Ethanol is out; renewable-feedstock biofuels are in

Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editorial director, says renewable-feedstock biofuel technologies offer better alternatives to ethanol.

By Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editorial director

Do you remember the gasohol boom? It didn’t last long but you might, especially if you bought a flexible-fuel vehicle and were surprised by the high cost of running it on E85, if you invested your own money in an ethanol facility, or if you paid attention to those who ascribed rising food prices and global grain shortages to fuel-fired demand on the grain supply.

It’s too soon to talk about grain-based ethanol in the past tense, but maybe not by much. While ethanol has a place as a bio-based octane enhancer and consequently, as a means to extend oil stocks, I assert that making motor fuel from food grain is too energy-intensive, not cost-effective without subsidies, and in today’s global food market, morally questionable. But more important, we’re seeing a lot of alternatives.

For example, Iogen (www.iogen.ca) has been producing cellulosic ethanol at an Ottawa, Ontario demonstration plant since 2004. Production topped 581,000 liters in 2009, more than double 2008 output.

DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (www.ddce.com), the University of Tennessee (www.utk.edu) and Genera Energy (www.generaenergy.net) recently held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for their cellulosic ethanol demonstration facility in Vonore, Tennessee, hailing it as a world's first. The 250,000-gallon-per-year unit relies on agricultural residue such as corncobs and bioenergy crops like switchgrass as feedstocks.

Cobalt Technologies (www.cobalttech.com) and American Process Inc. (www.americanprocess.com) announced an agreement to build the world’s first industrial-scale cellulosic biorefinery to produce biobutanol. Their “GreenPower+ Biobutanol” technology selectively converts part of a variety of boiler cellulosic biomass feedstocks into renewable biobutanol, a platform for production of renewable jet fuel and other valuable compounds.

The biorefinery, currently under construction in Alpena, Michigan, is slated to begin ethanol production in early 2012 with a switch to biobutanol in mid-2012, and eventually is expected to 470,000 gallons of biobutanol annually.

Meanwhile, Dow Chemical (www.dow.com), which in 2010 announced plans to work with Algenol Biofuels (www.algenolbiofuels.com) to build and operate a pilot-scale algae-based integrated biorefinery at Dow's Freeport, Texas, site, has started a major promotion of new biodiesel technologies it has to offer following the acquisition of Rohm & Haas. These include Amberlyst BD20 solid catalyst esterification technology for production of biodiesel from inexpensive low-quality feedstocks, and the associated Ambersep BD19WET feedstock purification technology, which extends catalyst life.

Many industrial facilities have suitable feedstocks available as process waste.

The technology to produce motor fuels from synthetic gas was made famous by the Germans in World War II, when they used the Fischer-Tropsch process to make diesel fuel from coal to keep their tanks running after the Allies cut them off from their oil supplies. Over the subsequent 60 years, it’s been refined and applied to feedstocks from wood chips to municipal waste to make a wide variety of chemical products, including fuels.

A recent study, “World Biofuels,” by The Freedonia Group (www.freedoniagroup.com), says growth in world biofuel demand will continue to expand at a rapid double-digit annual pace, reaching 121 million metric tons in 2014. Bioethanol will experience the greatest overall gains, but biodiesel will show much faster growth. Demand for other biofuels, such as biobutanol and renewable diesel, will begin to reach commercially significant volumes.

The study says delays in the emergence of second-generation cellulosic ethanol as a viable alternative to grain-derived bioethanol will create demand for bioethanol derived from sugar cane (made mostly in Brazil) in the United States and Europe. But over the longer term, this imbalance in demand and production will decline as cellulosic ethanol capacity is brought online and other biofuels begin to compete with bioethanol in the marketplace.

Many industrial facilities have suitable feedstocks available as process waste or can profitably extract higher-level products from trash or solid fuel before they feed it to a boiler or furnace. But garden-variety biomass can be expensive to transport, so researchers at Purdue University (www.purdue.edu) propose to bring the processing plant to the biomass. They have developed a method — fast hydropyrolysis hydrodeoxygenation — amenable to small mobile processing plants.

The process, dubbed H2Bioil, involves heating biomass with hydrogen to as high as 500°C in less than a second in a high-pressure reactor, followed by catalytic oil-upgrading steps to yield a high-energy-density liquid fuel.

Whether it’s being digested by enzymes or cooked in hydrogen, the obstacles to wider application of biomass conversion are moving from the laboratory to the industrial facility. Biomass and municipal waste presents challenges to transport, store, condition and feed in a controlled way. Much of the burden of making these processes reliable and profitable will fall to the experts in industrial equipment, reliability and maintenance.

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