By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Biomass technology promises what few other alternative fuel schemes can: energy created from waste. Given the controversial use of corn (and other food crops) for biofuel, which is turning out to be less of a greenhouse gas saver than once thought, waste is looking pretty attractive.

A new plant in Central Texas, dedicated last week, promises to take sewage waste, organic garbage, grass clippings and manure, and convert them into gasoline.

Initially the plant, designed as a large-scale demonstration project, will use forage sorghum as its base material. Forage sorghum, unlike other varieties grown to produce sorghum seed for food products, does not steal directly from the human food chain. It is used as feed for cattle, but even so, it’s more renewable than corn because about five times more can be grown per acre.

After proving itself using forage sorghum, the biomass plant is expected to begin converting waste into fuel, a process that offers the dual benefits of recycling waste and capturing its energy, while increasing the options for locally produce energy.

At the moment, the distribution chain for delivering sewage and municipal waste is not as evolved as would be needed for a large-scale production; that is, cities aren’t set up to efficiently deliver their solid waste. Delivery cost and sanitation present kinks in the system.

Still, once all the systems are “go” as they say, using waste and garbage for fuel makes a lot more sense that digging more landfills, according to the innovator behind the conversion process.

“Financially, we benefit at both ends. At the front end, we earn money from ‘tipping fees’ for accepting the waste. At the tail end, we earn money from selling the biofuel,” said Dr. Mark Holtzapple, a professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station.

“The environment benefits because we don’t have to dig holes and throw it (garbage) away, which requires that they be monitored forever because there’s always this fear about toxic chemicals leaching away in landfills,” he said. “Another environmental benefit is that biofuels are CO2 neutral because they were derived from plants and not fossil resources.”

Holtzapple developed the pioneering technology that will be used at the plant, built by Terrebon LLC. The process relies on fermenting the organic waste (or sorghum) and was initially inspired by examining the digestive systems of cattle being studied at A & M.

The process differs from others in the pipeline, used at other biofuel development labs, in that it doesn’t rely on adding enzymes to breakdown matter. Instead, it applies “chemistry that’s been known since the 1920s,” Dr Holtzapple explained.

And while it’s not as carbon-friendly at the user end as its cousin ethanol, which burns more cleanly, locally manufactured gasoline, which will be needed for some time to come, has its virtues — creating local jobs and lessening the need for imported oil.

“I’ve been developing this process for about 18 years,” Holtzapple said, adding that biomass conversion became “his life’s work” after seeing the need for better recovery of waste and energy production during the 1970s energy crisis.

The new facility, dedicated Nov. 7, is in Bryan, Texas, about an hour northwest of Houston, and is expected to be online by year’s end. A smaller pilot project was in operation at the A & M campus nearby for about three years.

At the dedication, Terrebon CEO Gary Luce explained that the fuel could be affordably produced and that cities could generate substantial gasoline from their sewage sludge, according to the Environmental News Service.

For example, the from a city of 200,000 could generate 4.5 million gallons of gasoline every year, he said.

The gasoline could be sold for about $1.50 to $2 a gallon, Dr. Holtzapple said, taking into account a 15 percent return on investment and capital costs of the plant, depreciated over 10 years.

That cost also assumes a payback or “tipping fee” from municipalities for processing wastes, something that is already being done in some locations.

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