The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Office of Congressional and government Affairs
At A Glance
: Biomass Research
: 10/28/1999
Session: 106th Congress (First Session)
: Bruce E. Dale

Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, Michigan State University, and Co-Chair, Committee on Biobased Industrial Products, Commission on Life Sciences, National Research Council

: House
: Committee on Science

Testimony of
Professor Bruce E. Dale, Ph. D.
Department of Chemical Engineering
Michigan State University
Committee on Biobased Industrial Products
National Research Council

Before the
Subcommittee on Energy and Environment
Committee on Science
U.S. House of Representatives



October 28, 1999

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before this committee today. I wish to commend you for your foresight in proposing this legislation. These bills would help create the knowledge base on which to build a multi-hundred billion dollar per year biobased industrial products industry. I will first provide testimony regarding HR2827 and then I will make a few specific points regarding important differences between HR2827 and HR2819. I would like to emphasize that if the necessary research is done to reduce the cost of converting plant material to useful products, the resulting industry would cost-effectively and sustainably meet many human needs from our renewable agricultural and forestry resources. In my testimony, I will make five points to support this contention:

1) Biobased raw material and petroleum raw material costs are already equivalent, 2) Biorefineries must produce a variety of products, including fuels, 3) Processing cost reduction is key to the biobased products industry, 4) Life cycle analysis of biobased products must be done to ensure sustainability, 5) Research centers/consortia must be large enough to address and integrate key issues

As you know, I chair the Department of Chemical Engineering at Michigan State University. I received my bachelors degree in chemical engineering (summa cum laude) from the University of Arizona in 1974, the masters degree from Arizona in 1976 and the Ph. D., also in chemical engineering, from Purdue University in 1979. Chemical engineering is that engineering discipline that is concerned with the conversion of raw materials to more valuable finished goods by chemical, thermal, physical and biological processes.

I have been involved with research on the conversion of agricultural materials to fuels, chemical and other materials since my days at Purdue. In my testimony, I will refer to these agriculturally-derived commodities for industrial use as biobased industrial products. I recently directed a National Research Council panel report entitled Biobased Industrial Products: Priorities for Research and Commercialization from which many of my remarks today are derived. This report was released by the NRC on August 3, 1999 and 50 copies of the Executive Summary have been provided to you of the prepublication version.

Comments on HR2827

I will now briefly discuss each of the five points outlined above relative to HR2827.

1) Biobased raw material and petroleum raw material costs are already equivalent

Chemical engineering has been a discipline for nearly 100 years. In that time we have learned that approximately one half of the cost of producing commodity products is due to the cost of the raw material(s) that go into the process. This is true for a wide variety of industries, products and processes. In this context it is critical to realize that plant-based raw materials already compete very well with fossil-based raw materials on a cost per pound basis. For instance, crude oil at about $18 per barrel is roughly equivalent in cost to corn grain at $2.75 per bushel- both cost about $110 per ton. Hays, grasses and crop residues, which we refer to as cellulosic materials, are in fact much less expensive than petroleum and are available in very large quantities for approximately $30-40 per ton. However, I do not believe that a domestic biobased products industry will undermine our petroleum-based industry. Much of the existing infrastructure and expertise in the petroleum processing industry can, over time, be adapted to biobased products as these processes are developed, improved and commercialized over the next few decades. To date, however, the processes to convert cellulosic materials to biobased industrial products are very underdeveloped. We must learn how to overcome the resistance of cellulosic materials to biological conversion if we are to realize their full potential. The Act gives research in this area of overcoming cellulose resistance to biological conversion an appropriately high priority.

The fact that agriculturally-based raw materials cost the same or less than petroleum per ton is a crucial point, the importance of which cannot be overstated. In our effort to cost-effectively produce biobased industrial products, we are already essentially half way there because we have very low cost plant-based raw materials available to us. Roughly half of the cost of producing these biobased products will ultimately be due to raw materials. In essence, we can reap the benefit of many years of agronomic research to produce low cost plant raw materials if we now devote the necessary research effort to learn how to cost-effectively convert these raw materials to biobased industrial products. This leads to my second point, the importance of ``biorefineries``.

2) Biorefineries must produce a variety of products, including fuels

There are strong technical and economic reasons why many biobased industrial products will be produced in large, integrated processing systems that we might call ``biorefineries,`` to highlight their similarities to petroleum refineries. Prototype biorefineries in fact already exist. These include corn wet and dry mills, soybean processing facilities and pulp and paper mills.

In petroleum refineries, the principal raw material, crude oil, is converted to a wide range of higher value (lower volume) and higher volume (lower unit value) products such as fuels, chemicals, polymers and other materials. To somewhat oversimplify, the high value products, which are often chemicals and polymers, provide the overall profit margins required by the industry. The high volume products, principally the fuels such as gasoline, diesel and kerosene, provide the economies of scale that drive down the cost of production for all refinery products.

Indeed, a recent Department of Energy study highlights the fact that an oil refinery built only for fuels production would not be economically viable. The coproducts of fuels production are absolutely essential to overall economic viability of the oil refining industry. Biorefineries will face the same competitive pressures. They will evolve to produce a variety of products, including higher value chemicals and polymers, as well as lower value, but high volume, fuel and feed products. In this context, I wish to quote directly from the Executive Summary of the National Research Council report mentioned previously.

On page 6 of the Executive Summary we read: ``As in oil refineries, biorefineries would yield a host of products that would tend to increase over time. Many biorefinery products can be produced by petroleum refineries, such as liquid fuels, organic chemicals and materials. However, biorefineries can also manufacture many other products that oil refineries cannot, including foods, feeds and biochemicals. These additional capabilities give biorefineries a potential competitive edge and enhanced financial stability.``

Thus to lay the foundation for a large scale biobased products industry we must learn how to cost-effectively produce a wider variety of such products. These products will include fuels, chemicals, biochemicals, polymers, foods and feeds. Since biobased raw materials such as corn stover contain appreciable amounts of protein, biorefineries will probably always produce animal feed proteins, and probably other feeds and foods. The Act appropriately recognizes this fact. The emphasis in the Act on product diversification is therefore essential as is the emphasis on research to reduce the costs of converting plant materials to these biobased products. This brings me to my third point, the need to focus research on the cost-sensitive process steps.

3) Processing cost reduction is key to the biobased products industry

Here I will be brief and blunt. There are many interesting fundamental scientific topics surrounding biobased industrial products. However, many of these science issues will not materially affect the cost of producing these products. If the intent of the Act is to be realized, fundamental research must focus on those aspects of the overall conversion processes that significantly affect the cost of producing these products. An appropriate term to describe such research is applied fundamentals. We have a variety of empirical and analytical tools to help us evaluate the likely impact of specific research directions on the costs of converting agricultural commodities to biobased products. To achieve its goals, the Act must be administered in such a way as to ensure that the fundamental research work done is applied to the areas where significant cost reduction potential exists and which will reduce the risks of commercializing these products-- not just to interesting scientific problems.

4) Life cycle analysis of biobased products must be done to ensure sustainability

If the intent of the Act is to be realized, and the maximum benefit to our country and our world achieved, we must consciously and thoroughly integrate evaluations of sustainability and environmental impact into all research directions and decisions. This implies the development of overall systems models, called life cycle analyses, for biobased industrial products. These life cycle analyses must integrate information on the energy and materials usage of the agronomic production, processing, utilization and disposal of biobased industrial products. With such analyses, we can hope to maximize the potential environmental and other benefits of biobased industrial products by anticipating and adapting to potential problems. I believe the Act gives an appropriate and deserved emphasis to sustainability and life cycle analysis.

5) Research centers must be large enough to address and integrate key issues

The Act envisions research that will be inherently interdisciplinary and quite broad in scope. Careful integration of research effort will be necessary to achieve the goals of the Act and to make best use of taxpayer funds. Such integrated, goal-directed work is probably best carried out in research centers or consortia. Few, if any, institutions have all of the necessary expertise to address the goals of the Act. Multi institution ``virtual`` centers or consortia funded at an appropriate level for the necessary breadth and scope of research that is to be conducted probably represent the best approach to achieving the goals of the Act. Therefore I believe that the language of the Act should be strengthened somewhat to reflect the fact that multi-institution ``virtual`` centers or consortia are a preferred means of conducting the bulk of the research. Otherwise the research funding is likely to be dispersed ineffectively in a number of small, uncoordinated efforts. Such a dispersed effort is unlikely to achieve the necessary advances that will lay the knowledge base for a multi-hundred billion dollar per year biobased products industry.

Comments on HR2819

I would now like to make a few brief comments on HR2819.

In general, this is also a good bill. I believe it can be strengthened further in the following ways:

Emphasis on Demonstration

In general, I do not believe that these bills should devote funds to demonstration activities. There are two reasons for this. First, demonstration is a very expensive activity compared with research and development. It would be very easy to expend most of the appropriated funds in support of demonstration activities and neglect the necessary research and development. Second, and most important, this area is not really ripe for demonstration projects: there is not that much good, cost-effective biomass conversion technology that is ready to demonstrate. Once the necessary research and development is done to identify and winnow down candidate biomass conversion processes, there may come a time when demonstration activities are more appropriate. Until that time, I believe demonstration projects will generally be a less desirable use of taxpayer funds. If it is deemed absolutely necessary to have some demonstration projects, I strongly suggest they be limited to no more than 10% of the allocated funds.

Research Focus Areas

HR2819 does not contain the research focus areas of HR2827. I firmly believe that HR2819 should include these focus areas, particularly the focus on reducing processing costs. The research focus areas of HR2827 are fully consistent with the NRC report on biobased products that contains the distilled thinking of the most prominent experts in the country on this subject. The focus areas identified by the NRC study are also those that will be most likely to truly transform our economy and to give us the enormous economic, environmental and social benefits we seek from biobased industrial products.

For example, unless we crack the problem of cellulose resistance to conversion, we simply will not obtain the large economic, national security and environmental benefits of low cost bioethanol. Thus, cellulose conversion must and should be a research focus area of such a bill. Also, unless we pay careful attention to environmental and sustainability issues from the very beginning, we run a real risk of making huge mistakes that will greatly reduce the benefits we hope to accrue from these biobased products. Again, the focus areas of the HR2827 are very much in line with the NRC report and are completely justified in their specificity and focus. With limited funds appropriated, it is crucial that these funds be directed as carefully as possible toward the areas that will have the most impact, therefore the focus is necessary.

Relationship between USDA and DOE

HR2819 envisions DOE as the lead agency in this initiative. While I believe that DOE must have a leading role, it is also essential that USDA share this leading role as a fully coequal partner. There are several important reasons for this. First, DOE`s focus, expertise and institutional bias are necessarily towards energy products. However, while energy products are crucial, they are not the most valuable products that can or will be made from biomass. Plastics, adhesives, lubricants, foods, feeds and many other products are essential to economic viability of a biomass conversion industry. USDA has expertise in these other product areas that DOE lacks. Also, USDA has connections to the farmer groups that will be essential to communicate and implement the advances in biomass conversion technology. USDA is literally represented in every county in the country-but DOE is not.

Finally, DOE simply does not have the real institutional savvy and resources regarding agriculture and forestry that USDA does. Without this ``real world`` grounding of a fully coequal partner (USDA), I believe DOE will be more prone to make serious errors in the choice of projects and in general program direction. For example, DOE biomass research has long neglected the protein content of biomass although protein can be as high as 15-20% of the dry weight for some candidate biomass species. Protein is also worth much more than most of the other components of biomass. Nevertheless, apparently because protein does not lend itself to energy products, DOE has neglected it. In contrast, USDA has not neglected protein in its biobased industrial products work and has funded work on a wide variety of biobased products, not just energy products. The NRC report highlights the importance of ``biorefineries`` that will produce a wide variety of biobased products, not just energy products.

Two Definitions

I strongly believe HR2819 should increase the range of products defined as biobased products, specifically to include protein feeds, and probably also to mention such things as plastics, materials, adhesives, lubricants and so forth-in line with the NRC report. Also, I find the term ``biomass`` as defined in HR2819 to be unnecessarily restrictive, too much focused on wastes, and somewhat confusing. I believe the definition of biomass in HR2827 is better.

This concludes my prepared, written testimony. I would be happy now to try to respond to your questions. Thank you again for the invitation to appear here today.