Biomass/Biofuel Corridor along the Mississippi/Missouri River
Researchers have long known that the fertile land of Missouri and the Midwest have the capacity to be powerhouses for biofuel production. What has remained elusive is a way to grow the biomass needed to make biofuel without encroaching on land dedicated to food crops, and how to transport and refine the biomass profitably. Big energy challenges like these require big ideas and even bigger collaborations— and Mizzou’ Advantage researcher Shibu Jose has both.
Jose, director of the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri, is the leader of the Mississippi/Missouri River Advanced Biomass/Biofuel Consortium, a team of more than 40 academic institutions and agricultural and energy companies working to turn the Missouri and Mississippi rivers into a “biomass corridor” that will provide clean energy for the U.S. and economic opportunity for Missouri.
Mizzou Advantage is proud to be a sponsor of Jose’s preliminary research into biomass plantations, as well as a continuing partner in pursuing grants and other opportunities to apply the research to real-world problems in the Midwest and beyond.
The cycle begins with cultivating the marginal land along the rivers, where traditional food crops fail but native biomass crops like cottenwood and miscanthus flourish. MU’s extensive research in biomass crop performance allows the plant selection to be tailored to each site. Because the plants grow close to the river, the material can be transported by barge to refineries — which are also built along the river — at a fraction of the price of trucking it. An affordable way to transport energy crops is essential to making biomass production feasible for growers.
“In the past, we used to do all of these things for the sake of conservation, now we are also telling land owners you can still get that conservation benefit with a crop you can sell; it’s a market-based approach to conservation,” Jose said.
Jose says recently completed preliminary research shows that America’s two great rivers can support an effort to economically take biofuels from plants harvested in waste ground to finished biofuel pumped into fuel tanks. The organization’s next step is to find funding to build a prototype bio-processing facility that will create the first gallon.
If implemented, the plan could create about two-thirds of the 21 billion gallons of biofuels called for in federal goals by 2022, he says.
Jose said the preliminary research shows there are about 116 million acres of marginal land near these rivers that is unsuitable for traditional crops because of flooding, erosion and poor soil. This method of production is environmentally friendly, Jose said. Many of these plants require little to no fertilizer. Most are soil stabilizing plants, holding the soil in place.
Jose estimated that planting biomass crops on six million acres – just five percent of the marginal land available around the rivers – would produce enough raw material to be converted into seven billion gallons of biofuel.
Developing a Plan: the MRABC
It is economically difficult now to transport huge quantities of low-energy plant material from the fields to refineries, Jose pointed out. That is where the rivers provide the solution, again. River barge traffic already economically moves bulk sand, cement, asphalt, fertilizer and grain.
The MRABC plan would see the creation of regional biofuel processing and refining plants along the river. Jose imagines facilities near harvest sites will process the biomass into easier-to-ship pellets or liquid fuel. Such energy-dense products could be economically shipped via truck throughout the U.S. or through the Port of New Orleans for export.
Marketing the plan to investors and grant-makers
Planting on marginal lands and utilizing existing barge infrastructures are the easy parts of the plan. Jose said the MRABC consortium needs $10 million in grants per year for the next five years to construct an experimental bio-refinery for demonstration and testing. To reach this goal, Jose and his team are working with the Mizzou Advantage grant writer to pursue funding opportunities with USDA and other federal grant-making institutions.
This next step gives Jose – as well as the powerful network of universities, biomass producers and biomass consumers he has built – the opportunity to turn research into real-world application and will poise MU to be a leader in biomass innovation.