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Buhler forges ahead with biofuels

09.01.2008 Energy from renewable raw materials: Buhler is stepping up its efforts to further develop the processes required to produce biofuels and wood pellets. For years now, the Buhler Technology Group has been involved also in the field of biofuels. The Feed & Oil business unit has successfully built small and large wood pelleting systems for manufacturing wood pellets, especially in Europe. The same business unit can also look back on years of activity in the design and construction of vegetable oil mills, some of which are applied for producing biodiesel by processing oilseeds. And for some time now the Milling business unit has also been a supplier of equipment and system components for large-scale bioethanol production plants.

New corporate staff function
Since the turn of the millennium, the global trend to produce energy from renewable raw materials has intensified drastically. In response to this development, Buhler has created a staff function in the Group which coordinates the development of the Biofuels business field across individual divisions and business units. Since November 2006, Marcel Lingenhag, a graduate chemist, has been dealing with the issue of “Biofuels.” “For years, our business units have been manufacturing a wide variety of systems and equipment for receiving, cleaning, grinding, and transforming raw materials which fit ex-cellently into the biofuel production process,” explains the 40-year-old Swiss national. “We now plan to apply this knowledge proactively to the rapidly expanding market for producing energy from renewable raw materials.”

Bioethanol and biodiesel
Over the past four years, global production of biofuels has risen sharply. Promoted by a number of different governments, bioethanol output has doubled and biodiesel production has tripled. In Brazil, one quarter of all passenger cars are fueled with gasoline to which 25% ethanol based on sugar cane is added. The U.S. is relying on corn (maize) for bioethanol production. As much as 25% or more of the total corn harvest is being processed into bioethanol.

By the year 2012, annual bioethanol output is expected to increase from today’s 21 million metric tons to 36 million tons.

In Europe, bioethanol is predominantly made from wheat. But in this part of the world, biodiesel still outshines bioethanol, since biodiesel can be extracted from rapeseed oil, sunflower seed oil, soy-beans, corn, or palm oil. But European legislators are pushing both biofuels by introducing regulations governing their addition to gasoline (petrol) and diesel and on the basis of taxation.

Improving the process
The utilization of grain, corn, sugar cane and other foods for producing biofuels is quite controversial. “We are aware of the fact that the conversion of foods into fuel also has some darker sides,” admits Marcel Lingenhag. “But overall, the positive aspects outweigh the disadvantages by allowing ever-scarcer fossil energy carriers to be replaced by renewable ones.” Moreover, Buhler with its existing grain processing expertise plans to contribute to the continuous improvement of the processes for making bioethanol and biodiesel. Lingenhag: “We no longer limit ourselves to supplying system com-ponents, but are dealing in depth with the processes and the possibilities of improving them.”These efforts are already paying off. The dry corn fractionation process developed by Buhler boosts the ca-pacity of ethanol plants by some 20% while cutting operating expenses by 10%.

Second generation
Buhler is also forging ahead to develop the so-called “second generation” biofuel production plants. “The goal is to replace the starch-based raw materials such as grain or corn by cellulose,” says Marcel Lingenhag of the strategic direction taken. “Our goal for the future is to enable agricultural byproducts such as straw, grass, reeds, or forestry byproducts such as wood chips or sawdust to be processed into bioethanol, biogas, or biopellets as energy suppliers.”

As yet, today’s process technology does not allow such plants to be operated profitably. One core problem is to transport the enormous volumes of biomass required for producing the biofuel. An aver-age-size plant requires 1500 metric tons of biomass a day. A second issue is the opening-up of the cellulose to allow the enzymes responsible for the conversion process to become active.

“Our biomass pelleting and mechanical-thermal-chemical extrusion processes are suitable for solving these two issues,” says Lingenhag. “We also have solutions under development for other key problems.”

Wood pellets as a third “biofuel”
The manufacture of wood pellets from wood byproducts for heating purposes is the third bio-pillar that Buhler stands on. Large and small Buhler wood pelleting systems have been in service for years throughout Europe. At present, Buhler is building the world’s largest wood pelleting facility in Florida in the U.S. Once up and running, it will enable Green Circle BioEnergy Inc. to produce 500,000 metric tons of wood pellets annually.

Daniel Meier, the product manager in charge of wood pelleting systems in the Buhler Feed & Oil busi-ness unit, sees large opportunities for growth. “Around the world, such a lot of wood byproducts are being produced that could be used for covering part of our heating energy requirements.” Meier has also identified existing potential for wood pelleting systems wherever a powerful woodworking industry exists. In addition, heating pellets production is likely to gradually come closer to biofuel manufacture because alternative raw materials such as straw, elephant grass, reeds, bamboo, and sugar cane byproducts may some day be used also for making pellets.