used for energy by itself to be put into gas pipelines. or you can bring it back into the biorefinery and actually, we believe, to be able to ferment that and to make a host of different kinds of fuels.
JM: Fantastic, well, thank you for that and I will retract my thermo-nuclear use at this point. But I would want to ask another simple question. How many people are working here within the umbrella here at the BioCentury Research Farm? And roughly, I know part of what you do is act as an intersecting point for research with people from all different universities and elsewhere. Give us a little sense of both those things.
LJ: First of all, at Iowa State University we have probably 150 faculty who are working in various aspects of this biofuels sector. We’re also connected to faculty in universities outside the state. We’re developing joint projects.
JM: Can you give us a sense of where you are in the pecking order. It's like a bit of an odd question maybe, but it’s – give us a sense of – you know, are you up there as a sort of leaders, really ahead of the curve or part of a big pack around different states or around the globe all in a similar position? Where is BioCentury Farm?
LJ: I think we are the leader when it comes to putting the pieces together and having the big picture in mind. Now other universities and others institution they have good pieces, but nowhere else are they trying to bring all the pieces together, that's what's unique. Iowa is really doing a masterful job in putting those pieces together. I think we’re at the forefront.
JM: Well, that’s really great to hear and one of the reasons we thought we'd take a little drive up the road here on a sunny day and we hope to actually do a little bit of a walking tour in just a moment with the Director of BioCentury Research Farm, Larry Johnson as part of the Dream Green series here on solar-powered KRUU-FM. I'm wondering as we wrap up here in the sit-down phase of our talk, anything that we haven't covered that you’d like to bring up?
LJ: Yeah, there is another issue. A lot of folks particularly on the East and West coast criticize the biofuels industry that it’s not the silver bullet that's going to solve all the energy problems and they are correct. We in the Midwest never portrayed biofuels to totally replace all our petroleum needs. What many of us believe is that biofuels could provide about 30% of today's motor fuel needs. That will make a huge impact.
Now the other issue is, at the same time while we are increasing the supply side, we need to think about reducing our need and demand. So far we haven't talked about conservation but all of us realize we do need to consume less and we believe that biofuels can certainly pick up a very significant piece, but it's not going to replace everything. I tell people there is no silver bullet to our energy problems. It’s going to be a mixture of many different sources.
JM: What about the CO2 equation, in the sense when you put it all together, compared to petroleum, say, how does it compare?
LJ: Well, we would like to think of biofuels as carbon neutral and that’s because the plant takes the carbon dioxide out of the air to make the material. We use the material then as fuel. So that is a complete cycle. So we - that's why we come up with the term carbon neutral. Now petroleum, you are mining what was produced thousands of years ago, and that is something that we believe is very significant advantage to biofuels.
JM: One of the concerns that is raised is that, because of the change of land use--I was reading the other day, actually, I’ll give you example--of a British company going to Africa and buying up large tracts of arable land in order to produce biofuels. So in other words, they're creating a new kind of cash crop there for export. Now that's some of people's source of objection, that in a time when there is a crunch on commodities, and one of the commodities is the food equation in a growing world with an increasing population, and a population that’s also aspiring to, you know, go up the food chain, in terms of what they consume--their concern is that this will lead to a lot of investment in land and change of use of land in order to produce biofuels and that creates a new kind of dynamic which is a problem.
LJ: Well, it’s a problem for some and not a problem for others. If you were living in a developing country and now you had an opportunity to produce fuels, you now have a source of income that can improve your lifestyle. I would say that's a benefit. I’m not certain how much is actually the land use is changing and who's going to benefit or be disadvantaged by that.
ST: How it will play out, obviously, remains to be seen. The dynamics for a less developed country is different from a developed country. in terms of numbers also. A small increase in food prices for a developed country doesn’t have the same impact as it does, obviously, for a less developed country and that’s been some of the stories of late, where some of the increases for a percentage of what a poor person spends is quite considerable. I find it very interesting you saying about the new wave of investment from the state level. Perhaps you’d like to comment on that further because, how important is that?
LJ: Funding is always critically important. Faculty can't do research unless it's funded. And certainly the Department of Energy at the federal level has increased funding in this area. Iowa State's been very successful in getting that. There's also been state-support through the Iowa Power Fund which we hope will continue. We see that as extremely important and valuable into fostering this industry in the state. And during this discussion, you’ve raised some of the downside issues. I don’t mean to portray that they aren’t there. We need to recognize them. We need to learn to deal with them. Most of them are indeed solvable, but we need to make the investment and find a solution.
JM: Well, I just want to say, too, when I hear you say, Larry Johnson, about "no silver bullet, one solution for everything," I think if you look out and see how nature works, anytime there's only one thing growing in a place, there's trouble ahead. And so I think we look at the prairie and other places, if something goes down there is other things to stand up. I also think, I mean, the sustainable approach is not putting all your eggs in one basket. So the fact that it can spread around, be a source of learning, how to process from one to the other, and find something else that works, I love what you talked about using the model--the positive model--of what the oil industry has done in terms of, you know, going for the cheapest input and making the best output. I mean, that’s just good basic business. So it's great to have a place like this, in the throes of creating a hub and kind of, I’ll say, kaleidoscopic just because I like that word--I don't think there's anything kaleidoscopic about it--but a place where people can rotate through, contribute and, whether it's an entrepreneur starting or whether it's an established corporation coming and partnering, I think that's all on the plus side. So thank you very much for sitting down with us and we are looking forward to a bit of a walking tour here if you have the feet for it.
LJ: Yeah, I would enjoy to take you on a walking tour.
JM: Thanks very much.
LJ: First of all, let’s go over to what we call our plant zoo. It’s a botanical garden of different kinds of plants that can be grown for feedstock for biorefinery.
JM: Perfect. Well, we’ll head over. I’m going to pull my hat out of the way. We're getting so windy here. Oops, I think we are going to turn it off for a minute and get over to the zoo. Sounds like my kind of place. We’ll be back in just a moment.
LJ: Okay, this is our plant zoo. One of our start off points that we like to do is to show the visitor the different kinds of materials that could be used and that we're doing research on. So you'll see there's corn and there's soybeans here, but there's also a little field there that’s currently been mowed or harvested but that was switch grass there, that maybe some of our folks have heard about. They may have also heard about a crop called miscanthus. Miscanthus is a grass that would grow 12, 15 feet tall in one growing season. And if you look down here--get in the wind just briefly--you can see it down there.
JM: Oh yeah.
LJ: Almost looks like corn at tassling. Then there's different kinds of prairie grasses here. And where we're standing right now are some trees. We’ve got aspen in here and cottonwood. Those are the two we have here. There is also a fast-growing poplar, is another potential feedstock, We're just trying to show the different kinds of feedstocks that are possible.
JM: All right and I don’t see any algae wranglers out here. Is that some - that's something we didn’t talk about. Is that anywhere in the scope?
LJ: Right, we didn’t talk about algae. Iowa State University is doing some research on algae. Department of Energy is very enthusiastic about algae production. There's a lot of challenges to algae that - I don't see it as having an immediate impact. How you can harvest this? You need a lot of water. How do you keep a consistent culture going? There is biological and major engineering issues around algae use.
JM: Well, here we are. We're walking in. Aw yeah, we're decidedly space-aged here guys. We're into the – another universe. We lost Stuart. He is gone ahead and is taking pictures. But hi-tech. We have entered some mechanical heaven here. Give us a breakdown here. Wow.
LJ: Right. And I’m sorry you’ve got some background noise but we're actually doing a fermentation right now. We're in a biomass conversion facility where we have this prototype biorefinery. You are right now in a fermentation train, that we call it. We're actually doing a fermentation on a new corn process. In this case, we are trying to take the embryo out of the corn before we ferment it, because that’s where the oil is--the corn oil. And so that would go for food instead of ending up in a feed product. This is another example of a food versus fuel issue, that we can get more food products out with development of new processes.
JM: Why don’t you just give us a quick explanation of what we are looking at here for our listeners. It looks like something out of an old I Love Lucy except decidedly hi-tech. I don’t mean any disrespect by that, but wires coming off of it in every which way and we see the pipes and high pressure steam out of this and all that, obviously this has been – this has taken some laying out. Give us a little bit of a sketch here.
LJ: Sure. What we're looking at is a fermenter. A fermenter is nothing more than a big tank with a mixer on it to control the temperature. So we first must convert the material into sugars--we can do that typically with enzymes and heat--and then we put in the yeast and the yeast ferments then the corn into what we call a beer, just like our drinking beer that Coors might manufacture. Then that beer gets distilled, the ethanol comes off. We end up, everything that’s left, the rest of the goodies, which is mostly protein and fat and fiber, is called whole stillage.
We then centrifuge it, and you’re also standing in front of a centrifuge. We centrifuge that whole stillage into a wet cake, which is mostly the solids, and then a thin stillage. The thin stillage gets evaporated to a syrup and put back on to the cake and that is our Distillers Dried Grains with Solubles. One of the issues around Distillers Dried Grains with Solubles is it’s only – it’s largely suitable for ruminants, and we can't get very high amounts in poultry, swine and fish feeds, which are higher valued markets. So we're doing a lot of research that will hopefully produce feed products that can get into a higher valued market.
JM: Stuart, you had a question?
ST: Yeah, I wanted to ask, maybe you could give us your vision of the future. Where do you think we’ll be five years, 10 years, 20 years in terms of biofuels? What’s the vision?
LJ: Well, okay, let’s start today. Today we have grain-based ethanol; what I would call a first generation. We also have biodiesel that’s largely mature. I see in the next five years a lot of advances made to reduce energy, water and increase the yield and speed of fermentation on grain-based ethanol. Out about five years, I expect to see the first plants come in place around cellulosic ethanol. They will be again first generation ones. They’ll need to be perfected. That will probably take another five to 10 years and then the industry on cellulosic ethanol will take off quite rapidly. There may also be new fuels. Those may come into play probably five, eight years out.
ST: How much of the Iowa economy is going to be dedicated to this? You know, how much of an impact is it going to have?
LJ: We could be the Saudi Arabia of biofuels production here in Iowa.
JM: Nice. We were talking with Monica Stone. She wanted to be the Texas of wind.
LJ: What’s in this facility right now, you are looking at, on the righthand side, a fast pyrolysis unit. And let’s remind our listener, what we're talking about is heat and no oxygen. And we can convert then corn stover, trees, grasses into a liquid oil, that you will soon see is very much like crude petroleum and a bio char. Now we envision the bio char going back onto the land to help sustainability. That’s one comment that I should have made before. We do not want to create a new unsustainable industry to replace a petroleum unsustainable industry. So everything we're doing is looking at sustainability issues. And the one aspect of this is, this bio char would go back onto the land. And if you think about Iowa soils, they were produced through prarrie fires--that’s what made these so fertile. Well, in a sense, we're taking a char and putting it back on the land. We're sort of using Mother Nature’s approach to both sequester carbon and improve the fertility of the soil.
Okay, now, in this display case, I wanted to show these products. These are different oil samples and you can see some are very viscous, don’t flow well, to some that flow very easily, or almost like water. This may have one application; this may have another one. This one, the more viscous one, we are testing as a replacement for asphalt. So just like the petroleum industry we can make an asphalt. This has been - actually is being tested in Des Moines at a - on a bike trail to determine its wearability as a bioasphalt.
JM: Wow, this has been amazing. Stuart, any final thoughts?
ST: Yeah, it’s fantastic. It’s really fascinating. It’s really given us a fantastic overview of biomass and have a chance to have a good look at all sides of the equation and to see how advanced things are in the state of Iowa with the great work of the Iowa State University, and other universities and private companies, joining in. It is like watching the emergence of a new industry in its early years, but actually seeming to pick up speed in terms of its advancement.
JM: We are heading out on this walking tour back to the facility and have really enjoyed learning all about this true brain center. I guess we could say, brain center for the heartland. The Dream Green series with our special focus today on the BioCentury Research Farm with Larry Johnson and you can check in and join us on our journey of discovery across this great state of Iowa at greeniowa.org.
JM: That was "At Home In The Middle Of Nowhere." Kind of apt for many of us who live in Iowa. A group called Sage. Tim Britton on uillean pipes there, very famous, well-known Celtic piper who travels the world and is located in Fairfield. Daniel Sperry on cello. Also, Robert Reader vocals, and wow, how about that? Part of the Dream Green series in there singing as well. A group from a few years back: Sage. "At Home In The Middle Of Nowhere." Hope you enjoyed that.
And we want to do a little bit of a bowtie to wrap up our great and very interesting visit at the BioCentury Research Farm. Quite an interesting and very articulate, passionate director, Larry Johnson. And really interesting to see some of that--well, what looked like fancy stills to me--but really hi-tech machinery doing kind of some simple things: fermentation, heat applied to these different types of biomass possibilities. And we heard all about what Larry Johnson thought might work in the future. I really enjoyed that. Any final thoughts on this subject, Stuart?
ST: Yeah, he helped clarify a number of points to me and I think, what I liked about it, was the comparison with an oil refinery where you're trying to find lots of different types of feedstock that might work at different times of the year, go into the system and come out with all sorts of beneficial products--as indeed you do with an oil refinery. It doesn’t only make petroleum. There are other high-end products that come out of the oil refinery. That's something that wind's not going to give you, if you think about it. What does wind give you? It gives you electricity, but it doesn’t give you other products as a result. I mean, obviously, you can do some things with that electricity that might help to generate other green products. But the model of the oil refinery is a very interesting one, where you are trying to produce this whole range of things that are beneficial.
JM: Well, speaking of beneficial things, Stuart--and great points made as always--I do want to say, as an aside here, it's just always a joy and a delight to be working with you. From the very first time we started doing a show, when you dropped by and were generous enough to talk about your experiences from visiting around the world and talking about different subjects, it has been a delight for me personally. But to have such a wonderfully focused series that we’re pursuing across the state. There's something--I don’t know about you--but there's something going from corner to corner to corner of the state learning about a place like Dubuque, which will be coming up very soon and the amazing work that's going on there: Mayor Roy Buol, also the sustainability coordinator Cori Burbach, the amazing things. Dubuque, the first city in Iowa, but also doing some groundbreaking energy efficiency and sustainability. Very deep approaches with city public-private partnership and so that’s something very soon on the horizon that you'll want to stay tuned for part of this series. Also, we are going to be taking, if you will, a step further into the biomass conversion, energy conversion world at the BECON facility, a beacon of light and their Director, Norm Olson taking the type of work going on at the BioCentury Research Farm in another level up with the machinery and some very interesting perspectives there. Also, we are going to be very soon doing a spotlight on some of the amazing stuff going on in Fairfield with the Sustainable Living Center--an amazing, amazing building there. What else do we have?
ST: We're going to take a visit up to Ames again and seems to be a lot of things that take us up that way. The Spam Museum definitely not being one of them, I have to say. But there is Solar Power, Inc., which is developing a very thin film solar panel which we’re going to look at. That’s sounds very interesting work. There's a wind research lab at ISU. There's a number of things further on up the state on our side. Other communities like Davenport that are bringing sustainable policies online there. They are going to show us quite a few things that they are doing; another walking tour around the city and we are very much looking forward to that. So great things coming up.
And then we will do some, you know, deep investigations of things like policy. Obviously, at another level, these initiatives are affected by, supported by, the policy at a state level. And, you know, there are different political parties involved in that process, different thinkers is involved in that process and ideas about the way we should go. So policy is a very important area and we’ll be getting some very good people in to talk about that later.
JM: And of course just want to remind you, next week on the Dream Green series a very, very special program focusing on the great work of the Leopold Center. We will be speaking with Fred Kirschenmann, who is an amazing thinker and someone who has been involved from pillar to post…
ST: Yeah, and he is a farmer, philosopher, scientist, writer, great leader of the Leopold Agriculture Center. We are extremely excited about talking to him, getting their perspective. And also finding out about the very valuable research that is going on at the Leopold Center and their associated projects which are all to do with developing sustainable agriculture. Obviously, agriculture is a big part of the economy in Iowa.
JM: I found that interesting, Stuart, because the Hort Farm--now there for a long time at ISU--but a class, we’ll talk with some students, as well. Kind of another focus in there, where we’re talking different than, you know, the traditional mainstream agriculture. Of course, that’s the preponderance but some other ideas seeping in. So the Hort Farm, that is a pretty interesting--the horticulture farm--that you’ll want to tune into for next week. And there's a third component as well.
ST: Yes, we had a talk with Matt Helmers who is one of the key researchers looking into different crops. Some of which will be good for biomass and some of the research is about crop rotation on fields, which will be better for water retention, better for improving the quality of the soil and keeping the quality of the soil which is obviously very important going forward for agriculture. So that’s another interesting gem for that program.
JM: We'll be visiting some prairie grass biomass and--just stick around. Thanks for listening. greeniowa.org. Also, right here on solar-powered KRUU-FM. I feel very privileged to be going around the state meeting the top innovators and leaders in sustainability. And also, joining our team, we have Donna Schill, with her masters degree in journalism, contributing now. Actually came along on some of the visits. So we're really delighted, that. She is going to be helping with outreach, very important public awareness component. And also, Tanell Pretorius, who hails from South Africa via London; worked at a top magazine in London for many years, is now going to school at MUM working with Media and Communications Department, very able and capable.
And of course, Mo Ellis, who has been with us from the very beginning creating an incredible pathway for us to do this very complicated scheduling. We are seeing a lot of people traveling all over the state. So we're having fun and hope you are. Remember greeniowa.org. Check it out, blogs, pictures and more. These programs are downloadable. We’re getting the transcripts up as we go. Hey, if you want to volunteer on that level, we sure would appreciate it. So come back, we'll see you next week right here with a very special show on the Leopold Center on Dream Green. And we'll be back next week, same time, same station.
[Produced by Stuart Tanner and James Moore at solar-powered KRUU 100.1 FM in Fairfield, Iowa. Online at kruufm.com. This series is funded in part by a grant from the Iowa Office of Energy Independence, a nearly 70 individuals, companies and organizations. For a list of sponsors, visit our website at greeniowa.org. Archives available for download under a Creative Commons license. Music from Zilla and Sage.]