Kevin B. Hicks

Research Leader of the Sustainable Biofuels and Co-Products Research Unit, USDA Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, PA

Biographical Sketch
Kevin B. Hicks, Ph.D., is the Research Leader of the Sustainable Biofuels and CoProducts Research Unit of the Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC), ARS, USDA in Wyndmoor (suburban Philadelphia) PA. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri – Columbia in Biochemistry. At ERRC, where he has worked for 31 years, Kevin leads a team of 30 scientists and engineers conducting research to develop sustainable biofuels and coproducts from agricultural commodities and byproducts. The research includes work on biodiesel, fuel ethanol, pyrolysis, and numerous food, feed, nutraceutical, and non-food coproducts. Dr. Hicks is the author of approximately 200 peer-reviewed and technical publications and 10 patents as well as numerous presentations to national and international audiences. He has won 11 major awards for his work and has served as an officer in the Carbohydrate Division of the American Chemical Society and in several other professional societies. Kevin was recently accepted for membership into the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, the oldest agricultural society in the United States. Kevin’s team was just awarded the Agricultural Research Service’s National Technology Transfer Award for helping to develop a new advanced biofuel, winter barley ethanol, which is being commercialized in a 65 million gallon per year production facility starting up in 2011 in Hopewell Virginia. Kevin is the owner of a 100 acre Century farm in Missouri that has been in the family for 4 generations. He currently lives in Malvern PA with his wife Pamela. Dr. Hicks has two children, Christie, a recent graduate of Penn State University and Brian, who is a junior at Penn State. Kevin collects antique John Deere tractors in his spare time. He can be contacted at kevin.hicks@ars.usda.gov.

Presentation Summary
The Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) at Wyndmoor, PA, which employs 90 senior scientists and 110 support scientists, was built in 1940. It has provided 70 years worth of research accomplishments that include more than 8,500 publications and patents to date. The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture was instrumental in formation of the United States Department of Agriculture and PSPA was probably responsible for locating the Eastern Regional Research Laboratory in Wyndmoor. Our biofuels research program at ERRC has three thrusts:

  1. Improve the cost, environmental performance and socio-economic impact of first generation biofuels such as biodiesel and fuel ethanol.
  2. Develop alternative non-food feedstocks and technologies to produce the next generation of advanced biofuels.
  3. Help private sector partners launch new industry initiatives using our new technologies to foster U.S. energy independence, environmental benefits and economic growth, especially in the rural sector.

First generation biofuels consist of fuel ethanol made from corn and sugar cane as well as biodiesel made from soybeans. Next generation biofuels include cellulosic ethanol made from biomass containing cellulose in the form of lignin such as switch grass. Another is butanol which has more BTUs per gallon and fewer problems in blending and transportation than ethanol. Still another is a class of so-called “drop-in” fuels that are derived from gasification or pyrolysis of biomass or from modified bacteria, yeast or algae.

As of September 2010 the U.S. had 205 ethanol plants with a capacity of 13.8 billion gallons. Plants currently under construction will provide another 0.8 billion gallons capacity for a total of 14.6 billion gallons of first generation ethanol capacity. That meets about 10 percent of our total transportation fuel needs. Corn remains the number one feedstock for ethanol production in the U.S. today.

The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act mandates aggressive increases in biofuels through 2022. It requires that corn ethanol comprise 15 percent of our total fuel supply in 2015 and thereafter and that advanced biofuels comprise 21 percent of the fuel supply by 2022. That means that advanced biofuels processes and production must advance considerably from their current levels. At present there are 12 plants producing about 24 million gallons per year. Twenty more plants are planned and if built they would have a total production capacity of about 270 million gallons of advanced biofuels by 2013. Even so, the supply of advanced biofuels is behind schedule. There are a number of reasons. We are just now learning how to make them. The initial costs for production of these fuels are high, with plant capital costs five to ten times much as corn ethanol plants. Production costs are two to five times that for corn ethanol and there is not yet enough low-cost feedstock available. While researchers and technology leaders have made considerable progress in lowering costs, much more research is need, both basic and applied research so that capital, operating and production costs can be lowered.

Ethanol production is surrounded by popular myths. Chief among them is the notion that it takes more energy to make a gallon of corn ethanol than it contains. In reality, nearly all biofuels experts, including those at the Environmental Protection Agency, agree that corn ethanol contains a net positive energy value and it is getting higher each year. Moreover, ethanol has a higher net energy value than gasoline. Another myth is that corn used for ethanol was primarily responsible for the massive increase in corn, grain and food prices in the last few years.

Actually, most independent studies, including one from the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the increased use of ethanol accounted for about 10 to 15 percent of the rise in food prices between April 2007 and April 2008. Over the same period other factors such as high energy costs had a greater effect on food prices. The primary reason, however, was speculative trading in commodities.

Another common charge leveled against ethanol is that it is heavily subsidized while petroleum is not. While ethanol does receive a 45-cent federal tax credit, costing the U.S. Treasury $5 billion, that was offset by $8.4 billion received in taxes by the Internal Revenue Service due to economic activity accruing to ethanol. Household income by workers in the ethanol industry has increased to $16 billion and our domestic production of ethanol prevented $21 billion of oil imports while keeping the money in the U.S.

One study by a London-based research group found that petroleum receives numerous subsidies that amount to 12 times the support for renewable fuels. In addition, a recent peer reviewed article by Adam Liska, University of Nebraska, found that the indirect costs to our society for petroleum fuels amount to $100 billion per year for military assets to protect shipping lanes from the Middle East, $900 billion for the Iraq war, $100 billion per year for Afghanistan and the loss of thousands of human lives.
There are four of key factors that will impact the future of biofuels:

  1. Feedstocks –Grains such as corn will provide us with about 10 percent of the biofuels we will need. We must develop non-food feedstocks and we must address the logistics for the production, transport, storage and conversion of biomass, all of which are expensive and complex.
  2. Fuel Fungibility – Recent thinking is to develop so-called fungible biofuels like butanol that fit in the present fuel infrastructure. Ethanol and biodiesel may only make up 10 to 15 percent of fuels of the future.
  3. Environmental Sustainability – We must make sure that biofuels are actually better for the environment than fossil fuels. We have to find a way to grow biofuel crops on existing land with no decrease in food production and no deforestation. And, we must ensure that biofuels require minimal use of water for production.
  4. Environmental Sustainability – Biofuels will only be successful if they can be manufactured and sold at costs that sustain the industry and are acceptable to the consumer.

One way we can make advanced biofuels production more realistic is by using a crop that can be grown, harvested and stored using current equipment and infrastructure, that does not require any new land, does not compete with food production, can be economically converted to biofuel and when used produces 50 percent less greenhouse gases than gasoline. Is there such a crop? Yes! And it is winter barley. Farmers on the East Coast and other areas with mild winters can grow barley as a winter crop, permitting double cropping with soybeans or corn in the summer. No special planting or harvesting equipment is needed. This produces additional revenue for farmers and provides ethanol feedstock on land that would not have been used otherwise. This represents no competition with food production. Winter barley acts as a cover crop, preventing soil and nutrient losses to the environment, saving soil and natural treasures such as the Chesapeake Bay.

Traditional barley has low starch content compared to corn, resulting in low ethanol yields. Also, the high viscosity of barley’s mash makes processing difficult and limits the feed use of ethanol co-produces. That is why we don’t see it used in ethanol plants. We at ERRC worked with breeders at Virginia Tech to develop higher starch barley for fuel ethanol production. We also worked with Genencor to use new enzymes to reduce viscosity, increase ethanol yield and develop energy saving fuel ethanol processes. At present the outlook for ethanol produced by winter barley to meet The EPA’s classification as an advanced biofuel looks excellent. As we speak, Osage Bio Energy is building the first barley ethanol plant in Hopewell, Virginia. In conclusion, let me say that when people ask me whether biofuels are good or bad for the U.S., I say “What’s not to like?” They’re not perfect but they are better than the alternative and getting better every year.

In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.