In January, GM announced that it was buying an undisclosed stake in ethanol startup Coskata and partnering with the company to help achieve its vision of a fossil-fuel-free future. At the time many people were confused -- who was this little company? And how did they hope to achieve their vision of making cellulosic ethanol from non food-based sources on a commercial scale, at a time when all commercial production was from sugar crops? And most of all, how would they achieve their biggest claim -- $1/gallon production cost ethanol?
At the third annual Platts Cellulosic Ethanol and Biofuels conference we encountered a different Coskata -- a more mature company that is now poised to become an industry leader thanks to the foundation of hard research it laid.
Coskata was among the first to present at the conference and made few friends among its ethanol producer competitors. Chief Marketing Officer put on a presentation in which he laid out the differences between Coskata's method and alternative cellulosic ethanol methods, which require either expensive pretreatment or even more expensive enzymes. The irony was not lost when the various competitors that followed bemoaned the high costs of enzymes and pretreatment.
Coskata's process has the potential to revolutionize the industry, because it's unique. We got to take a look at this process first-hand when we toured Coskata's 30,000+ sq. ft state-of-the-art research facility in Warrenville, IL. With no pretreatment, carbon containing materials are put into a gasification chamber, where they're exposed to a plasma torch at 20,000 F, as hot as the surface of the sun. Clean gas leaves the reactor. Sulfur is harvested for later use, and halogen gases are also collected for resale. The leftover slag is inert and is an ideal brick or highway material.
From the gasification chamber, pure carbon-bearing gas flows into a reactor. Inside the reactor specially bred microbes live, or "bugs" as Mr. Bolsen affectionately refers to the little critters as. The microbes are derived from 5 different original lines from Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma University. The bugs live in special reactors. Mr. Bolsen showed off two of the proprietary designs -- a still and then a membrane tube reactor filled with thin filaments. Coskata plans on deploying both, possibly, as both work great. Inside the reactor the food gas is converted to pure ethanol, releasing at 99.7 percent purity. The process entirely eliminates enzymes and the need to go through complex purification for the resulting product.
Coskata now estimates that its ethanol will cost less than $1/gallon to produce, easily beating the DOE long range target of $1.25 a gallon. By Coskata's estimates, this trumps chemical approaches which at best cost between $1.25-$2.50/gallon with current tech and enzymatic approaches which current cost between $2-$5/gallon. Best of all their process yields 100 gallons/dry ton of material and only requires a gallon of water per gallon of gas.
Coskata's estimates their approach reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 96 percent from well (trees/grass/waste) to wheels (GREET analysis), including all energy costs. These numbers come from a study on Coskata's wood-based fuel production, performed by U.S. government Department of Energy Scientist Dr. Michael Wang, at one of the country's top labs -- Argonne National Laboratories. Assuming this the analysis looked at pure ethanol, and factoring in the low energy content of ethanol and a E85 blending with gas, DailyTech estimates that Coskata may be able delivering E85 that produces 60-70% less emissions than fossil fuels. This may be a bit conservative as power generation from the steam byproducts of ethanol production may save even more emissions.
With such promising tech, Coskata is looking to aggressively bring the tech to market. It plans to both build its own plants and license its reactor and microbe technology to various locations. Construction on the first full scale plant will begin likely late this year or early next, according to Coskata. The plant will produce 50-60M gallon/yr. Sources say that the plant may be located in the Southeast U.S. The exact location is still up in the air as several competitors have competing proposals. The first plant will most likely be fueled by wood waste as an energy source. The plant will consume approximately 500,000 dry tons of material yearly.
Mr. Bolsen indicated that while the Renewable Fuel Standards set in place by recent legislation help his company, Coskata is likely to be able to succeed with or without tax credits. This will be difficult for some of the other second generation ethanol companies, according to Mr. Bolsen.
Mr. Bolsen, in an exclusive interview with DailyTech, stated, "Coskata would look to be viable without subsidies. But it would be unbelievably detrimental to scrap the energy credits. (Still) If we can make (ethanol) 50 cents less at the pump than gasoline, consumers are going to demand it."
The real key to Coskata's magic is their state-of-the-art guided evolution facility. Coskata has invested in a robotic system unlike any in the world, thanks to its hiring of several of the world's top microbial geneticists. The fully automated facility tests over 150,000 strands of bugs a year and is so top secret, that we could not even enter it during the tour. It has allowed Coskata's bugs to advance beyond those of any other ethanol producer in efficiency.
As Coskata aggressively advances, it really is looking better and better. It has been working to develop partnerships in South America and China as well as a wealth of domestic offers in the U.S. It is looking to build and license facilities to process everything from wood to trash into cheap fuel. Meanwhile Coskata's microbes keep getting more and more efficient -- and that's without easy genetic modifications that could improve yields (Coskata's bugs are currently non-GMO).
Mr. Bolsen envisions a future where Coskata delivers updated microbes regularly to partners, like Microsoft delivers software patches. And with a solid infrastructure in place and commercialization in place, it seems they can do it and accomplish the seemingly impossible -- bring cheap commercial scale alternative fuels to the masses within the very near future.