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Third generation biofuels plant planned in south central Minnesota

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 05/12/2011 9:10 AM

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MADELIA, Minn. — While years from completion, a board of directors in south central Minnesota is laying the groundwork to answer the chicken and egg question that has plagued renewable fuel development beyond the first generation of ethanol.

The answer Prairie Skies Biomass Co-op of Madelia has arrived at is that a cooperative and it's fuel shed need to develop in unison.

"There's still a lot of unknowns, but at least we have a vision of where it's all going," said Linda Meschke, spokeswoman for Prairie Skies Cooperative.

Meschke estimates it will take 45,000 acres of perennial grass, corn stover, straw, alfalfa, short-rotation willows and miscanthus to supply a 300-ton-per-day facility that will convert agricultural biomass into gasoline, diesel fuel and ammonia.

It will be a three-phase project, Meschke explained.

First, the agricultural feedstock will be torrefied. This produces a more uniform product.

Torrefaction is the process used to turn wood chips into charcoal, said Duane Goetsch, president and founder of Gradient Technology and chief technology officer for SYNGAS Technology, a new company formed by Gradient to focus on the biofuels market. The Elk River company is the project engineer for the Madelia biofuels project.

In torrefaction, biomass material is heated at a high temperature in an oxygen-free environment, Goetsch said.

At Prairie Skies Biomass Co-op, corn stover, short-rotation willows and other biomass will be torrefied into bio-coal, which can be substituted for coal in coal-burning power plants. It's s a green alternative to coal, Goetsch said.

The second phase is to add gasifer technology. This will turn the torrefied material into synthetic gas, which is primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and also produce electricity. The third phase is to use the syngas to produce gasoline, diesel fuel and co-product ammonia.

The fuel produced will meet established fuel standards. It will be impossible to tell if it's made from petroleum or biomass, Goetsch said.

The gasoline or diesel fuel could be sold to local farmer cooperatives who now deliver petroleum products to farms and convenience stores.

"I'm positive it's going to go forward," Goetsch said. "The rate is the question."

No commercially available high-pressure gasifer exists for biomass, the development of which will be the main mission of SYNGAS Technology, Goetsch said. That's probably five years down the road, but he hopes to have a demonstration unit up and running in three.

It makes financial sense to use biomass to make gasoline and diesel fuel as long as oil stays above $85 a barrel, he said.

"We really do need to get serious about energy," Goetsch said. "The days of cheap energy are over."

The Prairie Skies plan isn't just about making gasoline, it's much further reaching.

If Meschke had her way, she'd design a system in which perennials were strategically placed on the landscape to reduce agricultural pollution, improve water quality, sequester carbon and provide wildlife habitat while also producing biomass tonnage. The most productive soils would still be planted to corn and soybeans, she said, but targeted plantings of perennial crops would go a long ways toward minimizing pollution. If farmers are proactive, it will not only be great public relations but also may help eliminate future regulations. If all new acres were planted to biomass, it would account for 3 percent of the region's landscape.

Meschke acknowledges she probably won't get her way, so she's drawing upon what's happening in the region now. There are 30,000 acres of small grain raised in the region, and some of the straw is left unused in the field. This could be marketed to the cooperative. There are 54,000 acres enrolled in conservation programs in the area. If the applicable agency agreed, harvest could be used as a management tool, Meschke said. The harvested biomass could be sold to the cooperative.

The cooperative wants 100,000 tons of biomass annually from a 25 mile to 40 mile radius of Madelia, she said. The region they're targeting includes the counties of Martin, Faribault, Watonwan, Blue Earth, Brown, Nicollet, Jackson and Cottonwood.

The 100,000 tons of biomass will be torrefied and densified to 75,000 tons of torrefied material, Meschke said. The torrefied material doesn't absorb moisture, which has real storage assets, she said.

It's estimated that the torrefaction facility would cost $22 million. The cost of the second and third stage are unknown at this point. The proposed location is next to Tony Downs Foods in Madelia.

"Yeah, we've got a long way to go, but we're off and running," Meschke said.

The cooperative has been organized for about 18 months, and it needs to figure out what shares will be valued at. Grower, supporter and community shares will be offered, Meschke said. The grower shares would be sold to feedstock suppliers and suppliers will purchase shares according to what type of biomass they will deliver. The cooperative will only allow so many shares of a certain type of material.

A community share is for someone in the community who wants to support the project and a supporter share is for someone from outside the area who wants to support the project.

Prairie Skies Biomass Cooperative is also applying for a Biomass Research and Development Initiative grant to help get the project going.

"If we get this all to work like I think we can, this will be good for area farmers, this will be good for society in general, it will be good for the environment," Meschke said.

"We want to see them be successful. I think it will be good for everybody," Goetsch said.

Prairie Skies cooperative is looking for additional people to serve on the board and help with decision making as the project moves forward. Interested people should contact Meschke at (507) 238-5449 or