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The GM-sponsored Platts Cellulosic Ethanol and Biofuels conference in Chicago discussed the imprending commercial scale production of cellulosic ethanol as well as offering a sneak peek at upcoming efforts such as butanol fuel production.

GM showcased its HHR, an E85 Flex-Fuel Vehicle. GM is leading the automakers in FFVs, with over half the current population on the road. It plans to have 18 FFV models by 2009, and 50 percent of its line supporting E85 by 2012.
The third annual Platts Cellulosic Ethanol conference answered some questions and raised others

The third annual Platts Cellulosic Ethanol and Biofuels Conference (formerly just Cellulosic Ethanol Conference) provided an intriguing firsthand look into a developing industry, one which DailyTech was on hand to cover.  The conference highlighted how far these technologies have come, and also how far they have yet to go before hoping to supplant the oil industry.  The conference also highlighted the sheer diversity of approaches among biofuel startups, something which underscores the creativity and passion that exists in the field.

The conference kicked off last Thursday with John McKenna, Managing Director of Hamilton Clark & Co., taking the stage.  Mr. McKenna, whose firm is a biofuel investment group, underscored the promising state of the industry.  He said that despite a rough economic atmosphere, cellulosic ethanol company stocks are holding value far better than traditional ethanol companies.  Mr. McKenna said that within a year or two ethanol production costs would drop from $2.20/gallon to $1.25/gallon, thanks to cellulosic technology. 

He discussed the critical next step -- the transition of cellulosic ethanol out of the lab and into demo plants and scaling up to small commercial plants, a reoccurring theme at the conference.  He also praised the new biofuel tax credits, part of the "sweetner" which aided the passing of the $700B USD bailout bill.  He lauded, "The credit again goes to people in government who are focused on this industry."

Mr. McKenna was followed by Susan Ellerbusch, VP of Global Biofuels at BP.  Ms. Ellerbusch provided an interesting look into how one oil giant is warming to what many see as the future of fuels.  She described how BP currently blends 760M gallons of biofuel per year, by BP's estimates a tenth of the world market.  BP is also investing big, with $1B USD in investments, which it plans to use to branch into the conversion sector, as well as expanding its existing business sectors.

Ms. McKenna estimated that by 2030, biofuels would occupy 11-19 percent of the fuel market, and stated that they could occupy as much as 30 percent if a transition away from feedstocks could be obtained.  She addressed some criticism of the feedstock (sugarcane) based industry in Brazil as well, describing how BP's sugarcane was grown on depleted cotton fields, over 1000 km from the Amazon.

While she defended these current efforts, she acknowledged that the future was likely a move away from feedstocks.  She stated, "Our view is not all biofuels are created equal.  If something is done well the potential for growth is incredible.  Our focus is on action.  Understand the criteria that makes biofuels done well and then go after them aggressively."

One final intriguing part of Ms. Ellerbusch's presentation was an introduction to BP's efforts to start producing and studying butanol as a possible ethanol replacement.  Butanol packs a higher energy density, but would be more expensive as it takes more carbons to produce.  BP is partnering with DuPont to produce and test biobutanol onsite at BP's Hull UK plant.

After Ms. McKenna, Richard L. Bain, PhD, Principal Research Supervisor for the National Bioenergy Center at the National Renewable Energy Lab presented.  He discussed at length the importance of diversity and cost in biofuels.  He illustrated how various research efforts were bringing down the cost of everything from biodiesel to ethanol and butanol.

After Professor Bain's discussion Joseph R. Skurla, President of DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC (DDCE) spoke.  Mr. Skurla discussed how his company, a child of DuPont, was what he characterized as rapidly advancing in the field of pretreatment and enzymatic cellulose .  He also brought up the topic of switchgrass as a cellulose source, a reoccurring theme.  He said that DDCE was investing over $140M USD over 3 years to construct a pilot plant in Vonore Tennessee 2009 and a commercial plant in 2012.  DailyTech queried Mr. Skurla on whether DDCE, like BP, had efforts to look at butanol as a possible fuel.  He emphatically said no, stating that his company was focusing on only ethanol at the present.

Last up for the morning was Candace Wheeler of GM.  Though the attendees were growing hungry for lunch, they were pretty rapt at Ms. Wheeler's discussion of GM's cellulosic ethanol efforts and roadblocks to the budding industry.

Ms. Wheeler said that it was a promising time for both feedstock based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol.  She described how hybrid genetics had increased corn yields by 5 times since 1940, yielding as much as 210-220 bushels per acre.  She said that this was allowing GM to launch its ethanol fuel drive.  GM is leading the automakers' ethanol charge, having produced 3.5 million of the 7 million flex fuel (ethanol capable) vehicles on the road.  She says that by 2009, there will be 18 models which support E85 and that by 2012 half of GM's line will provide this support.

One important difficulty she discussed was the availability of ethanol fuel stations.  She pointed out that there are currently only 1,900 ethanol stations in the country, roughly 1 percent of stations, despite a variety of incentives and tax credits for ethanol station owners.  Further, with 80 percent of these stations concentrated in the Midwest, most of the U.S. has extremely poor ethanol coverage.  Ms. Wheeler said that progress was being made and pointed to GM's success to building an ethanol highway on I-65, with stations spanning from Lake Michigan (Gary, IN) to the Gulf of Mexico.  She also said an NGA partnership would be key to future efforts.

A big hand was given to GM's partners, Coskata and Mascoma.  DailyTech had previously covered GM's partnership with Coskata, announced in January.  GM is now partnered with Mascoma, as well, which produces cellulosic ethanol enzymatically.  While both partly owned by GM, there's a lot of competition between the pair.  As to cellulosic efforts, Ms. Wheeler highlighted a ladder approach which GM is taking, in which it first hopes to transition from corn to other feedstocks like cassava and sweet potato, then to cellulosic ethanol (wood, municipal waste, etc.), algae, and finally to direct synthesis of gasoline molecules.

At the end of her presentation, DailyTech gained an intriguing piece of news from Ms. Wheeler.  GM apparently is working hard at developing a flex fuel version of its wildly popular upcoming all-electric Chevy Volt.  Ms. Wheeler and other sources at GM all but confirmed that the FFV version of the electric car would see production in the next several years, likely with the second generation of Volt.



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RE: Comments
By tshaughn on 10/13/2008 9:58:43 AM , Rating: 0
I would hardly call the promotion of this technology wasteful pork. I'm a strong believer in cellulosic ethanol and at the same time, I harbor a hatred of corn and sugar based ethanol. GM's want for E85 is something that is not economically or environmentally sound and is doomed to fail. If you want to call something pork, it should be the out of control corn subsidies that have been implemented that have caused food prices to rise and thousands of acres of midwestern corn crops to rot in the field as farmers planted it only for the tax break.

Cellulosic ethanol, on the other hand, is where we should have been concentrating from the start. It uses mostly waste products, and is created enzymatically rather than chemically. More importantly, the heating value of CE is MUCH closer to that of gasoline, so less would have to be burned in vehicles to move the car an equal distance as regular ethanol could. Based on this, CE is a much more promising technology, and is also closer to being carbon neutral.


RE: Comments
By masher2 (blog) on 10/13/2008 10:17:25 AM , Rating: 4
> "If you want to call something pork, it should be the out of control corn subsidies "

The bill issues tax credits for production, rather than simply funding research into improving the technology.

I'm all for promoting research. But direct subsidization of inefficient technologies is never a good idea. When a tech is ready to come out of the lab, no subsidies are needed. Before that time, though, it's a premature process that is wasteful and inefficient.

> "More importantly, the heating value of CE is MUCH closer to that of gasoline, so less would have to be burned in vehicles to move the car an equal distance"

Eh? Ethanol is ethanol; it doesn't matter how you produce it. I think you've confused the energy inputs required to produce CE (which is indeed less than for feedstock-based) with the actual output.


RE: Comments
By the goat on 10/13/2008 10:20:53 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
created enzymatically rather than chemically.


Enzymes are only used in chemical reactions.

quote:
Enzymes are biomolecules that catalyze (i.e. increase the rates of) chemical reactions.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enzyme

---=============================================- --

quote:
the heating value of CE is MUCH closer to that of gasoline


All Ethanols are created equal. - the goat

Ethanol is Ethanol regardless of the source of the biostock used to make it.


RE: Comments
By tshaughn on 10/13/2008 10:33:59 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Enzymes are only used in chemical reactions. quote: Enzymes are biomolecules that catalyze (i.e. increase the rates of) chemical reactions.


Right, so reducing the amount of input energy required to make it is a bad thing? This helps the process become much more efficient and carbon neutral. Feedstock ethanol needs much greater energy inputs during production, which would come via fossil fuels.

quote:
All Ethanols are created equal. - the goat Ethanol is Ethanol regardless of the source of the biostock used to make it.


They are not all created equal. The process, lack of use of feedstock, and use of waste products all make it more attractive. Also, cellulosic ethanol contains lignins that increase the btu/gallon over regular ethanol, which does not have these lignins.


RE: Comments
By masher2 (blog) on 10/13/2008 10:53:46 AM , Rating: 2
> " Also, cellulosic ethanol contains lignins that increase the btu/gallon over regular ethanol"

Burning lignin in a standard automobile engine would be an extraordinary bad thing. I think you've confused some CE proposals (which suggest burning lignin to help fuel the process itself) with adding lignin directly to the resultant output.


RE: Comments
By BitByRabidAlgae on 10/13/2008 11:37:17 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Right, so reducing the amount of input energy required to make it is a bad thing? This helps the process become much more efficient and carbon neutral. Feedstock ethanol needs much greater energy inputs during production, which would come via fossil fuels.


You're forgetting that the enzymes themselves must be manufactured, requiring energy, and they are rather expensive. This is a primary reason why CE costs so much more to make. The focus of most research is not how to make CE with enzymes (they've been doing that from the beginning). But, rather how to make it without enzymes.

Cellulose is just a sugar molecule. But, it's a very large and complex one. The sugars from sugarcane and corn are much simpler, smaller molecules. These are the kinds of sugars that the microorganisms are able to digest and turn into ethanol.

Currently, the enzymes are used to break up the large cellulose molecule into simpler sugars that the microorganisms can then process. From this point on, the process is identical to current feedstock based methods.

The only way to make CE cheaper than corn ethanol is to crack the "no enzymes" nut. So, either find a cheaper way to break up cellulose, or find (or make) a microorganism that can directly process cellulose into ethanol. It will always cost more to make CE, but with cheaper feedstock (switchgrass, lawn trimmings, etc) it might be able to match the price of corn ethanol one day.


RE: Comments
By zombiexl on 10/13/2008 10:48:04 AM , Rating: 4
quote:
I would hardly call the promotion of this technology wasteful pork.


Anything not directly connected to the issue at hand is wasteful pork. Maybe you believe in this technology, and maybe I dont. If you believe invest in the company (or companies) doing this. Why should we all be forced to invest in this technology, with no return on our investment?


RE: Comments
By tshaughn on 10/13/2008 10:55:20 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
The bill issues tax credits for production, rather than simply funding research into improving the technology.


You're right, I didn't realize that the tax credits applied to the production of all biofuels. Thought it was just CE, which IMO would have been more forward thinking than the law actually is.


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