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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