ST. GABRIEL, La. – Through the work of LSU AgCenter's Sustainable Bioproducts Initiative (SUBI), biofuels and other products could offer unique, economically beneficial opportunities for Louisiana's agriculture industry.
SUBI launched in 2011 to explore production of biomass for cost-effective conversion to bioproducts using the Louisiana chemical and sugar industries' existing refinery infrastructure. It is funded by a five-year $17.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The grant is part of a larger USDA effort that funds five multi-faceted research projects with hopes of jumpstarting industries that use regional feedstocks to produce alternative fuels.
The goal of the AgCenter initiative is to expand the agricultural sector by incorporating energycane and sweet sorghum, which can be used to make biofuels and biochemicals, said Donal Day, SUBI project director and professor at the Audubon Sugar Institute.
The initiative is bringing together researchers from Southern University, the University of Kentucky, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Arkansas at Monticello and Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service to examine various aspects of bioproduction, from economics and transportation to crop yields and environmental impacts.
The success of bioproducts largely depends on economics, Day said.
"Nobody's going to do anything until they decide that it's worth the investment," Day said. "We are essentially setting the stage so that investors can look at it and say, ‘OK, this is worth doing — here's some real numbers, not lab numbers. This is what can be made out of it; this is what it's going to cost; this is how we'll do it.’"
A cornerstone of the grant project is a pilot plant that processes feedstocks grown at the AgCenter Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel and coverts them into syrup that is shipped to industry partners for testing with their processes.
A mill breaks up plant cells to extract juice that is clarified to remove mud, then boiled under vacuum to make syrup. Boiling concentrates solid sugars in the syrup from about 12 percent to 65 percent, Day said.
The leftover plant material, called lignocellulose, can be chemically treated and placed in water with enzymes to make a solution that can be used as feedstock juice and boiled into syrup. The lignocellulose also can be burned for steam to power the plant. While the pilot plant performs both processes, local economics will dictate which option is best in the real world, Day said.
Another leftover product from processing is aconitic acid, which is extracted during clarification. The acid can be used to make high-value biodegradable plastics. One potential application is medical scaffolding, Day said, which is used to reconstruct body parts. The plastic scaffolding allows cells to grow in a certain shape and then disintegrates, leaving behind the reconstructed cells.
These high-value applications could represent a viable avenue for biomass usage.
The key to success probably does not lie in products like ethanol, which is a "first-generation biofuel because it costs more to produce than gasoline," said LSU AgCenter Vice Chancellor John Russin. Rather, it is important to focus on biobased specialty chemicals that appeal to niche markets — "not something that sells for $4 a gallon, but $500 for five grams," he said.
Russin said partnerships like those the AgCenter has with commercial companies Virent, DuPont and Optinol are beneficial. For bioproduction to be economically feasible, it is important to make sure what is produced in Louisiana is effective for processes used by these companies, which make products such as jet fuel, isoprene plastics and butanol.
"We're figuring out what you can make effectively from the feedstock and identifying the market for that so you can price it well and make a profit," he said.
Russin pointed out that Louisiana has the advantage of an established sugarcane industry as well as infrastructure for harvesting, transporting, handling and storing the products.
But because bioprocessing plants are still a new phenomenon, few people are trained to work in them, Day said.
The initiative includes a training program that helps ensure the Southeast's emerging bioproduction industry will have access to skilled plant workers. The pilot plant also serves as a teaching tool for chemical engineering students at LSU and Southern University.
For any of this to happen, however, farmers must be able to sustainably make money by growing feedstocks. Outreach to farmers through extension is another important component because "they will be the deciders of if this happens or not," Day said.
Unlike sugarcane, which is only grown south of I-10 in Louisiana, energycane has a lower sugar content that allows it to withstand colder temperatures. That means it can safely be grown farther north, which potentially offers new economic opportunities for farmers in north Louisiana.
"These crops are not going to be grown in the sugarcane region of Louisiana," Day said. "These will be in areas where they're not making much money on the land with what they're doing now."
To help make growing feedstocks economically feasible, researchers with the initiative are studying how to produce the crops with low inputs of fertilizers, for example. They are also developing new varieties of energycane that are suitable for bioproduction, which is a 12-to-15-year process.