• WisBusiness

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gulf oil spill fuels cries for replacements, but can biofuels industry scale up?


By Tom Still
The April 20 explosion onboard the Deepwater Horizon, which killed 11 workers and unleashed millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, has renewed public calls for fuels that aren’t as toxic to the environment.

The question is whether technology and public policy are within range of meeting the nation’s demand for “green” fuels.

Scientists for years have shown they can produce liquid fuels from grass, leaves, wood and much more. But the question dogging the renewable fuels industry has always been “scale.’’

Can anyone out there produce these fuels on a scale needed to power the world’s cars and trucks?

That question took center stage earlier this month at BIO International, the world’s largest gathering of the bio-science industry, where many promising biofuels technologies were on display. But how soon can that promise be met?

“We’ve had a lot of industries tell us: Don’t show tell us you have the perfect molecule. Don’t tell us you can produce it for $1.05 a gallon. Show us you can do it at scale,’’ said Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme, a San Francisco area company that has developed a system that uses algae to convert cellulosic materials such as wood and crop waste into “in spec” jet fuel.

“Each technology faces specific challenges to commercialization – and we have a long way to go to get to fuel scale.’’

The problems are well known. Fossil fuels are still plentiful, cheap and contain more BTUs of energy than alcohol fuels. And America uses a lot of energy – about 400 million gallons of gasoline a day just to power cars and trucks.

Dozens of companies are working on different solutions. Some are focused on making fuel from cellulosic material because it is abundant and cheap. At the same time, its sugars are locked tightly within its fibrous membranes so they’re difficult to economically extract – and the alcohol-based fuels from crop “sugars” are usually blended, not used a stand-alone source of fuel.

Solazyme’s technology takes wood and crop waste that has been processed to extract its sugars, which are then fed to algae microbes. The microbes produce oil nearly identical to jet fuel, which Wolfson called a “drop-in’’ fuel because it can be used by cars and trucks that won’t have to be modified.

While the technology can produce large volumes of fuel, Solazyme does not yet have a pilot plant. And even at full scale, a microbial fuel factory would not produce the amount of fuel in a year what a commercial petroleum refinery would produce in a day.

At Virent Energy in Madison, the process of producing larger amounts of fuel – also “drop-in” fuels because they are chemically identical to gasoline and jet fuel – is more advanced. But it will be quite some time before Virent, which has investors as large as Shell Oil, Cargill and Honda, can produce biofuels by the hundreds of thousands of gallons.

There are 30 cellulosic biofuel plants built or under construction, according to a report on the biofuels industry released this year. But most are small and many are still part of a research effort to “scale” future production plants.

“The solutions will likely be regional,” said Troy Runge, director of the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative. “You’ll see different technologies in the southeast, such as algae and solar, where they have a lot of sun. In the Midwest, where we have a lot of rain but less light and heat, you’ll see other technologies that utilize grasses and wood which we have in abundance.’’

Runge said that conversion technologies to unlock sugars from plant materials are only a part of the equation. Also needed are the businesses and marketing systems necessary to collect, store and process the tens of millions of tons of cellulose feedstock materials required to produce enough fuels for a modern economy.

Still, there are examples of success. The U.S. ethanol industry, spurred by enormous government incentives, last year produced 12 billion gallons of ethanol alcohol – and Brazil converted its enormous sugar cane industry to a system that produces almost all of its transportation fuel.

The technologies are there. What’s needed is a consistent government policy that allows investors to put money in the best ideas and to stick with them as they scale up. Make no mistake: Oil will be with us for a long time. Without investment and policies that will bring biofuels production up to scale, the migration from oil will take that much longer.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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