Is Cellulosic Ethanol Dead? Despite Setbacks, Signs of Progress
by Jessie Stolark (Environmental and Energy Study Institute) … Several factors have hindered the production of the volumes originally envisioned: extracting energy from cellulose proved much more difficult than extracting it from corn starch, challenges of collecting, moving and storing significant volumes of biomass were underestimated, rock bottom gas prices, consumer confusion around biofuels and appropriate vehicles, and regulatory uncertainty which chilled investments in the space (BIO puts the investments lost at a staggering $22.4 billion). All these and more have put downward pressure on the industry.
DowDuPont Latest to Exit Cellulosic Fuel
According to DowDuPont, the production of fuels does not align with its plan to divide into three companies: chemicals, agriculture, and specialty products. While the company will remain invested in cellulosic technology through biofuels enzymes, they are now looking for buyers for the facility.
Similarly, biofuels watchers will remember that the Abengoa facility was dragged down by the bankruptcy of parent company Abengoa S.A., also a major holder of solar facilities. Abengoa’s cellulosic plant, in Hugeton KS, was sold to Synata Bio Inc. in late 2016 for $48.5 million, just a fraction of its design and build cost.
The list of out-right failures or companies exiting the fuels world and pursuing chemicals or other products continues to grow: KiOR, INEOS Bio, Solazyme, just to name a few. Despite these high profile setbacks, significant milestones continue to be met by the industry.
POET Clears Significant Bottleneck in Pretreatment Process
Earlier this year, it was revealed that POET, the largest US producer of ethanol, had sued engineering firm Andritz Inc. Andritz was hired to design a pre-treatment system at the Project Liberty facility to facilitate the movement of dry biomass — corn stalks and cobs –through the facility. Unlike corn starch, moving biomass through the facility presented new issues. According to court filings, “Andritz was never able to fix its engineering and design of the system.”
Despite these setbacks, POET announced in October that they had reached a breakthrough in the pre-treatment process, which enables them to soften the biomass so the enzymes can work more effectively. POET is feeling so confident that they are considering licensing the technology. According to Matt Merritt, POET, “The leaps in performance seen at the plant this year are better than in previous years … Now that we have pre-treatment figured out we can devote our time to downstream processes. It’s super exciting.”
Corn Ethanol Plants Bullish on “1.5 Gen” Technology
Another development in 2017 is that existing corn ethanol plants, such as Quad County Corn Processors and ICM Inc. are scaling up bolt-on facilities that employ “1.5 gen” technology. It allows corn ethanol facilities to convert corn kernel fiber to ethanol. The overall result is a new technology at existing ethanol plants that could potentially squeeze anywhere from 1.5 billion to 2 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol from existing corn feedstocks.
Just this week, Aemetis Inc. announced it will be producing cellulosic ethanol at a former U.S. army facility in Riverbank, California. The new facility will be located near an existing Aemetis ethanol facility. The feedstock will be 1.6 million tons of orchard waste, such as shells and wood, that are generated each year across 1 million acres in California’s Central Valley. Aemetis hopes to provide 10 million gallons of cellulosic fuel, both to comply with the RFS as well as California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
Additionally, Canadian company Enerkem Inc. recently secured approval by EPA to sell its waste-to-ethanol fuel in the United States. READ MORE