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.

"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer

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