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Biofuel Industry Hopes to Recover with Next Generation Fuels

By John Addison. Scientists know how to make fuel from prairie grasses growing on marginal land. They know how to make fuel from fast growing trees with root systems that extend 25 feet into the ground, sequestering carbon emissions and enriching the soil. They even know how to make fuel from algae. They do all this in their labs every day. The problem is making cellulosic and algal fuel in large quantities at costs that compete with fuels from petroleum such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

This is my second article (previous article) from the 31st Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals sponsored by NREL. 800 global bioscientists gathered in San Francisco to share their research and showcase their progress.

Their progress with biofuels from cellulosic sources is important. Some corn ethanol plants have closed. Once promising corporations, such as VeraSun, are now bankrupt. Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for fuel-from-food are being scrutinized. Industry would benefit from biomass that can be grown at much higher yields per acre than corn. Industries such as agriculture, wood, and paper would benefit from making money from waste and from having added revenue sources.

At the conference, Verenium (VRNM) shared their progress. In Jennings, Louisiana, they are producing 1.4 million gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol. The fuel can be mixed up to 10 percent with our current gasoline, saving us from needing almost 1.4 million gallons of foreign oil each year. Some might be delivered as E85. Instead of using corn, which requires high inputs of energy, nitrogen, fertilizer, and water to produce, Verenium is using a crop that produces eight times the energy required to process it – energy cane, a hybrid of sugar cane optimized as a fuel source not a food source.

Sugarcane and energy cane are part of Brazil’s energy independence, being the source of over 40 percent of their fuel. Now energy cane is being grown in some of the more tropical places in the United States. At a time when project financing is difficult, major partners are critical to financing larger commercial plants. In a joint-venture with BP, Verenium plans to build a 36 million gallon per year plant in Florida.

Dr. Stuart Thomas with DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DD, DNSCY.PK) outlined their plans to bring a 20 million gallon per year plant on line in 2012. They are evaluating non-food feedstocks with much higher yields per acre than corn, including switchgrass and sorghum. DuPont Danisco anticipates reaching parity with $60 to $100/barrel oil by 2015. The pilot plant will be in Tennessee which is providing $70 million of funding for ethanol from switchgrass.

The long-term potential for biofuels may not be in ethanol, but in renewable gasoline, biodiesel, bio-jet fuel, and biocrude. All contain more energy than ethanol, which only delivers 84,000 BTU/gallon. Gasoline delivers 114,000; biodiesel 120,000.

With better microbes and fewer process steps, Chief scientist Dr. Steve del Cardayre with LS9, presented plans to produce industry standard biodiesel from energy cane. The plant should be able to compete with oil at today’s prices by also producing other valuable outputs, such as chemicals which can be used to make detergents. Synthetic biology competitor, Amyris, is moving even faster in building process plants to convert energy cane into renewable hydrocarbons and bio-jet fuel.

Indeed, creating multiple products from a process plant is likely to be critical to having a profitable industry. Oil refining is profitable because fractional distillation creates many valuable products at one refiner:

· Naphtha which can be processed into chemicals and plastics
· Gasoline
· Jet fuel
· Diesel
· Heavy oils which can be processed into lubricants and asphalt

Gevo will build plants with mass efficiency of over 40 percent that can produce multiple products including:
· Bio-jet fuel
· Bio-diesel
· Isobutanol for other products

Gevo sees opportunities to buy existing moth-balled ethanol plants and retrofit for $30 million per plant, a fraction of building a cellulosic plant from scratch. Gevo’s yeast fermentation process produces heat and steam which would be valuable if co-located with industrial processes that benefit from combined heat and power.

By converting wood waste to next generation fuel, Mascoma has a significant potential to co-locate with existing paper mills and wood processing operations. The same is true for Range Fuels.

Enerkem is being paid to covert municipal solid waste into fuel as it targets 2011 to bring live a 9.6 million gallon per year plant in Edmonton, Canada, and a 20 million gallon per year plant in Pontotoc, Mississippi.

Beyond the cellulosic sources for fuel, covered in this article, is the potential for fuel from algae. A future article will examine the near-term challenges and long-term potential of algal fuel.

As this Symposium took place in California, in Copenhagen, Greenpeace protesters stopped all buses because they use biofuel from food sources. In the future, they may welcome biofuel from wood and waste sources as an alternative to gasoline from tar sands and jet fuel from coal.

This December, the leaders of the world will gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, to develop a framework for a more promising sustainable future. In Denmark they will be able to visit a new cellulosic ethanol plant developed by Inbicon. The feedstock will be an agricultural waste product – wheat straw. The plant will process 24 metric tons per day of wheat straw, ten times more than a demonstration plant that Inbicon only a few years ago. The plant will be more efficient and come closer to competing with refined oil because the operation will have three products creating three revenue streams:

1. 5.4 million liters ethanol year
2. 8,250 MT biofuel which will displace some coal used by a power plant
3. 11,250 MT of molasses which will be used to feed cattle

Can such operations displace all our need for petroleum? No, but in five years we will see commercial scale next generation biofuel operations. If oil is selling for $100 dollar per barrel, then cellulosic biofuels may lower our cost of fuel. In ten years, all such operations could displace 20 percent of our petroleum use and represent an important step towards energy independence.

Cellulosic ethanol is not the only sustainable solution that world leaders will see in Copenhagen. They will see at least 40 percent of the population commuting on bicycles, demonstrating an immediate and very cost-effective way to reduce our need for oil. Many delegates will ride on electric light-rail from the airport and notice the wind farms that deliver the electricity. Some will ride in electric cars that further demonstrate transportation that uses renewable energy.

Next generation biofuels promise to be part of a portfolio of solutions to our current climate and energy problems.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report and speaks at conferences. He is the author of the new book – Save Gas, Save the Planet – now selling at Amazon and other booksellers.

Biofuel Innovators with Alternatives to Oil

By John Addison (5/14/08). Oil soars to $125 per barrel and economies around the world sputter or fall into recession. Enough is enough. Many biofuels can be blended with gasoline and diesel refined from oil, then pumped into our existing vehicles. Even making our fuels with ten percent biofuel and ninety percent refined oil is enough to drop demand for oil and send the price south.

At the moment, this approach has major drawbacks. Food prices are soaring as more ethanol is made from corn, and biodiesel from soy and palm oil. Rain forests are being slashed and burned to increase production of soy and palm oil. Next generation biofuels, however, promise to minimize these downsides while ending our dependency on oil.

“Once viewed as an environmentally-friendly, silver bullet alternative to fossil fuels, biofuels have recently become “public enemy number one” in regard to rising food prices. But what role does the growing biofuels market really play in the current food crisis?” Asks James Greenwood, President and CEO, Biotechnology Industry Organization, who goes on to answer the question.

“There are a number of factors contributing to rising food costs. Poor harvests over the past year in Australia, Canada, South America and Eastern Europe. Protectionist tariff policies affecting the rice-producing nations of South Asia. A weak dollar is driving up the demand for U.S. exports of grains, a dynamic exacerbated by hedge fund and pension fund managers who are pouring unprecedented levels of investment in grain commodities. Growing incomes and meat-eating preferences of an emerging middle class in countries like India and China are increasing global demand for animal feed and the fuel required for production and transport. But the most significant factors driving up food prices are ever-rising energy and transportation costs.

“In coming years, biotechnology will allow us to create biofuels from non-food crops, crops that yield more per acre, require less fertilizer and are more tolerant of drought and other adverse conditions. These scientific breakthroughs will only enhance the world’s ability to feed and fuel itself in a responsible and sustainable way. As biofuels production transitions to these second and third generation biofuels, biotechnology will play an essential role in providing the world with cleaner fuel and more affordable food.”

The U.S. Agriculture Department projects that the combination of a shrinking corn crop and the swelling appetite for corn ethanol will keep the price of the nation’s largest crop in record territory into 2009. USDA economists expect U.S. farmers to produce 12.1 billion bushels of corn, down 7.3% from the record 13.1 billion bushels they harvested in 2007, as farmers grow more soy.

In the U.S., ethanol is currently in far greater demand than biodiesel. By law, 36 billion gallons of ethanol must be in use by 2020 in the USA. This ethanol will primarily be blended with gasoline. E10, a blend of ten percent ethanol and ninety percent petroleum refined gasoline will be common. By contrast, in the U.S. most diesel fuel is consumed by heavy vehicles with expensive engines that must run for years. Warranties can be voided and maintenance cost increase unless the diesel fuel meets exacting standards.

Biofuel innovators were discussed and presented at the Platts Advanced Biofuels Conference, which I attended. With improved biofuels we will achieve increased energy security while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This article examines short-term and longer-term biofuel solutions.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, Khosla Ventures is funding innovative solutions for clean transportation and other major global problems. Brilliant innovators such as Vinod Khosla and Samir Kaul are involved in a number of companies creating cleaner fuels with cellulosic ethanol, biomass gasification, and synthetic biology.
Platt conference keynote speaker Vinod Khosla predicts that within five years fuel from food will no longer be competitive with cellulosic ethanol. He also predicts, “In five years, oil will be uncompetitive with biofuel, even at $50 per barrel, though oil will take longer to decline in price.”

Khosla Ventures identifies several sources of cellulosic ethanol. “There are four principal sources of biomass and biofuels we consider (1) energy crops on agricultural land and timberlands using crop rotation schemes that improve traditional row crop agriculture AND recover previously degraded lands (2) winter cover crops grown on current annual crop lands using the land during the winter season (or summer, in the case of winter wheat) when it is generally dormant (while improving land ecology) (3) excess non-merchantable forest material that is currently unused (about 226 million tons according to the US Department of Energy), and (4) organic municipal waste, industrial waste and municipal sewage.” Khosla Papers and Presentations

Sugarcane is the currently the most efficient feedstock for larger scale ethanol production. While corn ethanol delivers little more energy output than the total energy necessary to grow, process, and transport it; sugarcane ethanol delivers eight times the energy output as lifecycle energy input. Also, sugarcane typically produces twice as much fuel per acre as corn.

Brazil produces almost as much sugarcane ethanol as the United States produces corn ethanol, but at a fraction of the energy cost. Sugarcane is also grown in the southern U.S., from Florida to Louisiana to California.

Brazil is free from needing foreign oil. Flex-fuel vehicles there get much better mileage than in the U.S. If you drive into any of Brazil’s 31,000 fueling stations looking for gasoline, you will find that the gasoline has a blend of at least 20% ethanol, as required by law. 29,000 of the fueling stations also offer 100% ethanol. Ethanol in the U.S. is normally delivered on trucks, increasing its cost and lifecycle emissions. Brazil’s largest sugar and ethanol group, Cosan SA announced the creation of a company to construct and operate an ethanol pipeline.

Most sugarcane is grown in the southern state of Sao Paulo. Economics do not favor its growth in rain forests, although those who favor blocking its import make that claim. It is cattle, soy, palm oil, logging, and climate change that most threaten the rain forests. Some environmentalists are concerned that a significant percentage of Brazil’s sugarcane is grown in the cerrado, which is one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. The cerrado is rich with birds, butterflies, and thousands of unique plant species. Others argue that without sugarcane ethanol, more oil will come from strip mining Canadian tar sands and from a new “gold rush” for oil in the melting artic.

“In addition, the residue of sugarcane ethanol, bagasse, can be used for further energy production. While this may likely be used for generating carbon-neutral electricity, it could also be used in cellulosic biofuel production, potentially generating an additional 400-700 gallons per acre.” (CA LCFS Technical Analysis p 87-88)

Sugarcane growers are planning the development of varieties that can produce a larger quantity of biomass per hectare per year. These varieties are being called “energy cane” and may produce 1,200 to 3,000 gallons of ethanol per acre, contrasting with 300 to potentially 500 gallons of ethanol from an acre of corn.
Although sugarcane ethanol is currently the low-cost winner, long-term economics are likely to favor cellulosic sources.

In his keynote speech, Vinod Khosla sited promising sources such as paper waste, wood waste, forest waste, miscanthus, sorghum, hybrid poplar trees, winter cover crops, and perennial crops have deep roots and sequester carbon. Cellulosic ethanol could potentially yield 2,500 gallons per acre.

Large-scale reliance on ethanol fuel will require new conversion technologies and new feedstock. Much attention has been focused on enzymes that convert plant cellulose into ethanol. Because cellulose derived ethanol is made from the non-food portions of plants, it greatly expands the potential fuel supply without cutting our precious food supplies.

Pilot plants are now convert wood waste into ethanol. Over the next few years, much larger plants are likely to come online and start becoming a meaningful part of the energy mix. In Japan, Osaka Project, Verenium utilizes demolition wood waste as a feedstock in producing up to 1.3 million liters of cellulosic ethanol annually. A second phase, planned for completion in 2008, will increase production to 4 million liters per year. Verenium Ethanol Projects

Norampac is the largest manufacturer of containerboard in Canada. Next generation ethanol producer TRI is not only producing fuel, its processes allow the plant to produce 20% more paper. Prior to installing the TRI spent-liquor gasification system the mill had no chemical and energy recovery process. With the TRI system, the plant is a zero effluent operation, and more profitable.

The spent-liquor gasifier is designed to processes 115 Metric tons per day of black liquor solids. The chemicals are recovered and sent to the mill for pulping; the energy is recovered as steam which offsets the production of steam using purchased natural gas. All thermal energy in the plant is now renewable.
Producing cellulosic ethanol over the next few years is unlikely to be cost competitive with oil refining, unless other benefits accrue such as Norampac’s improved plant efficiency, savings in energy, heat, steam, reduction of plant waste, and/or production of multiple products from the plant. In the longer term, 100 million gallon per year cellulosic plants may be profitable without byproduct benefits.

Another Khosla Ventures portfolio company is Range Fuels which sees fuel potential from timber harvesting residues, corn stover (stalks that remain after the corn has been harvested), sawdust, paper pulp, hog manure, and municipal garbage that can be converted into cellulosic ethanol. In the labs, Range Fuels has successfully converted almost 30 types of biomass into ethanol. While competitors are focused on developing new enzymes to convert cellulose to sugar, Range Fuels’ technology eliminates enzymes which have been an expensive component of cellulosic ethanol production. Range Fuels’ thermo-chemical conversion process uses a two step process to convert the biomass to synthesis gas, and then converts the gas to ethanol.

The U.S. Department of Energy is negotiating with Range Fuels research funding of up to $76 million.
Range Fuels was awarded a construction permit from the state of Georgia to build the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States. Ground breaking will take place this summer for a 100-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant that will use wood waste from Georgia’s forests as its feedstock. Phase 1 of the plant is scheduled to complete construction in 2009 with a production capacity of 20 million gallons a year.

Abengoa Bioenergy, also announced the finalization of a $38-million collaboration agreement signed with the DOE for the design and development of the Hugoton, Kansas cellulosic ethanol plant which will process over 11 million gallons of ethanol per year with renewable energy as a byproduct. The biomass plant will be situated next to a conventional grain-to-ethanol plant with combined capacity of 100 million gallons, using scale to make cellulosic ethanol more cost-competitive. Abengoa Bioenergy will invest more than $500 million in the next five years in their production of biomass into ethanol in the U.S., Brazil, and Europe.
Poet, the nation’s largest ethanol maker with 22 plants now turning out 1.2 billion gallons a year, plans to open a 25-million-gallon cellulosic facility in 2009 alongside its expanded grain ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Corn cobs from local fields will supply it. Ethanol 2.0

Ethanol is not the only bio-game in town. Many European cars and most U.S. heavy vehicles use diesel not gasoline. New generations of biodiesel, biobutanol, and synthetic fuels are being developed that could be blended with diesel or replace it. Some of these fuels could also be blended with gasoline and jet fuel. BP and DuPont have teamed to produce biobutanol which has a higher energy density than ethanol, can be delivered in existing pipelines, and can be blended with a wider range of fuels.

Amyris will use synthetic biology to develop microorganisms that produce biofuels. LS9 Inc. is in the early stage of using synthetic biology to engineer bacteria that can make hydrocarbons for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Algae have the potential to be an efficient producer of oil for biodiesel with byproducts of including hydrogen and carbohydrates which could be converted into ethanol. Biodiesel from algae can be done today. The challenge is to make production large scale and cost effective. Ideal forms of algae need to be developed. Oil must be “brewed” with the right solution, light, mixing and stirring. Cost-effective photobioreactors must be developed.

“If we were to replace all of the diesel that we use in the United States” with an algae derivative, says Solix CEO Douglas Henston, “we could do it on an area of land that’s about one-half of 1 percent of the current farm land that we use now.”

Mike Janes, Sandia National Labs, is even more optimistic, “Recent studies using a species of algae show that only 0.3 percent of the land area of the U.S. could be utilized to produce enough biodiesel to replace all transportation fuel the country currently utilizes….In addition, barren desert land, which receives high solar radiation, could effectively grow the algae, and the algae could utilize farm waste….With an oil-per-acre production rate 250 times the amount of soybeans, algae offers the highest yield feedstock for biodiesel.”

At the Platts Advanced Biofuels Conference, most algae experts, from scientists to CEOs of algael fuel companies, see challenging years ahead before cost-effective commercial scale production of biofuel from algae will be possible. As one expert quipped, “The greatest progress to scale is being done by Photoshop.”
A number of companies are actively exploring the potential for fuel from algae. “Algae have great potential as a sustainable feedstock for production of diesel-type fuels with a very small CO2 footprint,” said Graeme Sweeney, Shell Executive Vice President Future Fuels and CO2. Shell is investing in using algae to produce fuel.

These innovators will only make a difference if they receive funding and distribution. Some of the energy giants are helping. Shell is recognized as the largest biofuel distributor among the “oil majors.” Shell has invested heavily in Choren biomass-to-liquids (BTL) in Europe. Shell has invested in Iogen, a maker of cellulosic ethanol catalysts and technology.

Biofuels have the potential to provide solutions for energy security and transportation with a much smaller carbon footprint. Other solutions include reduction in solo driving due to urban density and corporate programs, public transit, more fuel efficient vehicles, and the shift to electric vehicles that require no fossil fuel or biofuel. The new biofuels have the potential to encourage sustainable reforesting and soil enrichment. Biofuel 2.0 provides a path to fuel from wood and waste, not food and haste.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report. He owns a modest number of shares of Abengoa.