About Bioenergy from Plants

bioplantCrops, plants, and trees seek environments that allow them to grow and thrive. Likewise, Iowa’s strong tradition of crop production has fostered an environment for growth, especially in biofuels. Plant biomass is organic material, such as corn and corn stalks, soybeans, switchgrass, straw, and woodchips, which can be harvested and processed into biofuels and biochemicals. Ongoing production of first-generation biofuels, such as corn ethanol and soy biodiesel, has paved the way for new opportunities and research with different feedstocks. The possibilities include algae, woody plants, and grasses, and the future is bright in Iowa for the development of dedicated energy crops and careers in bioenergy.


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Iowa: A Major Biofuel Producer

Ethanol Production
biomass_mapIowa makes a significant contribution to U.S. biofuel production and has more ethanol production plants than any other state.  As of February 2011 Iowa's 39 ethanol plants reported production at 3.5 billion gallons in a year. Compare that to the nation's total of 204 refineries in 26 states (some were not operating at the time of the report) producing 13.5 billion gallons over the same period. http://www.neo.ne.gov/statshtml/122.htm

Image right - Biomass Resources: The lightest colored areas have low inventories of biomass resources; the slightly darker areas (including Iowa) have agricultural resources; the dark pink areas have agricultural and wood resources; and the dark brown areas have wood resources.·

Governnent Subsidies   Ethanol production and consumer use have benefited from federal government subsidies, which have provided incentive to Iowa's agriculture to expand corn crops and increase productivity. U.S. govenrment subsidies have helped this growing Iowa industry become a national renewable energy leader and also have stimulated intense and fascinating research in universities and agricultural corporations.  In mid-2011, the issue of subsidies has been debated in government and on the street, and the discussion has been in the direction of ending them. One view of subsidies is that they are meant to stimulate the start-up of an industry, and when that industry becomes strong enough, it is expected to move forward on its own.  The subsidy topic is not only a practical one that concerns keeping biofuel production moving forward; it is also a highly political one that will be keeping the agricultural community, consumers, the petrochemical fuel industry, and politicians on edge in the near future.   

So far, Iowa has been producing ethanol from the kernels -- i.e., the grain -- of corn plants.· For ethanol to help the U.S. meet sustainable energy goals and energy security goals, much more production of ethanol will be needed.  As you read this, scientists and agricultural innovators continue to present new technologies and strategies that improve grain yields and diversify ethanol feedstocks. 

Cellulosic Ethanol Production··· Two cellulosic ethanol refineries are planned to be built in Iowa and begin production by 2013: POET's Project Liberty in Emmetsburg, IA  (http://www.poet.com) and Dupont in Nevada, IAFor years farmers have practiced leaving corn stalks, leaves and cobs in corn fields after harvesting the grain.· This corn “stover” revitalizes the soil and controls erosion.· Corn stover is being well researched in university agricultural programs and in agricultural industry. Successful use of stover and other biomass are necessary to help ethanol scale up to U.S. and other countries' sustainable fuel needs. POET's CEO, Jeff Broin states that "Cellulosic ethanol holds tremendous promise for America...There is more than one billion tons of biomass available each year that could be used to make enough cellulosic ethanol to completely displace oil imports."· (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070709103138.htm), http://www.agweek.com/event/article/id/18667/ and (http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/jul2011/2011-07-12-091.html)

  • "Current and projected U.S. ethanol production capacity and use are far outpacing the levels required under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. . . .
  • The president has announced a goal of 35 billion gallons [132 million m3] of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017. In addition, many members of Congress have introduced legislation setting aggressive targets for an increased renewable fuels standard and for reducing U.S. reliance on imported oil. Certain states and jurisdictions have mandated the use of ethanol and other renewable fuels. . . .
  • The National Corn Growers Association projects that approximately 15 billion gallons [57 million m3] of ethanol can be produced from corn without significantly disrupting other corn markets. The production of ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks — such as switch grass, wood chips, and agricultural waste — will be necessary to expand ethanol supplies. Many companies are working to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production. . . .
  • ASTM Subcommittee D02.A0 will continue to address new issues as they emerge and update ASTM ethanol fuel standards as necessary to facilitate the increased use of ethanol and other renewable fuels." (http://www.astm.org/SNEWS/APRIL_2007/hbg_apr07.htm)

Biodiesel Production

Biodiesel fuel production is also important to Iowa's economy but is on a different scale of use among consumers.  In May 2011 Iowa legislators voted for one of the most comprehensive biodiesel fuel policies in the U.S.: "The legislation creates a system that incentivizes local production, encourages availability of biodiesel at the pump, and invests in the infrastructure needed for wide distribution." http://www.iowabiodiesel.org/.  Iowa's 15 biodiesel plants produced about 85 million gallons of fuel according to that 2009 report.  The feedstocks for biodiesel production are oily plants; in Iowa, soybeans are a significant source of oil.  In Canada, Europe, and northern U.S. states, rapeseed (commonly known as canola) is the important seed-oil crop.  In warm climates, palm and coconut are very high oil producers.  In the U.S., peanut and sunflower oils can also be feedstocks for biodiesel.  Jatropha, a warm to hot region plant is receiving great attention  overseas and the U.S. as a potential biofuel crop. http://www.jatrophabiodiesel.org/aboutJatrophaPlant.php 

The different oils are referred to together as "feed stock."· A high quality biodiesel fuel can be processed from multiple animal- and plant-based feedstocks. (http://www3.me.iastate.edu/biodiesel/Pages/biodiesel1.html)· Biodiesel is made by chemically processing an alcohol with oils, such as:
  • Soybean oil (dominant in the U.S.) and other vegetable oils such as corn oil, canola oil, camelina, cottonseed oil, and palm oil
  • Restaurant waste oils such as frying oils
  • Animal fats such as beef tallow or pork lard
  • Trap grease (from restaurant grease traps), float grease (from waste water treatment plants), and other waste greases
According to senior author Ron Korba of Biodiesel Magazine (see Korba citation below), "For many biodiesel producers, volatile commodity markets and paper-thin margins mean feedstock flexibility is absolutely critical for survival."· For example, if soybeans are in short supply, perhaps because of weather events, this important crop might not be available in large enough quantities to produce the needed oil.· A processor would be able to turn to suppliers of other feed stocks, such as animal fats or restaurant grease traps.· Wastes such as restaurant grease should not be landfilled if a biodiesel economy grows. · ·

biodiesel-multi-fs-procImage source: See Renewable Energy Group (REG) citation in bulleted references below.· The graphic illustrates that the biodiesel process can involve both vegetable oils and animal fats.·

The current status of biodiesel production in Iowa in 2011 is as follows:·
  • There are currently 15 biodiesel plants throughout the state of Iowa.
  • The plants have the capacity to produce about 325 million gallons per year.
  • Iowa biodiesel producers made about 85 million gallons of biodiesel in 2009.
  • A study of 2009 biodiesel production levels shows an increase in economic activity generated by biodiesel production supported the creation of more than 2,900 permanent jobs
  • The Iowa biodiesel industry added more than $470 million dollars to Iowa’s GDP in 2009.
  • Iowa’s biodiesel producers operated at about 15 percent of their capacity in 2010. Economic analysis shows that if Iowa’s biodiesel industry operated at full capacity, it would generate an estimated:

New Kid on the Biomass Block: Algae!

algae_pacifNWnatLabAlgae is also in its early stages of becoming a biofuel crop.  April 2011 news stories announced Iowa's first algae biofuels facility, called a "grower-harvester reactor," which is next to the Green Plains’ corn ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa.  The reactors are using the warm water and CO2 from the Shenandoah plant's ethanol production process to grow algae.  http://brownfieldagnews.com/2011/04/14/vilsack-to-visit-iowa-algae-biofuels-facility/   The algae can be used as a livestock feed, a supplement for animal feed, or biomass that can go back into the ethanol production process.  And very importantly, the algae consumes the CO2, a greenhouse gas that is given off in ethanol production.  

Image left:  Algae process site for ethanol production. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


A Balancing Act - Nearly!

 The U.S. Department of Energy's Renewable Energy department explains how biofuel emissions do not count as additional carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, as explained here: "One environmental benefit of replacing fossil fuels with biomass-based fuels is that the energy obtained from biomass does not add to global warming. All fuel combustion, including fuels produced from biomass, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But, because plants use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to grow (photosynthesis), the carbon dioxide formed during combustion is balanced by that absorbed during the annual growth of the plants used as the biomass feedstock—unlike burning fossil fuels which releases carbon dioxide captured billions of years ago.

"You must also consider how much fossil energy is used to grow and process the biomass feedstock, but the result is still substantially reduced net greenhouse gas emissions. Modern, high-yield corn production is relatively energy intense, but the net greenhouse gas emission reduction from making ethanol from corn grain is still about 20%. Making biodiesel from soybeans reduces net emissions nearly 80%. Producing ethanol from cellulosic material also involves generating electricity by combusting the non-fermentable lignin. The combination of reducing both gasoline use and fossil electrical production can mean a greater than 100% net greenhouse gas emission reduction. In the case of ethanol from corn stover, we have calculated that reduction to be 113%." http://www1.eere.energy.gov/biomass/abcs_biofuels.html

Additional Resources

 heck out the resource links for the topics in the paragraphs above.  Also, the National Renewable Energy Laboratories website http://nrel.gov leads to in-depth materials on biomass topics. 
  • Corn Commentary.· Indy Cars Burning Through Iowa on Ethanol. Accessed June 22, 2011 http://corncommentary.com/2011/06/22/indy-cars-burning-through-iowa-on-ethanol/·
    Running on pure ethanol, the Indy cars will reinforce the fuel’s ability to perform in some of the most expensive cars in the world.
  • Domestic Fuel.· Biofuels Take Flight. (July 28, 2011). ·· http://domesticfuel.com/2011/07/18/dfcast-biofuels-take-flight/ and http://domesticfuel.com/2011/06/20/green-jet-fuel-powers-transatlantic-biofuel-flight/
    "In the past few months, biofuels have taken to the skies with a multitude of successful flights conducted by both the military and the commercial airline industry....where biofuels really took flight was during the Paris airshow, which kicked off with the transatlantic flight from North America to Paris using a 50/50 biofuel blend derived from camelina."· Audo podcasts: Learn more about the flight of biofuels by going to the Domestic Fuel links in this bulleted area and scrolling to the end of the articles.
  • Domestic Fuel. World’s Biggest Camelina Grower Fueling Biodiesel Production. September 2008. http://domesticfuel.com/2008/09/03/worlds-biggest-camelina-grower-fueling-biodiesel-production/
     Camelina is a plant of the mustard family that prefers cool temperatures (e.g., as in Montana), can grow on land along the margins of agricultural crops, and requires little moisture. It can also be a rotational crop that has been shown to improve the yield of a subsequent crop (e.g., wheat) by up to 15 percent.
  • Domestic Fuel. Re. racing on 100% ethanol. http://domesticfuel.com/category/indy-racing-league/··
    Winner Marco Andretti's press conference thoughts on racing in front of 2,500 corn growers and using fuel they grew: “I think it’s great we can be green and still have performance. We’re thankful to have their support. I love this place. Iowa’s great.” Note: Listen to interview file on the website.
  • Forbes Magazine. Jet Green (by Todd Woody). Aug.8, 2011.· http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2011/0808/aviation-renewable-fuel-boeing-airbus-ron-weight-jet-green.html
    "The [Paris to New York] journey marked the first transatlantic flight powered by biofuel--in this case, Honeywell's Green Jet Fuel. Two weeks later international aviation regulators approved commercial use of renewable fuel. The green jet age has begun."
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of the U.S. Department of Energy. Biofuels.  http://www.nrel.gov/learning/re_biofuels.html
     Producers ferment (e.g., “brew”) ethanol in a process similar to making beer. Ethanol’s process makes the brew undrinkable.· Ethanol's main “feedstock” has been corn kernels, which are high in carbohydrates (starches and sugars).· The Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), numerous university research facilities, and limited numbers of biorefineries have been developing the science and technology to use other parts of the corn plant besides corn kernels. The fibrous material left after the harvest comprises mostly corn stalk.· This part of the corn is called the cellulose and hemicellulose
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of the U.S. Department of Energy. Gasification. http://www.nrel.gov/learning/re_biofuels.html
     Gasification systems use high temperatures and a low-oxygen environment to convert biomass into synthesis gas, which is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The synthesis gas, or "syngas," can then be chemically converted into ethanol and other fuels.
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of the U.S. Department of Energy. Ethanol Blending.· http://www.nrel.gov/learning/re_biofuels.html  Ethanol and gasoline blends are the usual way we buy our fuel at the tank.· The ethanol increases octane and cuts down on carbon monoxide and other smog-causing emissions. Some vehicles, called Flexible Fuel Vehicles, are designed to run on E85.