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Biobased Solutions: A Priority for Minnesota’s Agriculture Economy in 2023

In 2023, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) worked on several exciting biobased solutions to promote the sustainable production of renewable products using

Minnesota-grown feedstocks. Finding new ways to replace petroleum-based products, like plastics, with renewable alternatives will be key to growing Minnesota’s agriculture economy while meeting growing consumer demand for more sustainable options. During the past year, AURI invested in equipment, resources and capabilities to help create value and jobs in the bio-industrial sector across Minnesota and the upper Midwest.

AURI’s researchers and scientists led 60 bio-industrial projects last year, including 25 new initiatives. Compelling work is being done around anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion is a process by which bacteria break down organic matter in a digester to produce biogas–a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide–and digestate. Biogas can be used as an energy source for renewable natural gas, heat, electricity, and transportation. The digestate is a nutrient-rich residual material that can be composted, applied to land, and used as livestock bedding, among other applications.

There is renewed interest in this technology, especially in Minnesota. The state ranks eighth in the nation for biogas production potential according to the American Biogas Council. Anaerobic digestion opportunities and projects are emerging at a rapid pace around the country. According to Fairfield Market Research, global revenue in the field is projected to grow to $18.5 billion by 2027, up from $7 billion in 2020.

Minnesota has an abundance of agricultural products that work with anaerobic digestion, including cow manure, food processing waste, and dairy processing waste. Further, the state is rich with other feedstocks. Supporters hope that anaerobic digestion can be a key contributor to Minnesota’s ongoing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions as part of the state’s Climate Action Framework.

Megan Lennon, energy and environment section supervisor- Ag Marketing and Development Division for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, notes:

“When these factors align, renewable natural gas and anaerobic digestion are elevated to the forefront and seen as a key solution to meeting various climate change goals. Anaerobic digestion is also part of a solution for a variety of different sectors, not just agriculture, which are hard to decarbonize. I firmly believe the deployment of anaerobic digestion is going to increase in the short term.”

AURI works with producers and developers in the anaerobic digestion landscape, directly advising industry clients and indirectly supporting other entities. In 2023, AURI provided support and guidance on commercial development and feasibility analysis questions, as well as feedstock analysis and general business growth planning.

At its Waseca and Marshall, Minnesota lab facilities, AURI expanded its capabilities to better serve clients interested in anaerobic digestion. AURI has two pilot-size anaerobic digesters in Waseca available to clients to analyze agricultural feedstocks for gas production potential to help de-risk business decisions. In Marshall, clients can use the Biomethane Potential equipment to test small quantities of feedstocks for methane potential to gather valuable data on optimal methane gas production before committing additional investment and time.

AURI’s team also assisted clients by evaluating digestate for fertilizer characteristics and advised on best practices for separating the nutrient-rich solids from liquids to improve efficiency in handling and transportation.

AURI engaged in several industrial fermentation projects last year. The process uses agricultural feedstocks and ag-derived coproducts to create many types of biobased products that are more sustainable alternatives than petroleum-based products. Large-scale fermentation projects can create new market opportunities for agriculture producers. AURI is excited to contribute to the development of fermentation projects that promote vitality in rural communities throughout Minnesota. Further development and exploration in this area using renewable feedstocks and circular approaches is a proven way to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Several years ago, AURI’s team assisted Alise and Lucas Sjostrom and Alise’s parents, Jerry and Linda Jennissen, when they started Redhead Creamery in Brooten, Minnesota. In addition to providing professional guidance in business start-ups and product cost-share, AURI also advised on developing experimental batches of cheese and nutrition labels. In 2023, scientists helped identify a commercial yeast provider with proven capability to transform milk and cheese processing products into ethanol alcohol byproduct streams through fermentation.

The Chippewa Valley Ethanol Cooperative (CVEC) in Benson, Minnesota, has about 975 members and produces nearly 50 million gallons of ethanol annually. The operation produces both fuel and food-grade alcohol. CVEC constantly explores new markets and opportunities, extending value to its members and local corn producers. AURI and CVEC have been longtime collaborators on a variety of value-added projects. Last year, CVEC donated equipment to advance AURI’s capabilities and then explored the viability of different fermentable feedstocks. With this testing, AURI was able to provide quality data on the fermentation potential of these feedstocks and determine if there could be additional feedstock streams into the fuel plant system. For a smaller ethanol plant like CVEC, tapping new revenue streams and finding new uses for agricultural products is critical for sustainable operations.

“The relationship between AURI and CVEC has been greatly beneficial. One of the most advantageous things about working with AURI has been the access to new innovative thinking and technologies. Their team has been helpful in brainstorming and identifying the challenges and the process of bringing new ideas to an industrial scale. Access to AURI’s network of entrepreneurs and experts has helped us find new markets and new revenue, which is so important to our members and community,” says Chad Friese, the general manager of Chippewa Valley Ethanol Cooperative.

Finally, AURI joined the bio-industrial industry group BioMADE in 2023. Based in Minnesota, the public-private partnership is working to catalyze the transformative bio-industrial manufacturing movement in the United States. Membership in the group will help AURI explore new innovation areas related to fermentation to positively impact the state’s value-added agriculture sector.

AURI’s team worked last year to continue finding new uses and new markets for industrial hemp. One emerging area is in the road construction industry. AURI continued its work with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and other partners to develop a series of environmentally friendly mats and erosion control logs. The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) funded the project.

AURI also collaborated with Green Fox LLC in Kimball, Minnesota. Ben and Ellie Fox are constructing a 100,000-square-foot hemp processing facility that will create fibers, oils, hemp hearts, and hurd. The operation will open in early 2024. AURI provided business planning and technical assistance.

“AURI has been such an incredible resource with this project. The team has greatly helped us with our general business planning and process improvement. They have been invaluable in helping us establish new markets for the hemp we grow,” says Ben Fox, the president of Green Fox LLC.