The first day of Platts Cellulosic Ethanol and Biofuels Conference 2008 brought some new companies to the public eye and hailed the return of some old ones. Coskata was back with bold claims and new companies such as Terrabon LLC and Novozymes intrigued with unique technologies.
Current energy legislation mandates biofuels through the so-called Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Thus the conference represents a sneak peek into companies which will be driven by the government to replace fossil fuels. One reoccurring theme both in the first and the second day is the importance of biofuels to national security. Conference speakers argued that dependence on volatile nations for oil was inherently risking national security, and they present biofuels as an alternative.
Friday, the second and final day of the conference, was dominated by the discussion of carbon sources for biofuels. The hot topic of the day was definitely switch grass. Burton English, PhD, a Professor of Agriculture Economics at the University of Tennessee opened the morning of presentations and introduced this reoccurring theme. He discussed how the University of Tennessee has been cultivating large areas of switch grass and comparing its growth under different conditions. He pointed out that many different states like Tennessee have large areas of waste pasture, not government protected or used for livestock feed. These areas, he argued could be put to use growing switchgrass.
Next up was David Archer, a PhD Research Scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Dr. Archer spoke about his team’s research with the University of Minnesota-Morris, which involved looking into removing part of the plant waste from corn or other feedstocks. Only a small portion of the corn stover (husks and stalks) is currently used, while the rest is tilled into the soil. By adjusting tilling (which releases soil carbon), a significant portion of the stover can be taken without upsetting soil balance.
The USDA is intensively researching this balance as the stover could provide a great deal of fuel, from something that is currently being thrown out. They are currently in the early stages of drawing conclusions. DailyTech had the privilege of sitting down and interviewing Dr. Archer after his presentation. He informed us that the current estimates indicate that about 50 percent of the stover could be harvested without affecting the carbon balance (with about 3-5 percent of that 50 percent going towards other commercial purposes). With less-intensive tilling, this yield could be increased to possibly 60 percent, but this is a topic of Dr. Archer's current research.
Dr. Archer also let DailyTech know about efforts to turn barley and peas, two common northern crops into ethanol. He said the peas were especially promising as the protein leftovers could be used as animal feed. One thing he acknowledged was there was a problem with food prices being driven up by ethanol demand. He said this was the USDA's official position, something that ran contrary to comments by some of the previous day's speakers. However, the USDA also points out that these increases are overshadowed by rising gasoline costs, so it is still worth it to invest in ethanol.
Finally, he stated he believes that the current trend to small ethanol producing farm collectives will level off. He added, "I think (the final model) will include (both collectives and commercial plants). The operations that are small jumped ahead of the curve. I think the industry will eventually get to those commercial scale plants as part of the solution."
Steve Flick took the stage and had the audience both cracking up and informed. Mr. Flick is the Chairman on the Board of Directors of Show Me Energy Cooperative. This Missouri co-op is easily the model for small ethanol producers. They take corn stover and other waste grasses and grind it up and turn it into pellets to replace propane heating. The pellets pack 22,000 BTU which is twice that of a coal pellet their size, according to Mr. Flick.
He says they process 100,000 tons a year, or about 341 tons a day -- only about 15 semiloads. His plant reduces carbon dioxide, mercury, SOX, and NOX emissions. One exciting thing about Mr. Flick's collective is that they make use of every byproduct. Their process produces high quality amorphous silicon as a byproduct (Si is contained in plant stalks). They sell $1,000/day of the silicon at $2/lb. And Mr. Flick was above a bit of humor, either -- he commented on how he once had some problems crossing the border with his bags of biofuel grasses and his little fuel pellets.
The day wrapped up with three final speakers, the first of whom was Mike Schmidt, Manager of Forestry Renewables at John Deere. Mr. Schmidt showcased a special tree chopper that paired it down to the trunk and then cut it into sections with no help needed. This is perfect for the managed tree farm infrastructure that some ethanol producers want. Next up was Bluefire Ethanol's CEO and Chairman Arnold R. Klann. Mr. Klann's company is aiming to make cellulosic ethanol from municipal waste, like Coskata.
Closing out the conference was a presentation by Thomas Todaro, CEO of Targeted Growth, Inc. Mr. Todaro gave an intriguing talk on how his company is working to gene modify energy crops for better yields. They showed how by removing growth inhibiting genes or blocking them with fake genetic keys, they could make plants grow many times as tall. The most exciting item though was at the end of his presentation. Targeted Growth has created "corncane" a corn hybrid that has sugary sap in its stalk. It does not produce ears, but grows much taller than corn and produces more sugar.
In all the 2008 Platts Biofuels Conference showcased some exciting techs -- from industry leaders Coskata to corncane to the power of small collectives. Ultimately many will say that these biofuels companies have many problems that they need to work out. These observers are absolutely correct, but the conference also highlights just how much progress has been made in solving them.