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Updates on Alternative Energy Sources, Part 3: Biofuels

March 15, 2010


For this series on alternative energy sources, I’m using an article by Michael Totty as the stepping off point for further discussion [“The Long Road to an Alternative-Energy Future,” Wall Street Journal, 22 February 2010]. In his article, he limits his discussion of biofuels to those using algae as feedstock [“The Long Road: Algal Biofuels,” Wall Street Journal, 22 February 2010]. He writes:

THE TECHNOLOGY: Algae are fast-growing, consume carbon dioxide and have the potential to produce more oil per acre than other biofuels. The oils they produce can be used to make substitutes for diesel fuel, aviation fuel and gasoline. Backers say the U.S. could meet its entire liquid-fuel needs with algal biofuels.

CURRENT STATUS: About 150 companies world-wide are working to commercialize algal biofuels, and U.S. government support has soared over the past few years; the Energy Department recently granted $44 million for research into commercializing algal biofuels and $97 million for algae pilot and demonstration projects. In the biggest, Sapphire Energy of San Diego, Calif., plans to break ground on a 300-acre biorefinery in New Mexico later this year. Another recipient, Solazyme Inc., uses a fermentation method to produce algae-based fuels and has contracts to provide the U.S. Navy with 1,500 gallons of jet fuel and 20,000 gallons of diesel to power navy ships; the company is converting an existing plant in Pennsylvania into a demonstration biorefinery. Big oil companies, including ExxonMobil and BP, also have invested in algae-biofuel projects or companies.”

One of the reasons that Totty probably concentrates on algal-based biofuels is that biofuels that use corn or sugarcane have been controversial because of their impact on food prices [“Slow burn for US crop ambitions,” by Hal Weitzman, Financial Times, 19 January 2010]. That’s certainly the reason that I have written favorably about algal biofuels in the past (see my posts entitled The Potential of Pond Scum, Biofuel from Algae, and Fuels of Tomorrow — Part 2, Biofuels). Weitzman reports:

“The ‘first generation’ of the fuel – produced from corn grown primarily in the Midwest – was once trumpeted as the country’s solution for energy independence and a job-generator for the rural heartland. But then corn-based ethanol production became caught up in a debate over whether farmland should be used for fuel rather than food. It was blamed for soaring crop prices, demonized by environmentalists for its questionable green credentials and widely cited as an example of wasteful government subsidies. Ultimately it was market forces that caused the ethanol industry to collapse in 2008, with a production glut that destroyed profits. It made a tentative recovery last year as the US economy stabilized.”

Totty concludes:

WHY IT’S GOING TO TAKE SO LONG: As promising as the technology is, it hasn’t proved that it can produce fuels in sufficient quantities or at a low enough cost to make a dent in U.S. liquid-fuel consumption. Solazyme’s fermentation method, which grows algae in dark, enclosed tanks, is considered by some experts to be closest to maturity; the company expects to reach commercial-scale production by 2013, producing ‘hundreds of thousands’ of gallons of oil or fuel substitutes. But it’s a long way from being cost-competitive with oil. Sapphire’s open-pond method could deliver lower-cost (but still expensive relative to oil) agriculture-scale production. The company aims to produce one million gallons of ‘green crude’ by the end of 2012, and hopes to begin commercial production within three years, with a goal of 10,000 barrels a day by 2018. But the technique hasn’t yet demonstrated that such productivity levels are possible. It also has to deal with such issues as adequate water supplies, lower productivity caused by wild algae strains and supplies of easily accessible carbon dioxide.”

Going back to Weitzman’s article, he notes that “President Barack Obama‘s administration is still holding out hope for a big breakthrough in ‘second generation’ cellulosic ethanol – fuel made from non-food crops such as switchgrass and other plant fibers, which sidesteps the ‘food versus fuel’ debate and is more efficient and less damaging in terms of carbon emissions.” He continues:

“Switchgrass for example produces about five times the energy that it takes to grow. ‘The use of second-generation biofuels is expected to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide from combustion engines, by 80 to 85 per cent in comparison with conventional fossil fuels,’ noted Phani Raj Kumar Chinthapalli, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a consultancy, in a recent report. ‘The lifecycle emissions for second-generation biofuels are in the negative range, which implies consumption of carbon dioxide rather than emission.’ The Obama administration is also promoting research into other second-generation fuels, such as those produced from by-products or industrial waste. … No US company producing biofuel from non-food crops, by-products or industrial waste is yet making significant commercial sales. The economic downturn is partly to blame. It also reflects the technical complexity of next-generation biofuel production.”

To read more about “grassoline,” other cellulosic biomass projects, and biofuel generated from waste, read my post entitled Back to the Future Fuels. The next breakthrough in biomass-to-biofuel research may come from nature and a tiny marine isopod [“‘The trouble with gribbles’ may actually be a boon for biofuel industry,” by Ben Coxworth, Gizmag, 10 March 2010]. Coxworth reports:

“Just what, you may ask, is a gribble? It’s a tiny marine isopod, and it eats wood. For centuries, they destroyed wooden ships. Today, they continue to munch away on docks and piers. Unlike creatures such as termites, however, gribbles have no helpful microbes in their digestive system to help them digest wood – they themselves possess the enzymes necessary for converting it to sugar. British researchers are now suggesting that what works for the gribbles could also work for converting wood waste and straw into liquid biofuels. The research was conducted by scientists at the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Center at the Universities of York and Portsmouth. They came to their conclusions by examining genes found in the guts of the gribbles. The isopods’ digestive tracts, they discovered, are dominated by enzymes that attack the polymers that make up wood. One of the most abundant enzymes is a cellulose-degrading enzyme, never before seen in any other animal. The researchers at York are now trying to determine just how the enzymes work, and whether they can be adapted to industrial applications.”

A team of engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is also claiming a breakthrough in producing biofuel from biomass feedstock. They claim that their process can produce jet fuel that can be used by today’s systems [“Plant-based fuel is cheap, easy, and ready to power your jet,” by Tannith Cattermole, Gizmag, 11 March 2010]. Cattermole reports:

“Engineers at University of Wisconsin-Madison have found a way to convert 95% of the energy of cellulosic biomass into jet fuel using stable, inexpensive catalysts, basic equipment and minimal processing. The end hydrocarbon product is so similar to jet fuel that it is ready for application by present internal engine designs. The team’s previous research had focused on processes that convert plant-based sugars into transportation fuels, however they found that sugar molecules commonly degrade to form levulinic acid and formic acid which don’t readily transform into high-energy liquid fuels. Adopting a new approach they decided instead to exploit this process and began with the two products levulinic acid and formic acid as their platform. They found that in the presence of metal catalysts the two acids react to form a product called gamma-valerolactone (GVL). Using laboratory-scale equipment and stable, inexpensive catalysts, Dumesic’s group converted aqueous solutions of GVL into jet fuel. While other ethanol or cellulosic-based fuels have low energy density and cannot fully replace petroleum-derived hydrocarbons due to present internal engine design, ‘the hydrocarbons produced from GVL in this new process are chemically equivalent to those used in the present infrastructure'” says Alonso. ‘The product we make is ready for the jet fuel application and can be added to existing hydrocarbon blends, as needed, to meet specs.’ Not only that but the simple process preserves about 95 percent of the energy from the original biomass, requires little hydrogen input, and captures carbon dioxide under high pressure for future beneficial use. In fact the only limitation to production of the cellulosic biofuel is the availability of cost-effective GVL which is currently manufactured in small quantities as an herbal food and perfume additive. But the team are already working on that too, and aim to develop more efficient methods for making GVL from biomass sources such as wood, corn stover, switchgrass.”

Although I can’t confirm it, the biomass research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison may be caught up in the current earmark turmoil in Washington, DC [“Curbing earmarks: Even with new restrictions, for-profits play a role,” by R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post, 15 March 2010]. Smith reports:

“Twice in recent years, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) helped obtain earmarks totaling $3.2 million for a home-state university to study how to make military jet fuel from plants. Standing behind that nonprofit work, however, is a for-profit Chicago firm that often partners with universities to reap part of their earmark benefits. Similar collaborations between private companies and nonprofits will pose tricky questions under a policy intended to end earmarks to profit-making firms, which Obey helped shepherd through the House Democratic caucus last week.”

Putting politics aside, even if a breakthrough is made in the process of breaking down biomass into sugars for biofuels, it may not make much of a difference. As BusinessWeek points out, it is not just the technology that presents a challenge. Growing enough feedstock, especially for cellulosic biomass processes, could also present a challenge [“The Biofuel Bubble,” by John Carey, 27 April 2009 print issue]. Carey explains:

“The first challenge is growing enough green plant material. The numbers are daunting. Producing 30 billion gallons of fuel takes 300 million or more tons of plant material. That’s more than the total weight of cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. over the past 10 years. Growing this much cellulose would take at least 30 million acres of land. ‘I think the biggest problem for everybody is how are we going to grow, gather, store, and treat the biomass,’ says Brent Erickson, lobbyist for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Some industry executives doubt it’s possible to grow that much plant biomass. ‘You can’t make 16 billion gallons a year from cellulose,’ says Paul Woods, CEO of Algenol Biofuels in Naples, Fla.”

It seems that more roads lead back to algae as a feedstock for biofuels than away from it. Among the 150 companies researching algal biofuels is a firm called Phycal [“Power from Pond Scum,” by Adam Aston, BusinessWeek, 23 November 2009 print issue]. What’s different about Phycal is that it “is commercializing a novel chemical process that continuously squeezes oil from the microorganisms while they’re alive. Competing approaches consume huge amounts of power cooking up the plants to harvest the oil, while Phycal’s way dramatically cuts energy use and costs.” Even so, Phycal’s process remains on the border of producing affordable future. That’s why Kevin Berner, the company’s CEO and founder, “is building a pilot plant using natural algae strains in Hawaii. It’s on track to open in 2010 and should deliver biofuel at about $4 per gallon—on par with the state’s notoriously high oil prices.” A Danish company recently announced that it made a breakthrough that will allow it to produce biofuels from waste products at a cost much closer to current oil prices [“Danish enzyme makers claim biofuel breakthrough,” by Andrew Ward, Financial Times, 16 February 2010]. Ward reports:

“Novozymes [claimed] a breakthrough in efforts to produce biofuels from agricultural waste a day after rival Danisco made its own push for leadership of what could become a multi-billion dollar industry. The two Danish enzyme makers have each poured tens of millions of dollars into development of technology to enable production of ethanol from non-edible plant leftovers, such as straw, corn cobs and sugar cane off-cuts. Both are aiming to show that the investments are close to paying off as they unveil new enzymes designed to make so-called cellulosic ethanol commercially viable after years of unfulfilled promises. Novozymes [asserts] that it has created an enzyme capable of producing cellulosic ethanol at a cost of $2.25 a gallon – close to the price of petrol and conventional ethanol. Danisco … told the same conference that it too had made a technological advance with the launch of an enzyme that it predicted would become the industry standard ‘in terms of cost and performance’. … Many analysts, however, are likely to remain sceptical of the breakthrough claims of both companies until commercial production gets under way after many false dawns.”

Although ExxonMobil and BP have made significant investments in algal biofuel research, you can count Royal Dutch Shell amongst the skeptics. Shell believes “that second-generation biofuels, contrary to earlier optimistic forecasts, could take as long as a decade to develop. Last year it sold its stake in Choren, an aspiring German producer of second-generation biofuels” [“Generation game,” The Economist, 6 February 2010 print issue]. Shell’s short-term strategy is to invest in first generation biofuel. an area in which it is already the globe’s largest distributor of ethanol.


Lack of space for landfills may eventually play as large of a role in the decision to build biofuel plants as the concern over energy security. That is one of the reasons that Edmonton, in Canada’s Alberta province, is building one [“Waste-to-Biofuels plant to make gas from garbage,” by Ben Coxworth, Gizmag, 3 March 2010]. Coxworth reports:

“The City of Edmonton already diverts 60% of its municipal waste from the landfill. This is done through an extensive home blue-bagging recycling system, along with a waste-sorting facility. At the facility, recyclable materials that missed the blue bags are extracted from household garbage, while organic materials continue into the enormous Edmonton Composting Facility. The 40% that’s left over is what will be used in Enerkem’s Waste-to-Biofuels complex. The thermo-chemical process will begin with shredded waste being fed into a gasifier, where its chemical bonds will be broken and its carbon content will become a synthetic gas. That gas will then be cleaned, conditioned, then catalytically-converted into liquid, market-ready ethanol and methanol. Much of the inert material that’s left over will be used as aggregate for construction materials, or even used to power the system itself. Enerkem claims it will be an energy-positive process, meaning it will create more power than it uses. It should also require minimal water usage, and could even be a net producer of water, as it will be extracting moisture from the waste. The Waste-toBiofuels complex is currently under construction, and is scheduled to be complete and operational by 2011. It is expected to initially produce 36 million liters (9.5 million gallons) of ethanol, from 100,000 tonnes (110,231 US tons) of sorted waste, per year. If it works as planned, only 10% of Edmonton’s municipal waste will end up in the landfill.”

Another biomass power plant may eventually be built in the UK. Bio Energy Investments Ltd, a United Kingdom company, has applied to the British government for permission to build a biomass power station that will be powered by palm kernel shells. In this case, the biomass isn’t converted into liquid biofuel but burned directly [“Biomass Plant planned for UK,” by Jude Garvey, Gizmag, 27 December 2009]. Obviously, palm kernel shells are not indigenous to the British Isles so all of the fuel must transported from locations where the waste is generated. This will not only add to the cost of operating the plant but it will expand its carbon footprint as well. Nevertheless, Bio Energy Investments claims that “the power plant is expected to reduce carbon emissions by up to 80% compared with burning fossil fuels.” The plant itself, if it looks anything like the artist’s rendition, should be very interesting. Garvey describes the building:

“The visually stunning Teesside plant will be covered with greenery, provide fuel for over 50,000 homes and be powered by palm kernel shells – byproducts of the palm oil plantations and a seemingly controversial choice given the environmental issues surrounding palm oil plantations and deforestation. … British architect Thomas Heatherwick was enlisted to design this unique building which will appear to rise up from the surrounding landscape and the exterior panels will be planted from indigenous grasses. It will take up about a third of the currently barren site, and the remaining area will be landscaped to form natural grassland. It is hoped this will encourage rare flora and fauna to return to the site. The building will also house offices, a visitors’ center and a renewable energy education resource center.”

Sometimes good intentions backfire. In the 2008 farm bill passed by the U.S. Congress, there was a provision that established the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. The intent of the program was to “provide a little government money to convert wood shavings and plant waste into renewable energy.” What happened, however, was that the price of lumber went up as a result [“The unintended ripples from the biomass subsidy program,” by Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, 10 January 2010]. Eilperin explains:

“As laudable as that goal sounds, it could end up causing more economic damage than good — driving up the price of raw timber, undermining an industry that has long used sawdust and wood shavings to make affordable cabinetry, and highlighting the many challenges involved in decreasing the nation’s dependence on oil by using organic materials to create biofuels. In a matter of months, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program … has mushroomed into a half-a-billion dollar subsidy that is funneling taxpayer dollars to sawmills and lumber wholesalers, encouraging them to sell their waste to be converted into high-tech biofuels. In doing so, it is shutting off the supply of cheap timber byproducts to the nation’s composite wood manufacturers, who make panels for home entertainment centers and kitchen cabinets. While it remains unclear whether Congress or the Obama administration will push to revamp the program, even some businesses that should benefit from the subsidy are beginning to question its value.”

Biomass industry representatives insist that subsidies are essential to help the industry mature; but some common sense needs to be applied to the program when obvious deleterious effects are uncovered. Common sense, unfortunately, seems to be in short supply in Washington, DC, at the moment. It makes little sense to harm one segment of the economy in order to promote another. In this case, “the composite panel industry, which turns these materials into particleboard and medium-density fiberboard, … outranks the U.S. biomass industry in terms of employees and economic impact, with 21,000 employees and annual sales of $7.9 billion, according to 2006 U.S. Census data.” What does this all mean? John Carey concludes his BusinessWeek article this way:

“The future of biofuels … probably looks like this: Farmers will grow millions of acres of switchgrass and other energy crops on land not taken out of food production. Those crops will help fight global warming and improve soil quality by adding carbon to the soil, and they can be processed into low-carbon fuels that are seamlessly delivered to filling stations and pumped into the gas tanks of trucks and cars. In other words, over the long term, we’re probably not talking about ethanol—nor about a triumph of tiny startups. As for the rest of the companies, some of their technologies may find a role, but most are not likely to make it. For many people, this conjures up the bubbles that enveloped biotechnology and the Internet in the late 1990s, when many companies failed. Now in next-generation biofuels, predicts Codexis CEO Shaw, ‘the only people who are going to be able to survive this are the Big Oil companies.'”

I’m not so sure that only big oil companies will survive in biofuel sector, but they will certainly muscle in as the sector becomes more important. British Petroleum got it right when it changed its name to BP and now advertises that the BP stands for “beyond petroleum.” Regardless of all the hype, biofuels probably won’t take the alternative energy sector beyond petroleum for some time. On that point, I agree with Totty.

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