Plans Underway for Michigan Commerical Scale Cellulosic Ethanol Plant

14 12 2011

New Hampshire based biofuels company, Mascoma Corporation, and Valero Energy Corporation, the nation’s largest oil refiner and frontrunner in ethanol production, have launched a joint venture to build an commercial-sized cellulosic ethanol plant in Michigan’s upper peninsula near Kinross. Within six months the team plans to break ground on the facility and launch by the end of 2013. They’re moving to Michigan after a successful launch of a pilot plant in Rome, NY, which produces cellulosic ethanol from a wide array of feedstocks, including: sugar cane bagasse, grasses, and corn stover.

$50 million in grants from the Department of Energy and the state will help this project get off the ground. Mascoma, cellulosic ethanol, Kinross, Michigan, ValeroThe two firms are excited to create American jobs and help tackle our nation’s energy challenges.

The reason why this new plant is ground-breaking is that while many producers are generating cellulosic-derived biofuels on a small-scale, no  plant exists yet in the states that can produce this product that is feasible at the commercial-scale. Mascoma touts their proprietary technology that can convert wood to ethanol utilizing genetically modified yeasts.


Making History: Solazyme, United Airlines and Biofuels

13 12 2011

It was like any other flight. Window or aisle, peanuts or pretzels, wheels up then wheels down. But it wasn’t just any other flight.

Just last week United Airlines made aviation history with a Houston to Chicago trip: the first domestic commercial flight to utilize fuel derived from biofuels that were created by American company Solazyme.

That particular flight alone saved 10-12 tons of CO2. United Airlines sees the fuel as a step for them to reduce not only emission, but also to improve their bottom line.

Check out United Airlines and Solazyme’s spokesmen discuss their revolutionary partnership and why this flight is one for the history books.

Reason to stray, but don’t go far before you fill up.

9 12 2011

I will have to admit. This breakthrough is by far the most startling milestone that I’ve come across in the realm of emerging biofuel research.

E. Coli, the bacteria we all fear. Responsbile for many food scare epidemics. Culprit for frequent illnesses. Cause for some deaths.

DOE, E. Coli, Joint BioEnergy Institute, Biofuel, Jet Fuel

Now researchers at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Joint BioEnergy Institute in San Francisco have experimented with a strain of E. Coli and found promising, and surprising, results. Their creation is rigorous enough to eat away at swithgrass, a touch plant which could be the next promising feestock for cellulosic ethanol. They found that when the E. Coli eat the swithgrass, the feast yeilds three products: gasoline (that’s renewable), diesel and jet biofuel.

It’s important to understand the BioEnergy Institute’s reasons for putting in so many resources to find a bacteria that could eat a renewable fuel feedstock. I coundn’t come up with any idea why, but hang on– it makes sense. The bacteria breaks down the woody matter (called lignen) in the feedstock that otherwise requires intensive processes, technology and finances to break down. By doing so, they have been able to cut projected costs dramatically and ramp up production more cheaply, efficiently and quickly.

Thumbs up to this globally feared bacteria.

US Navy’s “Green Strike Force”: A Blossoming Initiative

9 12 2011

We hear talk about biofuels within political debates and media specials.  Now, about how often you hear about sustainable fuels in the context of our ruggad, die-hard military and defense departments? If you ask me, they don’t exactly seem like the most ecologically-minded bunch.

navy, green strike force, biofuel, algae

Looking to lower their ecological footprint, the US Navy is creating a “Green Task Force” through purchasing half a million gallons of biofuel. They plan to meet a portion of the energy demandwithin their jet and carrier fleet. As an added and noteworthy bonus, this move also supports American jobs and economic vitatlity on our home soil. Most of the ordered fuels are made from re-processed cooking oil while many are algae-based.

Their over-arching hope is to meet their goal of 50% alternative, homegrown fuels by 2020.

The implications of this partnership could be various and extensive. Partnering with American clean fuel producers could help our nation secure energy security. The Navy relies on unstable, rogue nations for fuel and this provides perverse implications to our national secity. Moreover, these fossil fuels are subject to extreme price volatility, putting the Navy’s budget at risk. Biofuels, however, are produced domestically and do not exhibit that price volatility. Adding these renewable fuels into their diversified portfolio acts as a hedge against price risk.

Now this is blossoming relationship in which I want to keep up to date!

Carbon Neutral Production & Clean-Burning Fuel – A Win/Win

2 12 2011

They say win-wins within political realm, business and academics are near impossible to find.  I would have to agree, understanding that almost any action has a tradeoff where some party or actor makes off better than the other party or actor involved in a transaction.

Except, there is a caveat worth noting here – almost.

I recently came across an article about an ethanol plant in Illinois has a co-joint carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) project.  Since 2007 an Archer-Daniel’s corn ethanol plant has been capturing carbon and sequestering, or pumping, CO2 underground into a unique geologic formation.  The first of its kind in the United States, a thousand metric tons are pumped daily with an expected million tons over the next few years.  The depth at which the pollutant is pumped?  7,000 feet underground.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration, Department of Energy, Ethanol

Carbon capture is in its infancy, yes.  However, all new technologies and advancements have their initial phase in the market which require early adopters to help a good or service acquire a foot hold.  Take cars, for instance.  Almost no one had the means to pay for a car when they first rolled off the assembly line, nor did Henry Ford have the manufacturing capacity to reach economies of scale and drive down the price so that more families could afford this once-considered “luxury.”  The early adopters helped create the demand while Ford’s production expansion drove down the price-tag per car.

The ethanol industry, relative to my previous example, is acting as the early adopter while (CCS) is the technology or process that needs to reach economies of scale, or further production. Ethanol production provides the mechanism by which to do just that.

So why exactly is this partnership between a corn-ethanol plant and a carbon sequestration project revolutionary?  We’ve all heard about the impending EPA regulations on carbon dioxide and other pollutants.  When we compare two fuels, it’s important to look at how the fuel was processed and the nature of combustion. Think of it as the responsible “apples-to-apples” analysis.  In other words, a  life-cycle assessment.

Oil refineries emit toxins and pollutants to include CO2 and CH4 (methane); when combusted, petroleum emits carcinogens, toxins and CO2.  Conversely, ethanol plants still require fossil fuels to power their refining facilities.  However, this state of the art facility coupled with a (CCS) project is CO2 neutral. Moreover, the produced good–ethanol–is a clean burning fuel.

Who knew that win-wins do exist?

Nation’s Unveiling of First Dual Bio-Fuels Station

28 11 2011

Raleigh, North Carolina, pocketed the nation’s first milestone last week with the unveiling of the first station that offers both E85 (a fuel blend that contains 85% ethanol and 15% petrol) along with B20 (a fuel blend that contains 20% bio-diesel and 80% diesel). 

This milestone brings to light a key concern in the transformation of our transportation fleet. Many consumers are worried about. Fuel stations continue to proliferate throughout the States. Illinois, for example, has 200 to 300 E85 fueling stations across the state. The Department of Energy offers a routinely updated map and categorical list of locations including the address, hours of access and map.

Moreover, Illinois is pioneering the implementation of ethanol blender pumps. 


Making the Case for Clean Fuels with Economic Principles.

25 11 2011

So I thought I might run through a brief lesson of what I have learned in higher education and how those principles apply to our everyday world. I graduated with a B.S. in Renewable Energy Economics and Policy, and I’m currently pursing a masters in Environmental Policy at the University of Michigan.

But this post is not about me. It’s about markets and how they function.

To set the tone, here’s some background etymology. Economics’ root word, eco, is derived from the Greek word Oikos–meaning household or family. Economics literally translates into “management of the household.”

In order for any family unit to properly function, certain rules are established in a home. Example: dirty dishes must be placed in the dishwasher or cleaned properly when used so the next user doesn’t have to do so.  If not, extra chores might be assigned.  Although this analogy might be a stretch similar protocol applies to markets.

Markets typically act as a mechanism to facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers while offering perfect information.  Not all markets are created equally (some have many producers and are more perfectly competitive, while others act as monopolies with one buyer that exhibits significant market share).  All markets, however, can generate costs or benefits that are not taken into account within the routine transactions.  These costs and benefits can be placed on others not directly involved, making them pay or succeed just by being a by-stander.  These costs and benefits I’m referring to are called externalities.

There are two types of externalities–positive and negative. The typical example of a positive externality is clean air (e.g. someone that cleans up the air can make society and ecosystems better off); the typical example of a negative externality is pollution (e.g. a firm placing the cost of clean-up or health-care onto society as a result of their manufacturing).

Externalities, Economics,

Economics informs us that the presence of negative externalities merits government intervention because that particular market has failed to function properly.  These intervention mechanisms can include anything from a tax to thorough monitoring to other policies.

Most people would cringe at the thought of more government. I happen to agree. As a firm believer in the free market, I would also like to see less government intervention. How do we enable that? The answer is fairly intuitive–use fuels that inherently don’t require firms to internalize the cost for cleanup because the pollution is not an issue in the first place.

Fuels grown here in America such as ethanol and bio-diesel do not contribute to smog or air pollution. Therefore, they do not result in externalities that must be internalized.

It’s about time we start getting back to the academic principles to point us in a better direction of where we need to head as a society.