From Pi Day to Biogas

My first post for Biotech in Wisconsin was scheduled for the week of March 11, which as many scientists know includes Pi Day. As we were exchanging ideas about a potential topic, I got an email from Laura Strong, who runs a cancer drug development company in Madison and created this blog, that said:

“I was thinking of something “fun” for Pi Day (March 14) like a pie contest, which got me thinking about cow pies. Cow pies led to a recollection that manure is being converted to energy – a sort of biotech mix of ag and energy…”

In case you aren’t familiar with Cow Pies, they are a candy made of pecans covered in caramel and chocolate. So there you have it – from the transcendental π to delicious desserts to actual cow poop to renewable energy!CowPie

 

Some initial searching on the topic of biogas revealed two data-rich documents, both relevant and informative. They serve as the sources for this basic background on where the state of Wisconsin stands on the concept of harvesting animal and plant waste to produce renewable fuel.

 

But first a quick explanation for those in the dark (like myself) on what exactly is meant by biogas. Biogas is produced from biomass, which can be thought of as animal and plant waste. As a renewable energy source biomass can be used directly or converted to a biofuel in any of three ways – thermal conversion, chemical conversion or biochemical conversion. Think of humans burning wood to make fire to produce heat. That is one of the most basic examples of how we use a biomass source to make energy.

 

Biogas is a gas that is produced by the breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen – the biologists in the crowd recognize this as anaerobic digestion or fermentation. Typical sources of such biodegradable materials include manure, sewage, municipal waste, plant materials and crops; in other words, biomass. Biomass that is suitable for biogas production is referred to as “feedstock,” a term that figures prominently in the comprehensive reports and data available on this topic.

 

One such strategic report, Wisconsin Strategic Bioenergy Feedstock Assessment, was published last year by the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative (WBI). The report highlights that Wisconsin has a wide range of biomass, from crops to food and dairy processing facilities to dairy farms. Dairy manure was described as the “lowest hanging fruit” for biomass in Wisconsin. Based on detailed economic modeling, the report suggests that despite a strong forest product industry in WI, use of wood as biomass would impact prices.

 

The lead author of the report and Director of the WBI is Gary Radloff. Radloff is also Director of Midwest Energy Policy Analysis with the Wisconsin Energy Institute and considered an Expert in energy policy. When asked to comment on the role that biogas can play in our state, he had this to say:

“Wisconsin has the opportunity to a be a national leader in biogas energy with its robust dairy sector, large food processing sector, along with local government facilities such as wastewater treatment plants and landfill sites. Yet it may take some additional supportive public policy to push the opportunity to success due to current challenges in the energy economic marketplace today.”

Another influential organization working for more renewable energy is RENEW Wisconsin. RENEW Wisconsin is an independent, nonprofit sustainable energy advocacy organization that leads and represents statewide businesses, and individuals who seek more clean, renewable energy. Don Wichert, the organization’s interim executive director, provided some updated numbers to illustrate just where the state of Wisconsin stands on biogas:

“As of a few years ago we could boast of at least 100 biogas facilities – including over 35 wastewater treatment pants, 10 landfills, 40 animal digesters that use dairy manure and another 10 or so that use food waste.” Interestingly, one of these, at UW-Oshkosh, is the first commercial-scale dry fermentation anaerobic biodigester in the nation, and it provides the campus with five percent of its current energy and heating needs.

In other words, biogas is not new to the state of Wisconsin.Wisconsin Biodigester

 

As Wichert explains, these biogas facilities basically function by taking the waste, converting them to a 50:50 mix of methane and carbon dioxide which is then put that into an engine that turns a generator to produce electricity.

“We have a pretty solid basis for being the national leader in biogas production,” says Wichert. “Already we are very close to having the most in any state, and we could expand the number by a factor of four within the next ten years.” What this will require however, are a “few different policy tweaks.”

The Wisconsin State Energy Office also is involved in furthering the potential of biogas as a renewable energy source and recently published a forward-looking plan in partnership with Baker Tilly. The end result is a report backed up by a set of tools to do an initial evaluation of the viability of biogas projects, specifically in the areas of cheese production and dairy farms. While the economic modeling tool is a bit advanced, the map overlaps feedstocks and existing power/energy infrastructure.

 

Wisconsin seems to be striving to make its mark as a leader in harnessing biomass for renewable energy. With strong interest and resources, perhaps we could tap into the local biotech sector to address some of the quality of biomass concerns and help improve the conversion processes.

 

Wisconsin does have a few of these companies, most notably Virent, which was developed around its BioForming® platform. The novel process is able to accommodate renewable feedstocks required by Virent’s customers and in doing so converts plant-based materials into a wide range of petroleum-free products.