A snapshot of our engines of innovation, as they develop new energy sources

Here are six of the dozens of new companies working to develop one type of new energy source (biofuels). This does not mean that we can ignore peak oil. It does mean that we can avoid planning for peak oil.  It does not even mean that than any of these projects will achieve commercial success on a meaningful scale.

This collection of articles about biofuels over a two week period shows our powerful engines of innvation at work.  It just means that we have tools and options.  To make use of these tools, we need to do research about our use of energy and available sources, to build models that provide a sound foundation for large-scale crash programs. We are on the clock, as peak will likely coming while we are still preparing for it.

  1. Are Backyard Ethanol Brewers an Answer to High-Priced Gas?“, Scientific American (9 May 2008)
  2. Corvallis Cellulosic Ethanol Start-Up Receives Energy Grant“, Daily Journal of Commerce (8 May 2008)
  3. Swiss yeast developer Butalco gets financial boost” Ethanol Producer Magazine (6 May 2008)
  4. G.M. Invests in Second Ethanol Process“, New York Times (1 May 2008)
  5. BlueFire to Break Ground“, GreenTech Media (8 May 2008)
  6. Sweet New Fuel“, Forbes (23 April 2008)

Contents, with excepts

I. Are Backyard Ethanol Brewers an Answer to High-Priced Gas?“, Scientific American (9 May 2008) – Excerpt:

A company banking on drivers’ weariness of skyrocketing gasoline prices unveiled a home refinery device on Thursday offering another option: ethanol. E-Fuel Corporation says its EFuel100 MicroFueler can produce up to 35 gallons (132 liters) of ethanol a week that consumers can pump directly into their cars and trucks. There is no combustion inside the device, which runs on a standard household 110- to 220-volt AC power supply (consuming about 150 watts per day) and uses a membrane system to distill the sugar, yeast and water solution required to make ethanol rather than combustion heating elements, as commercial ethanol producers do.

Interested drivers in the U.S. can put in their orders now for their own EFuel100 MicroFueler at the company’s Web site with a $3,000 down payment toward the total $10,000 tab; the first units are expected to ship some time this fall.

… The cost of operating and maintaining the EFuel100 vary, depending on rebates (a $1,000 federal tax credit is available) and the cost of the sugar feedstock-it takes 14 pounds (6.4 kilograms) of feedstock to produce a gallon of ethanol. E-Fuel also offers its Carbon Credit Coupon Program, which will allow its customers to buy discounted E-Fuel-certified sugar feedstock for an estimated 15 to 30 cents per pound, the company said Thursday.

II.Corvallis Cellulosic Ethanol Start-Up Receives Energy Grant“, Daily Journal of Commerce (8 May 2008) – Excerpt:

… Founded in 2006 by three former Hewlett-Packard employees and an Oregon State University researcher, Trillium is looking for a commercially-viable way to process cellulose, the abundant fiber that gives plants their structure.

To convert cellulose into a suitable form for ethanol production, it must first be broken down into a sugar-like component called xylose. But the yeast used for fermenting sugar in corn-based ethanol production can’t process xylose. So companies are taking different approaches to cracking xylose for ethanol production.

In January, Pacific Ethanol received a $24 million federal grant to build the first cellulosic ethanol test plant in Boardman that would use yeast that’s been genetically modified to process xylose.

“There’s some big money flying around for our competition, genetically modified organisms,” Beatty said.

Trillium is experimenting with naturally-occurring enzymes that break the xylose into sugars that can be processed by yeast. “There’s a trade-off between you have to do a little extra processing to make that happen, but then you get to use the yeast we’ve known for centuries,” Beatty said.

III.Swiss yeast developer Butalco gets financial boost” Ethanol Producer Magazine (6 May 2008) – Excerpt:

A private Swiss company developing genetically optimized yeasts for production of second-generation biofuels and biochemicals from lignocellulose received its first round of external financing.

… Butalco was founded by Eckhard Boles with the Institute of Molecular Biosciences at the Goethe University of Frankfurt, and Gunter Festel, a chemist and economist with investment experience. Launched in 2007, Butalco has access to the research facilities and personnel at the institute.

The company’s focus is developing a process that uses C5 and C6 sugars in the fermentation of ethanol and butanol. Butalco thinks the C5 sugars can significantly improve the yield of ethanol from corn, wheat or sugarcane. Other firms have existing patents for similar technology, and Butalco has filed two applications for patents of its own. Butalco technologies would improve yields for ethanol from cellulosic biomass, and for the production of butanol.

… “We expect that in about one year, we, together with partners, will be running our first cellulosic ethanol pilot plant,” said Boles. “In about two to three years we expect to start the first pilot plant producing butanol from cellulosic biomass.”

… Stommel added that “use of C5 sugar for the production of ethanol or butanol is very promising, since there is no competition with raw materials for food production. In contrast to the valuable raw materials, which can be used for food or wood products, there is a lot of less valuable biomass waste.”

Butalco technology could efficiently convert such waste into ethanol – “or better,” said Stommel, “into butanol.”

IV. G.M. Invests in Second Ethanol Process“, New York Times (1 May 2008) – Excerpt:

The General Motors Corporation announced on Thursday that it was hedging its bets on how best to make ethanol from non-grain sources, and making an investment in a second company with technology that might do that job cost-effectively.

… G.M., which has pledged to make half its vehicle production ethanol-compatible by 2012, said it had taken an equity position in Mascoma, a company based in Lebanon, N.H., that has three proprietary technologies for making ethanol from sources like papermill waste, corn stalks, wood chips and switchgrass. … In January, G.M. bought a stake in a company named Coskata that would use similar raw materials but with a different process.

Ethanol made from non-grain materials, known as cellulose, is identical to corn ethanol, and the final steps ae usually the same: using yeast to ferment sugars into alcohol. But getting the sugar out of the cellulose is complicated. The process usually requires treating the cellulose with steam or acids to open up the material, and then letting enzymes – the digestive juices of bacteria or fungi – free the sugars. In addition, the cellulose includes both conventional six-carbon sugars as well as five-carbon sugars, but most industrial-grade yeast only likes the six-carbon variety.

Executives at Mascoma said they had developed a patented process, using heat and mechanical action, to treat the cellulose, avoiding the use of chemicals. And, they said, they are working with some bacteria that feed off cellulose and break it down, and others that are efficient at converting sugars to ethanol. “Each one exists separately in nature,” said Dr. Lee R. Lynd, a founder of the company and its chief scientist. Now they are using gene splicing to give a single organism the ability to do both.

The approach is potentially simpler than the one used by some competitors, which is to digest the cellulose using an enzyme made in a separate process.

V.BlueFire to Break Ground“, GreenTech Media (8 May 2008) – Excerpt:

BlueFire Ethanol plans to break ground on its first commercial cellulosic-ethanol plant in the next few months. … The facility, which will be adjacent to a county landfill in Lancaster, Calif., will have the capacity to produce 3.1 million gallons of ethanol from garden and wood waste and nonrecyclable paper, he said. BlueFire expects to begin operations at the plant next year and to sell ethanol from the facility starting around June, he said. It also hopes to double the plant’s capacity in a few years as the amount of biomass coming to the new landfill grows, he said.

“We’re excited about the ability to take the materials that we as a society value the least and convert them into a value-added product,” Klann said.

… Advocates hope that cellulosic ethanol — which is made out of nonfood materials such as switchgrass, wood chips and corn cobs — could help temper those concerns, reduce costs and make ethanol mainstream. But the technologies haven’t yet lived up to their promise. So far, cellulosic ethanol remains more costly to produce and manufacturing plants haven’t reached mass production. The difficulty of economically harvesting and collecting enough cellulosic material to continuously run a large plant is another challenge, as most of the material is spread around instead of gathered into one place (see Q&A: Harvesting Cellulosic Ethanol).

BlueFire plans to circumvent that difficulty by locating its plants at landfills that already separate out green waste such as tree and bush trimmings. The company uses a “concentrated acid hydrolysis” process based on technology licensed from Arkenol, and says it has developed a number of its own improvements. The technology has been tested in three pilot plants: one in Orange County that BlueFire operated for five years to develop its intellectual property, and two that the Japan Gas Co. built in Japan four years ago as part of a licensing agreement.

VII. Sweet New Fuel“, Forbes (23 April 2008) – Excerpt:

The secret to venture capital is turning a tiny resource into something huge. And that’s exactly what Bay Area biofuels startup Amyris, is proposing to do: put specially designed microorganisms to work on sugarcane in hopes of generating massive amounts of a new kind of biodiesel fuel.

… The joint venture aims to produce a biodiesel by 2010 that will work in conventional car and truck engines. Amyris executives say they believe the new fuel will reduce emissions by 80%, compared with burning petroleum-based diesel. Even better–Amyris targets the sugarcane diesel to be cost-competitive with petroleum based-fuels, with crude oil prices as low as $60 to $65 a barrel.

… Amyris’ ambitions are enormous: within four or five years of commercializing its new diesel, Amyris aims to be producing 1 billion gallons of fuels a year across a number of avenues, Hilleman says.

… Because the new fuel has the same molecular structure found in traditional fuels, it can be distributed through existing pipelines, as well as the rest of the petroleum distribution infrastructure. Ethanol cannot be shipped in existing pipelines; it needs to be trucked or transported on trains. The sugarcane biodiesel is expected to blend at high levels with other petroleum fuels, and should have far lower emissions than petroleum diesel.

Producers in Brazil used about half of the sugarcane grown there last year to produce 20 billion liters (about 5 billion gallons) of ethanol.

… Amyris’ technology harnesses a modified yeast that essentially “eats” the crushed sugarcane and spits out a hydrocarbon-like renewable fuel. The technology came from research at the lab of Jay Keasling, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

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For more information about Peak Oil

  1. When will global oil production peak? Here is the answer! (1 November 2008)
  2. The most dangerous form of Peak Oil  (8 April 2008)
  3. The world changed last week, with no headlines to mark the news   (25 April 2008)
  4. Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off  (8 May 2008)

Here is an archive of my articles about Peak Oil.

Here are other resources about Peak Oil.

Click here for all posts discussing good news about America’s future.

4 thoughts on “A snapshot of our engines of innovation, as they develop new energy sources

  1. It would be a dead end even if they could turn the plants into some kind of fuel without any energy input. Photosynthesis is ridiculously ineffective in comparison to solar energy technology. We need the agricultural area for food, renewable materials (like cotton), solar energy and as fallow. Bio-fuels are too inefficient, we cannot allow their widespread use.

  2. One fascinating aspect of American life is watching the wild swings of public opinion. A year ago biofuels were salvation; today they are the devil.
    .
    Perhaps they are, like most things in life, another tool — with useful but limited applications. Their economics might be spectacular, for example, at recycling some kinds of organic waste.
    .
    Pehaps if Americans ate less meat we might live longer and have surplus agricultural resources available for biofuels. Who knows? It will be interesting to see how all this shakes out.

  3. Renewable resources are divided in energy and material applications. You will easily be able to find that the corresponding groups of experts have a very different opinion about energy crops. The “renewable resources for material application” experts have pointed at the troubles of energy crops since several years. In Germany, the agricultural bureaucrats were pro energy crops (always eager to support farmers) while the science and economy-related bureaucrats and their corresponding sets of advisers were contra energy crops.

    The history of the turn in public opinion is a history of media failure.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Good point about the experts. Although the agriculture industry hired experts to show the wonderfulness of biofuels, as you note there were more than offsetting experts warning of the adverse impacts. Still, the public’s imagination was sparked by the green-ness of biofuels — so calling it a media failure might be a bit harsh.
    .
    This goes to one of the most important themes of my articles about energy: we have grossly underinvested in research about energy research: sources, uses, alternatives. Instead, as the biofuels boom shows, we rely on industry sources and inspired guesswork of others. This is not enough.

  4. Biofuels make the most sense when we process waste materials. Using up valuable crop land for fuel consumption makes little economic or energy sense (except in some limited areas and applications).

    But using waste food (both at the production and usage side) and waste timber products does make sense. There are still some ways to go to readily converting cellulose, but it is getting there.

    However there is a readily available option that can be easily applied with existing technology. Bio-diesel using waste cooking oil. Conversion costs are easy (basically cleaning), it can then be blended with real diesel and used on even the latest high tech engines. Older engine designs can run on 100% bio diesel quite easily.

    The only issue to overcome is collecting and transporting to a central clean up point. Strangely that is easier in the 1st world nations, mainly because the main usage is in food processing factories and is concentrated (think Macdonalds) in a few areas. 2nd and third world countries have a tougher task, but because labour is cheap then with a bit of organisation and incentives it can be done.

    Potential? Estimates I have come across range between 0.5% and 10% of diesel requirements, depending on the country. Even 0.5% at today’s prices is worth a heck of lot.

    Some of the best solutions don’t require any great whiz bang tech, just the will to do and some organisation.

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