Hybrid poplar gets a renewed spotlight

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Sept. 3, 2013--EPA's recent registration of Zeachem's demonstration biorefinery in Boardman, Ore. - a move that authorizes the generation of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) from the cellulosic biofuel produced at the facility ‑ renews a spotlight on a principal feedstock to be used at the facility - hybrid poplar.

Establishing RINs - which are credits given to refiners that blend the ethanol in gasoline and are used to meet volume requirements under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) - is seen by analysts as a major step in the development of a range of energy crops other than corn or soybeans, including switchgrass, giant Miscanthus, certain willow varieties and jatrophe.

The success of the 250,000-gallons-per-year demonstration facility, which produced its first commercial grade of advanced biofuels and high-value biobased chemicals in March, is expected to accelerate the adjacent construction 25-million-gallon-per-year commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant. The company last year received a conditional loan guarantee of $232.5 million from USDA's Biorefinery Assistance Program for the new plant.

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ZeaChem, a Colorado-based firm, is using a high-yield cellulosic fermentation technology at its Oregon facility to produce biofuels and chemical, with about 70 percent of the new plant's feedstock to consist of woody biomass from a local hybrid poplar farm. The other 30 percent of the plant's feedstock will come from agricultural residue, such as wheat straw and corn stover.

While research has been ongoing with hybrid poplar, the EPA registration brings the short-rotation woody biomass traits of the so-called "coppice" (a tight growth of small trees) variety back into the conversation about next-generation biofuel feedstocks.

Officials with GreenWood Tree Farm Trust, which is supplying ZeaChem's biomass feedstock, say their tree farms are an ideal solution to meet the goal of increasing energy choice and security. They say high-yield, short-rotation tree farms need less fertilizer and less energy to produce than traditional row crops, and produce greater energy output per unit in the production of cellulosic ethanol.

While other companies are investing in conversion technologies, GreenWood says it is developing high-yield tree farms with targeted cellular composition that will provide the best available biomass feedstock for a growing cellulosic ethanol industry.

But before growers think the process may be as simple as plotting out a piece of marginal land and putting down some hybrid poplar, know that "it is first and foremost a crop," says Don Rice, regional managing director for GreenWood, which grows about 35,000 acres of high-yield, fast-growing poplar. "It's not something you can just put in the ground, walk away from and come back in a couple of years to harvest. It requires all of the labor intensity of any crop."

And because the technology that can utilize short-rotation hybrid poplar is still relatively new, proximity to that technology remains a must, for now.

Jim Imbler, ZeaChem president and CEO, who insists his company is "feedstock agnostic," says close co-location is necessary for his firm, making GreenWood's Boardman tree farm ideal. "My dream is to collect (biomass) that day and use it that night."

Reinforcing the need to keep feedstocks close to their end user is the fact that biomass from poplar is relatively light compared to corn and cannot be economically transported by truck or rail like grains.

But Imbler says the intense density by which hybrid poplar can be grown makes it an ideal feedstock candidate, with two to three-year rotation terms that aim to harvest 15 dry tons per acre per year.

The ZeaChem CEO says he doesn't "want to take land from high quality food production - that just doesn't make sense to us." He adds that the 70-percent hybrid poplar and 30 percent agricultural residues is a perfect model for his operation. "We love residues," says Imbler, though he concedes poplar offers a stronger consistency of product.

Bill Berguson, a University of Minnesota-Duluth researcher, says the work being done by ZeaChem and GreenWood will go a long way toward determining the viability of hybrid poplar as a cash crop. He says Zeachem can help show what can be generated in the way of fuel or chemical yields, which, in turn will determine the value added to each ton of biomass. But until then, he said that both the on-farm production cost component and the in-plant cost component remain unknown.

Berguson, who heads the forestry program at the Center for Applied Research and Technology Development in the university's Natural Resources Research Institute, cautions that in his home state, the best opportunity for hybrid poplar "is to leave highly productive farmland to corn and soybeans and select those parcels of land that are less productive for a biomass crop such as poplar.

"What I can say from our research is that poplar can still yield quite well on moderately productive land . . . so there will be niches for hybrid poplar," he says.

Given the high prices growers are getting for traditional agricultural commodities, "The reality is that, in order to be competitive with a more traditional agricultural crop - that is provide the same net profit to the grower ‑ the biomass will likely have to be priced in the range of $50 to $75 per dry ton," he said. That would require a high value added from the end user "to make this work," he says.

GreenWood's Rice says that with significant effort by USDA through grants and research, the question of hybrid poplar as a viable cash crop is getting closer to resolution. Grants are helping applicants develop test plots, flesh out business plans and study transportation methods. ZeaChem, GreenWood and USDA have worked with Case New Holland on a test harvester header that can collect hybrid poplar.)

GreenWood, which also produces pulp and other forestry products, is exploring numerous approaches to growing hybrid poplar, says Rice, including using land within the group's sawlog acreage, planting hybrid poplar between larger trees used for non-energy purposes.

Regardless of how or where you grow hybrid poplar, says Rice, right now "you have to have the markets for it." Until demand grows, hybrid poplar is a hard sell without a ready end-user.

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