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Advancing Biofuels 

advancing biofuels-spring 2013

By David Hodes

Growth in industrial biotech guided by advances in biofuel technologies.

In the quest for better and cheaper sources of clean and renewable fuel, and energy independence for the country, the biotech industry that includes new sources for biofuels has gained traction quickly over the last year.

Certainly biofuel from corn — ethanol — has already been part of the American landscape for years, with mixtures of ethanol and gas already fueling most cars in the country and even getting to the point where even NASCAR runs their cars at a 15 percent ethanol-to-gas mix.

But there is more development on the biofuels side of biotechnology, sparked by the research into plant genetics that has trickled down from such sources as the human genome project to help scientists figure out more and better ways to create fuels from organic sources. Advanced biofuels are coming on strong, with the promise of not only renewable domestic sources of fuel but also creating jobs and building demand for new feedstocks to be grown in expanded agricultural businesses.

“Industrial and biotechnology got the first patents, issued for cleaning up oil spills,” says Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the industrial and biotechnology division of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “But health care biotech jumped out of the gate because of the profitability of drugs and it was off to the races.”

A burst of innovation in the agricultural biotech space followed, he says, with the genetically engineered seed. “But I think those genetic engineers understood full well the potential for biotech and that it was great in the industrial space.”

The market for industrial biotech products has grown, and the number of products and processes have grown phenomenally, Erickson says, and a key component of that is biofuels. “Now we have companies that are making advanced biofuels from feedstocks, making things like algal oils that can be made into jet fuel and diesel fuel.”

These developments have, to a large extent, been spurred on by the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) that set annual standards for production and use of both conventional and advanced renewable fuels, with conventional biofuels estimated to reach 15 billion gallons by 2015 and advanced biofuels to reach 21 billion gallons by 2022.

It is estimated by an advanced biofuel company, the U.S. ethanol-producing POET, in partnership with global science-based company active in yeast and enzyme technology, DSM, that in the United States alone, as many as 350 to 400 new biorefineries will have to be created by 2022 to meet the volume requirements under the RFS. POET, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., and one of the world’s largest ethanol producers, already has 27 grain ethanol plants in the United States.

Steve Hartig, vice president of bioenergy at DSM, says that even though the tax credits for ethanol expired at the end of last year, the U.S. government has put a lot of money into research and development on different biomass technologies. “There is a lot of support for this because it really drives how you make the most out of agriculture,” Hartig says. “The U.S. has a huge agriculture business, and we need to utilize every pound of grain and stalks and everything else we can use.”

The economic benefit derived from the biofuels industry extends not to just the consumer getting better prices on domestically-produced fuel but communities seeing the development of biofuel plants, working together with farmers planting new feedstocks that can be turned into fuel.

Biofuels today can be broken down into three main technologies, Hartig says: Ethanol, made from corn in the U.S. and sugar cane in Brazil; biodiesel fuel made from vegetable oil and oil-containing crops like canola; and the next generation of biofuels advanced biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol (basically everything left in the field after the corn has been harvested, called stover, which is then upgraded to fuel sources); or biobutanol, isobutanol made from next-generation feedstocks like algae, agricultural waste, switchgrass, sorghum, trees and even household trash.

The economic benefit derived from the biofuels industry extends not to just the consumer getting better prices on domestically-produced fuel but communities seeing the development of biofuel plants, working together with farmers planting new feedstocks that can be turned into fuel.

In fact, a recent Bloomberg report showed that out of the eight regions in the world — Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Europe, India, Mexico and the United States — could likely generate revenues of $1 trillion between now and 2050 from the production of next-generation ethanol.

One example in the U.S. Midwest is Project Liberty in Emmetsburg, Iowa, a commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plant that is the first joint venture of the POET/DSM advanced biofuels partnership. It is under construction now with expected startup in early 2014, Hartig says.

Once the plant is up and running it will be making 25 million gallons of ethanol annually, Hartig says. “It will be one of the first cellulosic ethanol plants in the world, what we call a commercial demonstration plant,” he says. Once the plant scales production, it could be a significant job creator — 35,000 to 70,000 jobs, or 10,000 to 20,000 jobs for every billion gallons of ethanol produced, based on Department of Energy estimates.

Hartig says that they will license the technology to other corn ethanol plants predominantly in the United States first, then to other countries. He says that they have a separate project working on butanol fuels and another on diesel fuel that are all “more developmental.”

But the truly good news about advanced biofuels is that production is not contained just in the Midwest where feedstocks are grown in good proximity to biorefineries. Biofuels are seen as an economic engine in North Carolina as well, though in this part of the country, growing and processing biofuel is a “tough nut to crack.”

The Project Liberty plant, plus plants that other companies are building right now are examples of how biofuels has gone from the lab to reality, Hartig says. “I think if you look out two or three years, you will see maybe 20 more under construction.”

But the truly good news about advanced biofuels is that production is not contained just in the Midwest where feedstocks are grown in good proximity to biorefineries. Biofuels are seen as an economic engine in North Carolina as well, though in this part of the country, growing and processing biofuel is a “tough nut to crack,” says Steven Burke, president and CEO, Biofuels Center of North Carolina. “How can we verify that we can take lots of material from our land in this state, reliably, sustainable day and night over time, with economic and environment strictures, to enable a large company to happily make money and fuel here?” he asks.

Organic products grown in North Carolina that can be used for advanced biofuel development are energy grasses – and that is just what a global chemical company determined would be an ideal match for technology they created for renewable liquid transportation fuels from cellulosic materials.

That company, Chemtex International, based in Wilmington, N.C., with operations in Italy, India and China, already built a similar facility in northern Italy, positioned to be the world’s first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuels plant. The company announced last year it would build its new production facility in Clinton, N.C., making 20 million gallons annually of cellulosic ethanol beginning on 4,000 acres of land across 11 counties and expanding to 30,000 acres that will provide 300,000 dry tons of energy grasses such as miscanthus, switchgrass, certain strains of sorghum and what are called “soft hardwoods,” Burke says.

The $175 million plant, expected to be the nation’s first commercial-scale facility for production of ethanol from cellulosic energy grasses and materials, will give the local agricultural community $15 million annually in economic return and value from the tilling, harvesting and logistics of getting feedstocks grown and delivered to the plant, Burke says.

Burke also notes that most waste materials — such as municipal solid waste and others — have been targeted for biodiesel conversion. But, in time there will be an increasing market to convert these and other waste materials — wood, paper, restaurant grease, oils — to ethanol fuel, because the country has bigger needs for petroleum-based fuels related to ethanol. “So far that technology is still new and being proven,” Burke says.

It’s hard at this time to imagine a place that can make 50 million gallons of ethanol from waste material, Burke says. But as technology develops, America will be able to take cellulosic materials from wood and convert it to fuel. “That will be the next main area.” There are currently 14 sites in North Carolina that can support a large facility to convert wood to fuel, he says, with the caveat that a producer has to be sure the tree source is maintained as a renewable resource.

The center is implementing North Carolina’s 2007 Strategic Plan for Biofuels Leadership, which has the goal of replacing 10 percent of the state’s imported petroleum fuels with locally grown and produced biofuels by 2017.

As discoveries in advanced cellulosic biofuels become reality, corn-based ethanol can offer a proven track record of economic success that will help bolster the case for biofuel. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, domestic ethanol production hit 13.3 billion gallons in 2012, directly employing over 87,000 Americans and helping displace 465 million barrels of imported oil worth $47.2 billion.

The added plus is that advanced biofuels is just the ticket for ongoing biotechnology developments of greener methods of doing business and slowing the spread of global warming.

Erickson says that Craig Venter, one of the scientists involved in human genome mapping, which has played a role in biofuels with the discovery of genetic modifications of bacteria and yeast, and has now turned his attention to algae that would eat carbon dioxide and produce energy from it.

Other industrial biotech products in development include a green plastic developed from biotech-engineered polymers by DuPont that degrades in seawater — a huge benefit for the environment and big attraction for consumers who want the kind of greener packaging using these technologies that are being adopted by Walmart and Coca-Cola, Erickson says.

“I think that is going to lead to an explosion of companies that are using these new technologies,” Erickson says. The driving force is economic, he says, because using these new bio-engineered products helps companies lower costs to adopt technologies which, for example, lowers their environmental compliance costs.

“We are seeing a real growth in the market globally for industrial biotechnology in the billions of dollars now,” he says. “And we see that growing exponentially over the next decade.”

Illustration by dan at Free Digital Photos.net

 

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About the author: David Hodes

David Hodes is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dhodes11@gmail.com.

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