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Hemicellulose processing, renewable fuel standard politics, and more

The second half of the Platts Cellulosic Ethanol and Biofuels Conference, last Thursday, brought some more interesting revelations.  The hottest news from the morning perhaps, was the revelation that GM was working on an ethanol-ready Volt.  Also intriguing was the introduction of butanol as an ethanol alternative.

The second half of the afternoon opened with Coskata, GM's first major ethanol partner.  While DailyTech will offer an exclusive inside look at Coskata later, for now a short overview is sufficient.  Coskata goals are nothing short of incredible -- producing ethanol for less than $1/gallon, while using only 1 gallon of water, and delivering 7.77 times the well (tree) to pump energy input.  In terms of price, and its process which is free of messy enzymes and pretreatments, Coskata really threw down the gauntlet to other fuel cell companies.

Ironically, the company to follow Coskata was Novozymes.  After Coskata had blasted enzyme methods as expensive and inefficient, Novozymes did its best to restore and air of confidence to the field.  Novozymes' Senior Marketing Manager for Biomass, Christopher Veit pointed out that his company offers enzymes to 30 industries, including the biofuels business.  His company was the largest supplier of enzymes last year, with 13 percent of world sales. 

His company has recent developed 80 new enzymes, largely derived from fungal cellulases.  These new enzymes, he said, had a six-fold efficiency increase.  He said that with the recent success, his company had partnerships with ethanol producers POET, ICM, and the KL Process and Design Group in the U.S.  His company is also working with COFCO, the largest ethanol producer in China and CTC, one of Brazil's leading ethanol firms.

Through a $12.3M DOE contract and the expert use of direct evolution, Novozymes is tackling one very tricky problem -- hemicellulose breakdown.  Hemicellulose is a special kind of cellulose found in plants such as corn, which is even more difficult to break down than normal cellulose.  This new research was definitely one of the highlights of the afternoon, as few companies expressed confidence in being able to tackle the breakdown of this pesky chemical.  With a new $100M USD production and research facility in Blair, NE, Novozymes is hoping to crack the challenge of hemicellulose and other tough problems.

After Novozymes, SunOpta BioProcess gave a presentation on pretreatment, continuing the irony of Coskata's earlier statement blasting pretreatment and enzymes.  SunOpta bemoaned the typically high costs due to acid neutralizers, ammonia recovery, acid resistant materials, and other chemicals.  Still, the company says it is making great bounds in making pretreatment available.  SunOpta is designing the pretreatment system on a BCYL, Spain which will begin Q1 2009, and designed the systems for a COFCO plant in China, online since 2006.  One key advantage SunOpta has is that it has been in the ethanol business for a couple decades, originally founded in 1973.

Next a panel of industry experts, including Donald Pierce, President of the Advanced Biofuels Group of Greenfield Ethanol took various questions.  One audience member asked what would happen if conservatives in Congress succeed in removing the Renewable Fuel Standards, as some in Washington have proposed.  RangeFuels' Senior Vice President Bill Schaefer gave an emphatic response, stating, "Removal of a renewable fuel standard would be extremely damaging.  It would send a pretty strong signal that the government does not support biofuels."

DailyTech posed probably the toughest question of the afternoon to the panel, when we asked the panel to comment on U.N. comments that biofuels were a "crime against humanity".  Mr. Pierce thanked us for the question and responded rather vehemently to the U.N.'s indictment against the feedstock ethanol industry.  He said, "A lot of the discussion this morning seem to acknowledge that there is a real problem (with corn ethanol).  I don't think it's a real issue."

He went on to site a U.N. Geneva report that showed ethanol to have a positive impact.  He characterized the previous U.N. statement as the work of a rogue operator.  Further, he argued that food prices were rising due to transportation costs and rising demand and had virtually nothing to do with ethanol demand, contrary to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's official stance on the topic.  He accuses special interests of spreading a campaign of lies about ethanol.

Following that interesting interchange, Valri Lightner, a lead engineer with the U.S. Department of Energy, and William Hagy III, a Deputy Administrator at the DOE discussed various feedstocks for ethanol production.  Wood and switchgrass were both discussed along with various agricultural aspects.

After that Gary Luce, CEO of Terrabon LLC brought a really interesting presentation to the stage.  Mr. Luce's company is seeking make nothing less than cheap gasoline-grade fuel.  Their process uses microbial fermentation in an acidic lake to produce acetic acid, which is used as a building block for long chain hydrocarbons.  His company is building its first demonstration plant in Bryan, Texas, which will be online this fall.  They claim that they can deliver $1.25 to $1.50/gallon gasoline and will produce 6 million gallons a year in the near future.  DailyTech inquired what grade the gasoline product would be, and Mr. Luce responded that their current production is around 96 octane.  If true, this means that with a bit of down-mixing their claim of synthetic gasoline is certainly possible.

The afternoon closed with a presentation by Daniel Webster on various regulatory and investment issues.  In all, Terrabon's big claims, Mr. Pierce's comments on corn ethanol's reputation, and lastly Novozyme's work on hemicellulose breakdown.  Still, all these highlights paled in comparison to Coskata's tech which seems the closest to being market-ready -- no doubt the reason GM invested in them.

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not holding my breath
By sgw2n5 on 10/13/2008 1:08:59 PM , Rating: 2
7.77x efficiency per unit of hemicellulose? I'll believe that when me shait turns purple and smells like strawberry sherbert.

I'd love to read their patent filings and CM proof(s) of concept.

RE: not holding my breath
By Brandon Hill on 10/13/2008 1:16:32 PM , Rating: 2
I'll believe that when me shait turns purple and smells like strawberry sherbert.

I've got a jug of grape juice in the frig and a freezer full of strawberry ice cream for ya ;)

RE: not holding my breath
By Fanon on 10/13/2008 1:46:15 PM , Rating: 2
Grape juice makes it turn green ;)

RE: not holding my breath
By quiksilvr on 10/14/2008 1:39:19 AM , Rating: 2
RE: not holding my breath
By austinag on 10/13/2008 1:16:52 PM , Rating: 2
I'll believe that when me shait turns purple and smells like strawberry sherbert.

If that happens, I see a career behind the counter of your local Dairy Queen in your future.

RE: not holding my breath
By Motoman on 10/13/2008 2:01:45 PM , Rating: 2
...shait comments notwithstanding, 7.77x is ridiculously high...but how awesome would it be if they could actually do that?

By bbomb on 10/13/2008 3:43:23 PM , Rating: 5
is not the only reason for skyrocketing corn prices as the panel may have suggested. Farmers would rather sell their corn for fuel at a higher cost than to food producers. If I am not correct there is actually a government mandate for corn ethanol production.

Right now corn ethanol produces a lot of revenue due to high costs for the companies involved. Switching to lower cost, much more readily available sources would result in lower revenue hence the reason companies will wait until the last minute to do so.

Using your food for fuel is a bad decision.

RE: Diesel
By Ringold on 10/13/2008 10:00:38 PM , Rating: 3
I'm surprised they even said what they did about the causes of rising food prices. By ethanol having a positive impact, did he mean a positive, as in downward pressure, on food prices? How can increased demand ever lead to lower prices? Does special systems of math apply to anything having to do with renewable energy?

But from the article:

He accuses special interests of spreading a campaign of lies about ethanol.

The truth of the matter is, at least on corn ethanols impact on food prices, he might as well have been talking about himself in that quote.

I also don't understand how they can claim $1/gal may be possible on the one hand, but on the other suggest a removal of these atrocious government mandates would be a disaster for the industry. That wouldn't compute, until one looks at the above quote, and it just fits in to a larger pattern; nothing is our fault, it's all lies, we can perform magic, give us money.

Maybe it's worth giving them the money, I don't know myself, but some honesty would be mightily appreciated. How can one trust these guys if they're willing to distort that much?

By ziggo on 10/14/2008 12:26:38 AM , Rating: 5
Out of respect for the intellect of the people you are trying to convince that this is a viable solution I propose 3 things.

1. Don't brag about the low cost of the fuel and then complain that your subsidies may be taken away. An artificial price does nothing, and if you are serious about replacing significant quantities of gasoline you have to expect for it not to be subsidized, but be taxed to support the highway system.

2. If you are going to tell me that the laws of supply and demand do not apply to your market you are going to have to do better than accusing "special interest groups" of spreading lies. You can't use the title "special interest group" like an evil accusation when the conference you are speaking at is that EXACT thing.

3. Start quoting price per equivalent gallon of gasoline for the price. If a gallon of gasoline contains 125,000BTU, then tell me how much it would cost to buy 125,000BTU of your product. This applies to all alternative fuels.

I am sick of being talked down to by people on all sides of so many issues. Frankly it is insulting. People deserve better, we deserve real answers. Blindly accepting the BS that is thrown at us by the people that would claim to be smarter than us has got to stop.

Err... what?
By rainman1986 on 10/13/2008 6:07:52 PM , Rating: 2
'Renewable' fuels are all nice and good, but those going off about how this helps the environment seem to have forgotten one thing. If AGW is to be believed, you are still shoving more CO2 into the atmosphere when you burn ethanol.

(That 7.77x efficiency factor can't be right. That or we will need fuel cells in our cars to prevent HUGE explosions if we wreck)

RE: Err... what?
By sgw2n5 on 10/13/2008 8:11:28 PM , Rating: 2
Not necessarily, the 7.77x efficiency just means that for each one unit of energy consumed to make the fuel, they get 7.77 units of fuel in return.

Percentage and Statistics Bias
By Will14 on 10/15/2008 11:59:43 AM , Rating: 3
It seemed as though the comments got further from truth/understanding as they went along.

The 7.77 ration was for only hemi-cellulose. I don't even know what percentage of molecules in bio-mass this is. Lets arbitrarily say 20%. Assume all other parts(.8/80%) are 50% efficient(don't know the numbers).

40%(.8x.5) efficiency overall from the 80%. Stated it was troublesome so I'll guess around 0% currently but lets say 5% for hemicellulose. Times 7 and you have 35-40% for this part. .4x.2=.08 or 8%

so and these calculation I assure you are wrong, could mean 40-48% 48/40=120 or a 20% efficiency increase. I believe these are favorable calculations for the enzyme using bio-fuel community. These are the statistics they should be showing, not 7.77 times of this one part of this one part of this one part of the process, but big numbers is what attracts media attention.

Personally I believe that subsidies were/are good in the short run/geginning but we will need the unsubsidized taxed $1/gallon in order to make this mass producable and feasible.

We should however continue to subsidize the losing techs temporarily but in limited amounts so that we are simply driving innovation and not propping up a failed industry. US doesn't have the financial position(10 trillion in debt) to subsidize the countries energy costs.

By ARMak on 10/14/2008 3:40:00 AM , Rating: 2
Diesel said
"Using your food for fuel is a bad decision."
This is an important realization that must be brought forward and forced on the Gov., They are funding because of lobbying. The interests of the big Corps are being pandered to, not other cheap alternative energy solutions that get to the problem possibly quicker with the same Gov support. Electrolysis has been done, is proven, but only needs development and support, Gov big push as that forced on us with TARP.
In car HydrogenOxygen (Hydroxy) production would|
Reduce fuel consumption
Reduce emissions
Reduce needs for immediate new car purchases
Reduce petro prices, forced down by reduced demand
Increase Industry, production and servicing
Increase Jobs
Increase our independence and stability
Get big OIL and CORPs off our backs
The Gov is bailing out the big guys of Finance,
What about putting 1% of that into something that directly helps the people.
Hydroxy modules that produce IN CAR fuel that costs less than 1$/125,000BTU and reduces emissions is a no brainer.
But then politicians have no brains.

"We basically took a look at this situation and said, this is bullshit." -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng's take on patent troll Soverain

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