Biofueling the future: MSU researchers guide an emerging market under evolutionary pressure

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Project partners Satish Joshi, Steve Yanni, Scott Loveridge and Brent Ross inspect future switch grass field test plot.  (view larger image)

Three Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch scientists are partnering with Bay Mills Community College (BMCC) and Ohio State University (OSU) to equip biofuel industry leaders with tools to navigate an evolving field riddled with seemingly unobtainable benchmarks while making community-conscious decisions along the way.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) mandates that each year, an increased volume of biofuels are blended with gasoline and diesel fuels. By 2022, industry leaders must meet a cellulosic biofuel blending mark of 16 billion gallons – a figure that is more than 1,000 times greater than the 2013 requirement. This increase leaves many wondering how the mandate will be met.

One thing is certain: additional biorefineries, facilities where biomass is converted to fuels, are needed to meet the increased requirements. Researchers are examining the feasibility of biorefinery systems as part of a project titled “Decision Support Systems for Regional Planning and Impact Assessment of Biorefineries,” which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). 

“Scaling up the advanced biofuel sector poses major economic and logistical challenges for regional planners and biofuel entrepreneurs,” explained Satish Joshi, MSU associate professor of agricultural, food and resource economics and principal investigator of the project. “This is a new industry that is still developing; we want to create support tools that help industry leaders address cellulosic ethanol issues.”

Joshi – along with co-leaders Scott Loveridge, director of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development and MSU professor of agricultural, food and resource economics, and Brent Ross, MSU assistant professor of agricultural, food and resource economics – is taking a holistic approach to understanding the challenges of establishing biorefineries to meet the EISA mandate. Joined by Stephen Yanni of BMCC and Subbu Kumarappan of OSU, the team is assessing factors that affect feedstock supply assurance, supply chain development and the industry’s socioeconomic and environmental impacts.

Specifically, the researchers plan to accomplish the following:

  • Conduct survey research regarding biorefinery site selection and community acceptance
  • Assess the impact of biorefineries on small-scale and tribal crop producers
  • Develop a biomass harvest-shed design tool
  • Develop an alternative feedstock supply chain configuration evaluation tool
  • Conduct contract design research aimed at developing governance mechanisms to best coordinate supply 
  • Develop an agent-based model to predict the evolution of the harvest shed

Joshi said that there are a series of questions decision-makers would most likely ask, starting with how residents feel about having biorefineries built in their towns or on tribal lands.   

“We partnered with the MSU Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and added a few questions to their quarterly State of the State Survey to gauge community acceptability,” Loveridge explained. “The basic results are very positive: 70 percent of Michiganians would be in favor of having a biorefinery in their community.   

“Next, we’ll analyze communities where the acceptability ratio is high and where it’s low; when people are thinking about where to build refineries, they’ll know which areas will welcome the jobs and activity.”  

“Bay Mills Community College is interested in helping Michigan tribal nations and their neighbors identify ways to use their land resources as an alternative source of income,” added Yanni, BMCC Land Grant Director, who is coordinating research in this area.

We’ve been intentional about engaging the public in this project,” Ross explained. “We’re holding a series of focus groups that have attracted a good number of growers in the Upper Peninsula, and we’ve seen a strong interest from that community in pursuing energy crops as an opportunity to create wealth on their properties.”

Ross explained that the focus groups are intended to help the researchers identify the criteria producers use when deciding if they will add these crops to their farm portfolios.  

He added that he and his colleagues are also interested in understanding how biorefinery systems evolve under the pressures of many individuals making unique decisions within the same system. They plan to use that data in agent-based models to predict how the industry will evolve over time. 

We’re also gathering information that will help to reduce risk for producers and biorefinery owners,” he explained.

Cellulosic biofuels are derived from wood, grasses and other non-food crops – crops associated with greater risk because there are fewer market options for them. Growers will not plant cellulosic non-food crops unless they are confident they have a buyer, Joshi noted.

“We’re realizing the importance of alternative markets,” Loveridge said.

Joshi described the relationship between the grower and the biorefinery, pointing out that while it can be symbiotic, producers are more likely to grow energy crops if there is more than one viable market. The researchers hope to gain a better understanding of alternative markets and their viability.   

Hopefully, if the project is feasible, it will lead to jobs, it will strengthen the local economy in the rural areas and it may also strengthen Michigan’s automobile industry by creating jobs throughout that sector,” Loveridge explained. “It will make us less dependent on imported fuels and hopefully reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”  

We are all concerned about global warming,” Joshi concluded. “Cellulosic biofuels such as butanol have a much lower environmental impact and better energy characteristics than corn ethanol. This is an ambitious project for the budget we have, but the information garnered will be important to this industry.”   

MSU AgBioResearch engages in innovative, leading-edge research that combines scientific expertise with practical experience to generate economic prosperity, sustain natural resources, and enhance the quality of life in Michigan, the nation and the world. It encompasses the work of more than 300 scientists in six MSU colleges – Agriculture and Natural Resources, Communication Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Natural Science, Social Science and Veterinary Medicine – and has a network of 13 research centers across the state.

Photo: Project partners Satish Joshi (MSU), Steve Yanni (BMCC), Scott Loveridge (MSU) and Brent Ross (MSU) inspect future switch grass field test plot on the Bay Mills campus. Not pictured; Subbu Kumarappan (OSU, Wooster Campus).

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