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10 Years After: Advanced Biofuels’ Status, Opportunities and Challenges

Submitted by on February 6, 2018 – 11:02 amNo Comment

by Lorenz Bauer (Lee Enterprises Consulting/Biofuels Digest)   In 2007 the US government established a national strategy for the development of advanced biofuels made using non-edible biomass. After 10 years we are still short of achieving the targets of this plan but there has been considerable progress.   Worldwide there is continued investment in both research and commercial development.   The last half of 2017 saw significant activity with announcements of future plans and some setbacks. Challenges remain to be addressed by the biofuels industry and government policy makers that provide opportunities for further developments.

In a setback, DuPont announced they would sell their cellulosic ethanol plant in Iowa. This left Poet-DSM’s Project LIBERTY plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa as the only currently operating plant in the US with positive news. They reported solving a critical challenge in the pretreatment process used at the plant and that the unit is now running at 80% uptime.

Eastern Europe is beginning to see activity aimed at meeting the EU mandates for biofuel production and use. On October 31, Clariant announced plans to build a cellulosic ethanol plant in Romania based on its Sunliquid process. There are rumblings of similar projects in Slovakia and other countries.

There was also significant activity in northern Europe. Energy company St1 announced it was continuing to target production of renewable diesel at its refinery in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2020. Silva Green Fuel AS is building a demonstration plant with the objective of producing second generation biofuel in Hurum, Norway. CRI/Criterion Catalyst Company has announced that they licensed their IH2 hydroprocessing technology for production of liquid transportation fuels to Biozin Holding’s sawmill in Åmli, Norway.

In South America, Brazil’s Senate approved a bill on December 12 creating a national biofuels policy, RenovaBio, to increase the use of biofuels.

There is growing interest in waste-to-energy projects that replace landfilling and incineration. The recycling of wastes is more appealing than converting purpose-grown agricultural products. Waste-to-energy projects provide greenhouse gas reductions while solving solid waste disposal problems.

Many developers of advanced biofuels have pivoted to higher value products that take advantage of the unique properties of biomass derived materials.

 Canada’s Enerkem Inc., received U.S. EPA approval to collect RIN’s for cellulosic ethanol produced at its Edmonton, Alberta municipal solid waste conversion plant. Abengoa announced it was selected by Fulcrum BioEnergy to construct the first plant in the U.S. that will produce biofuels from municipal solid waste (MSW) using gasification technology.

The high cost of advanced biofuels and low oil prices are considered the main impediments to progress, making advanced biofuels a harder sell to consumers and suppressing investor interest in the technology. Promising approaches to lower prices include improved feedstock crops, biological synthetic methods and process integration to reduce or convert wastes. Developing an efficient infrastructure that improves the logistics of collecting and handling low density solid material scattered over a wide area is key. Reducing the complexity of the process would lower CAPEX and reduce the risk of process interruptions.

Support for biofuels is weak among the general public. The value of greenhouse gas reduction is not fully accepted or considered in economic policy.

Countries with economies that are major importers of oil or have significant untapped biomass resources are much more motivated.

Greenhouse gas reductions achievable by biofuels have been questioned. There are continued concerns among environmental activists about the impact of indirect land use. Beyond the food versus fuel argument, there are studies suggesting that replacing or harvesting forests and natural areas results in a negative CO2 balance. The switch to diesel powered vehicles has been questioned and natural gas and methanol are increasingly viewed as better alternatives. There is also an increased perception that electric vehicles will replace liquid fueled vehicles in the coming decades. This assumes that solar, wind, and other alternative electric power generation have lower environmental impacts than biomass production. The biofuels industry must address these challenges with both research and marketing efforts.

First-of-its-kind facilities shoulder all the initial engineering costs and should be overdesigned to decrease operational risks. Yet the realities of financing often force shortcuts and higher risks.  READ MORE

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