When most Southern Oregonians think about biomass, they think of backyard clippings and wood waste destined for energy production in White City.
Biomass technology, however, has made quantum leaps in recent years with a handful of production facilities around the world now breaking down cellulose into raw materials used in paper products, specialty chemicals, plastics and biofuels.
The idea, said Carl Lehrburger who moved to Ashland five years ago, is to provide a low-cost alternative to petroleum-based products.
"Everything you can do with oil you can do with biomass and feed stock," said Lehrburger said, who co-founded Fort Lupton, Colo.-based PureVision Technology in 1992.
PureVision Technology's next generation breakthrough advanced biorefining from an enzyme-based process taking days to one taking less than 30 minutes. The rapidly deconstructed biomass breaks down into pulp, sugars and lignin (a polymer in plants' cell walls that makes them rigid and woody).
Food-based biomass, such as corn, comprised the first generation as researchers looked for petroleum alternatives following the oil shocks of the 1970s, when crude prices soared.
"At first the emphasis was on renewable fuels to offset the cost of imported oil," said Harry Cullinan, director of the Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering at Auburn University. "Over time, renewable chemicals and all that followed."
PureVision Technology plans to build a commercial demonstration plant on a 5-acre site along the Columbia River in Boardman, where ZeaChem Inc., operates a $70 commercial demonstration facility. The company's biorefining technology converts corn stalks, wheat straw and industrial hemp into components used to make thousands of bio-products. The patented process is producing a half-ton-per-day at a pilot plant at PureVision's Colorado headquarters.
By piggy-backing on ZeaChem's $70 million plant infrastructure, PureVision will both reduce its costs and speed up its timetable. PureVision plans to begin processing 25 tons per day at its commercial demonstration site by the end of 2016. By 2017 or 2018, it expects that to be 250 to 500 tons per day.
The company announced its plans last month at the Oregon Hemp Conference in Portland.
"Second-generation biomass uses a the non-food portion of corn and other feed stock," Lehrburger said. "The industry has been developing ways to break down biomass that was much harder than starchy materials.
Lehrburger has been immersed in renewables, waste management and recycling for 30 years, handling environmental assessments and waste management studies for private clients, trade associations, state and federal agencies. He is past president and chairman for PureVision Technology and remains on its board.
He said current industry technology uses enzymes to break down cellulose, producing primarily biofuels. Five global competitors, including DuPont, use the existing technology in commercial cellulosic biorefineries, producing primarily fuels.
PureVision uses a countercurrent approach, feeding in solids at one end and fluids at the other end of an auger-like machine. The resulting collision results in the formation of desirable and marketable materials.
"When the solids and liquid, or whatever chemicals, are in isolation they work their magic," said Cullinan, a chemical engineering professor whose primary focus has been on the pulp and paper industry, alternative fuels and biorefining.
Lignin accounts for 20 to 25 percent of all biomass, Lehrburger said. Pulp companies chemically extracted lignin, which was then burned to produce energy because it could't be used as a high value product.
"Our process produces a more native lignin that is more usable in making plastics," he said.
Extracted sugars can be used in sweeteners such as Xylitol.
With the opportunity to work with pulp and other biomaterial processors, Lehrburger sees great opportunity.
Lehrburger said the Boardman site makes sense because its cornstalk supply is located within a 50-mile radius and wood components are within a 100-mile radius.
"Beyond that distance, transportation becomes uneconomical," he said. "Once the technology is demonstrated commercially, we will deploy it anywhere there is a feedstock supply."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/ Economic Edge.