National BioEnergy Day: Biomass has the potential to take on crude oil

Collecting the unused tree shavings at a sawmill or drilling a hole 5,000 ft in the ground; bundling the stalks left in the field or removing a mountaintop. These are the scenarios we face when trying to amass carbon-based energy sources. But for the past century, we’ve primarily chosen the later options where we do a lot of work upfront to get a product that is already refined by natural processes. Once living biomass that has been pressure cooked for hundreds of millions of years and fossilized into the condensed carbon-based fuels is extracted, expending significant amounts of energy and costs leading to a model that is detrimental to the environment and unsustainable. This is in stark contrast to the idea of converting easily accessible biomass into similar carbon-based energy products that match the performance of the later and offer substantially more environmental benefits.

Despite both originating from biomass, fossil fuels are in far more demand than bioenergy, which currently makes up only 5.75% of total US energy output. Bioenergy is the use of any organic material, such as forest thinnings, residues, agricultural waste or urban wood waste, to generate heating, cooling, electricity or fuels. Most of today’s bioenergy is from corn ethanol and biomass power plants but a lot more bioenergy is needed to meet the world’s climate goals. In many models used for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change bioenergy accounts for the majority of energy generation in 2050 and beyond—we have a long way to get there.

Fortunately, the US has an abundance of biomass resources that are easily accessible. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), there is over 1 billion tons of unused or underutilized renewable biomass available on an annual basis that does not conflict with food crop production. This is enough to replace 30% of US petroleum consumption—and potentially more if using the right methods.

In recognition of National Bioenergy Day, Attis wants to share the impact our biomass separation and conversion technologies have on the biobased energy landscape. Many reports, like those conducted at the USDA, use known technologies in their analysis like cellulosic ethanol or Fischer-Tropsch renewable diesel but Attis’ portfolio of technologies expand on the sustainability of these known processes and create new opportunities for feedstock usage and biobased energy products.

Most traditional technologies focus on converting one aspect of biomass into energy: the cellulose, and to a degree this makes sense. In most plants, cellulose makes up 40-50% of the plant. However, within plants, there is also lignin, which is the second most abundant polymer on earth and is responsible for the strength and durability of all biomass. Even though lignin makes up only 20-30% of the plant, it is the most concentrated source of carbon in the biomass and is often overlooked from a value perspective.

Almost all biomass processing facilities today treat lignin as an impediment and focus solely on maximizing the conversion of cellulose into biobased energy products. However, Attis is focusing on the refining of lignin into direct replacements for petroleum-based fuels such as renewable gasoline, diesel and even jet fuel as well as utilizing existing technologies for creation of cellulosic fuels.

At room temperature Attis’ pure lignin looks a lot like coal, when heated it melts and flows like crude oil. Attis is working with the same engineers, technologies, and equipment used in petroleum refining to convert our lignin into transportation fuels.

Utilizing the full potential of lignin and converting greater portions of biomass into fuels is the key to making bioenergy more profitable and transitioning to a sustainable energy landscape. Attis is essentially doubling the fuel output from biomass and going head to head with traditional fossil fuels.

Instead of reaching into the Earth and introducing new carbon into our atmospheric system to generate energy, we can harness the power of the most efficient carbon sequestration technology, plants. Bioenergy is the key to the next agricultural revolution and the revitalization of rural America.

Happy National BioEnergy Day!