Beeting' a Path to Advanced Biofuels

A three-way partnership in North Dakota aims to utilize one of the state's top crops for the development of sugar beet-to-biofuel plants in five regions.
By Anna Austin | February 09, 2010
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The brisk air that seeps into North Dakota in the fall is a precursor to what is usually a long, snowy winter. For many it also indicates time to begin an event comparable to a modern-day gold rushsugar beet harvest.

In roughly one month's time, North Dakota growers harvest close to 5 million tons of sugar beets. North Dakota and Minnesota combined produce about 55 percent of the nation's sugar beets every year. With the exception of a few northern counties, beets are grown throughout the Red River Valley and along the Minnesota River in west central Minnesota. Researchers at North Dakota State University in Fargo are aiming to change that as part of a much larger projectone that they hope will result in a statewide sugar beet-to-biofuel industry.

NDSU has teamed up with Green Vision Group Inc., a Fargo-based company that has been studying sugar-based fuel production in North Dakota since 2008, and Muscatine, Iowa-based Heartland Renewable Energy LLC, which has developed a process to recycle waste materials from ethanol production to produce heat and power at the plant site.

Having spent 2009 doing initial economic feasibility studies and laboratory testing, lead researcher Cole Gustafson, a biofuels economist at NDSU, says the long-term goal of the project is to build ethanol plants across North Dakota, facilitating sugar beet production in new areas and helping to meet the advanced biofuel portion of the second stage of the renewable fuel standard (RFS2).

Sweet Ambition
"Our long-term goal is to have five differing ethanol production regions in the state, each of which would host a 20 MMgy plant," Gustafson says. "We would develop sugar beet production in those areas, as many of the regions we're looking at don't have sugar beets being produced right now." Counties identified as suitable plant locations include Williams, McHenry, Kidder, Ransom and Grand Forkscounties that span the state.

Initially, a higher proportion of molasses purchased from existing beet processing plants and railed in would be used to make ethanol at the new plants, until an adequate and steady supply of locally grown sugar beets is secured. "As farmers begin to increase production of beets, we'd be able to focus on local sources for the plant," Gustafson says. The project organizers are still working out the details, but are optimistic about garnering farmer interest in growing beets. Production will be contracted using a more flexible structure than the one most of the region's beet processors currently use, according to Gustafson.

The groups are looking at existing process technologies. "There are significant sugar beet-to-biofuel industries in Europe as well as in Brazil," Gustafson points out. "We're looking at the Brazilian technologies as most adaptable to this region, but we'd certainly augment it for this patented process of Heartland Renewable Energy's to utilize spray-dried yeast. With this, we feel there's a technology edge that we'd have in the marketplace, using sugar beets."

Heartland Renewable Energy has invented a process to utilize waste stillage for heat and power in an ethanol plant. The stillage is first spray dried to increase its Btu output when combusted in a biomass boiler. The flue gas is then used to generate high pressure steam after which the cooled gas is recycled to the spray dryer as its heat source. The high-pressure steam powers a turbine producing electricity and lower pressure steam, both of which are used in the ethanol process. Ash remaining after combustion may be used as a fertilizer. The developers estimate the stillage recycling process will provide 75 percent of each plant's thermal energy needs, drastically reducing the amount of fossil fuel used compared to a typical ethanol plant.

Green Vision
NDSU is also working in partnership with Green Vision Group, which was organized in 2008 by four partners who had worked together in developing a french fry plant at Jamestown, N.D. Green Vision's President Maynard Helgaas says all partners have extensive backgrounds in management, marketing, finance and development. "I called the group together after reading Energy Victory' by Robert Zubrin," Helgaas tells EPM. "He was well-versed in Europe's efforts in becoming energy independent, and believed sugar crops, cane and beets, were the most adaptable crops as feedstocks and butanol was the future advanced biofuel."

Helgaas says the group decided to study alternative transportation fuels and agreed there is a great future for sugar-based fuel processing in North Dakota. "We became aware of Heartland Renewable Energy, which was working on a sugar beet-to-ethanol project, and held a joint meeting at which we agreed to work as partners with the intent to form a new company once we had completed successful feasibility studies by BBI International and NDSU."

Helgaas says the groups want to complete commercial-scale tests on a processing concept and in early December were in the process of securing funding to conduct the tests. "Once we have completed that, and the concept works on a commercial scale, we will begin promoting the project to growers, communities and investors," he says.

The advantages to using sugar beets are abundant, Helgaas points out. Transportation, storage and processing costs of sugar beets in the region will be low, due to close proximity to the resource, the cool climate and pre-existing sugar beet processing infrastructure. Sugar beets possess very high sugar content, and can therefore double ethanol production per acre compared to corn. They're also low in nitrogen, a large contributor to greenhouse gases, he adds.

"Probably the most important reason we're looking at sugar beets as a feedstock is that under EISA 2007 (the Energy Independence and Security Act), they define three different classes of biofuels, and a lot of people are focusing on traditional corn ethanol and cellulosic fuels using switchgrass, tree pulp and other things. Not many are looking at the advanced biofuel category," Gustafson adds. The RFS requires 15 billion gallons per year of advanced biofuels by 2022.

"What we're seeing is, the only type of feedstocks that fit in that category are sugar-based feedstocks such as sugar beets and sugarcane," he says. "We haven't looked at sweet sorghum because we don't grow that up here, but that's a possibility, too."

Feasibility and the Future
An ethanol plant feasibility study performed by BBI International indicated a 20 MMgy sugar beet-to-ethanol plant in North Dakota would require about 1,511 tons of sugar beets and 220 tons of beet molasses on a daily basis for approximately 333 days, based on the assumption that 70 percent of ethanol is produced from sugar beets and 30 percent from beet molasses.

Total investment costs of each plant from engineering to start-up would top out at about $43 million, with feedstock accounting for about 75 percent of total operating expenses. Average annual ethanol sales could generate about $28 million, but a small amount of increase or decrease in the price of ethanol could have a large positive or negative impact on profitability; plant profitability would be mildly sensitive to feedstock price changes.

Even with North Dakota being one of the states least affected by the current economic recession, money for new project is not readily available. "There are two wrinkles holding us up," Gustafson admits. "Everyone is struggling to find investment capital (for projects), and we're in that boat as well. We want to further test the spray-dried yeast process. We've had great success in the laboratory, but now we're looking for commercial-scale demonstration."

Helgaas says once testing is completed, the groups will begin promoting the project to growers, communities and investors. A project timeline has slated 2011 for the construction of a demonstration-scale plant, and 2012 for the first commercial plant. After the group has established plants in North Dakota, it would like to expand to Iowa. "Sugar beets for sugar are extensively grown in North Dakota and a number of years ago, Iowa also grew significant acres of sugar beets," Helgaas says. "With the plant breeding, farming practices and new energy processing possibilities available today, we're very excited about the success of utilizing energy beets as a feedstock for biofuels." EP

Anna Austin is an associate editor at BBI International. Reach her at (701) 738-4968 or aaustin@bbiinternational.com.