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.

Isolated Hard Times: Ethanol’s Job and Economic Outlook Remain Strong

19 11 2011

We are reminded of it everytime we turn on the media. It’s a ubiquitous reminder that jobs are scarce, budgets strained, and spending frugal.

Yet the question remains – are all sectors truely created equal in terms of our recent macroeconomic trough? I was curious to see the impact within the renewable fuels arena, a major employer and source of American fuel, so I tracked down some statistics and facts to paint a clearer picture.

According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s 2010 Minnesota Annual Report, “Minnesota’s ethanol industry generated more than $2.5 billion in economic activity in 2009 and supported more than 6,800 jobs … Ethanol production in the state increased to 862 million gallons in 2009 from 550 million gallons five years ago.  The MDA report estimates the industry is on tap to increase production to 1.1 billion gallons this year with a projected economic impact of $3.1 billion and approximately 1,500 additional jobs.”

Minnesota also boasts 21 ethanol plants across the state, all providing economic opportunities for suffering rural economies.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture

In order to determine the significance of that figure and ethanol’s efficacy in providing employment opportunities, I thought it imperative to compare it to the unemployment data for Minnesota. As of October, Minnesota’s unemployment rate fell to 6.4% while the national unemployment fell to 9%, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

All other factors aside, it seems no coincidence that Minnesota is much better off than most of the country in this recession. A state-wide statute has set the goal for increasing the ethanol blend in fuel to 20% by 2013, and they also offer  more E85 pump stations than any other state in the nation.

These regulatory initiatives in addition to renewable fuel industry proliferation have proved to be the successful dual pillars that continue to drive Minnesota’s economic development agenda.



Research Award: Corn Ethanol’s Positive Role in Health and Medical Arenas

14 11 2011

Ethanol, University of Illinois, bioplastic, corn oilDr. Munir Cheryan will be lauded this Tuesday with an ethanol award for his modern advances in the arena of ethanol production.  Research professor at University of Illinois’ Agriculture Bioprocess Laboratory, he continues to license more patents and works alongside Prairie Gold, Inc. since 2006 toward the commercialization of high-value ethanol by-products.

corn ethanol, Illinois, University of Illinois

I called Dr. Cheryan earlier today to garner a further insight into his accomplishments and breakthroughs. Although I will not delve into every shared detail, the main takeaways hold enough magnitude to stand on their own.

Dr. Cheryan’s research ramped up in the 1980s because he wanted to be a part of solution to clean air, reduce pipe emissions and enable a farm support program. Until this time, ethanol production was a costly, time-intensive process that, in his words, relied on “moonshine technology.”  His research and breakthroughs helped augment the time efficacy of ethanol production and brought it from 100 hours down to 24 hours or less by improving the separation process.

In the ‘90s he helped improve the energy ratio for ethanol production by the application of membrane technology in several areas of corn processing. A key driver for efficiency improvement was to drive costs down for ethanol production; Dr. Cheryan saw this market signal’s solution was to seek out higher valued co-products from corn that can co-exist with ethanol. Zein, one of four proteins found in maize, touts a whole suite of applications and can be extracted from the corn without reducing yield of the ethanol end-product; this protein is natural, biodegradable and can be used in agriculture (hay baling), in the manufacturing of plastics, food products (a non-stick, biodegradable chewing gum) and in biomedical markets (for medical sutures that safely dissolve in the body).

An accidental co-product discovered from zein extraction demonstrated corn’s ability, after ethanol production, to offer additional benefits to, this time, the health market. Dr. Cheryan explained to me that the compounds, lutein and zeaxanthin, which make corn yellow in color (same for Marigold flowers!) also contribute significantly to retina and cardiovascular health while preventing age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. He envisions a future opportunity to sell the crude material to vitamin companies.

Another coproduct from his technology is a “healthy” corn oil containing much higher levels of health-promoting compounds than conventional corn oil. A unique feature of all Dr. Cheryan’s processes is that corn-based ethanol is used instead of petroleum-based solvents.

Key takeaway: Dr. Cheryan’s devotion will help ethanol stand on its own in a competitive market saturated with petroleum-based products while improving the quality of our air and health.

Abengoa: Jack of All Trades

12 11 2011

Abengoa Bioenergy‘s new 23 million-gallon refinery will take biomass feedstocks, such as switchgrass, and generate ethanol for the production of homegrown fuel.  Having already successfully test-driven pilot plants of the same technology, Abengoa is working to extract more useful material from grain and cereal tailings in the form of residual starch.  These residual starches are generally 5% of the entire starch levels in cereals and grains and can be as high as 10%, according to Abengoa Bioenergy.

So, what does this mean for the biofuel/ethanol industry?  More extractable starch = more ethanol.  Abengoa estimates theoretically one could obtain 3.2 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn.  However, through efficiency losses in the starch extraction processes of current ethanol facilities, the common producer gets 2.6 gallons on average.  With Abengoa’s new technology, we could see this average raise to 2.9 gallons per bushel.  That is about a 10% gain.

Abengoa is also advancing in the study of ethanol co-products.  Primarily, distillers dry grains and solubles or DDGS are of hot topic in the industry.  At the moment, DDGS are mostly given to rumenoids because of their high vegetable content, but Abengoa is working to supplement these co-products and create feeds that are more suitable for poultry and pork stock.  This is done by concentrating the proteins in the DDGS.  This means less waste will come from the ethanol production process, and more money is to be made.

Switchgrass, bioenergy, Abegonea, cellulosic ethanol(Photo)

Lastly, but not least, as if Abengoa didn’t have all of the bases covered already, they are also improving the efficiency of cellulosic ethanol production.  Cellulose, by nature, is much harder to break down than starch and requires the addition of special enzymes in the processing phase.  These enzymes are expensive to create and relatively large doses are needed to bread down the cellulose.  Abengoa is currently studying to increase the effectiveness of these enzymes while driving the cost to produce them down as well.  In other words, a smaller dose will have the same impact as a current dose and will cost less to make.

Quick recap: Abengoa sounds like the Westinghouse of ethanol.  They didn’t start it, but they are sure bringing the best out in it (ethanol in Abengoa’s case, electricity in Westinghouse’s).  They are increasing ethanol yields per bushel by unlocking residual starches; they are expanding the usefulness of DDGS as a feedstock not only for cattle but for pigs and chickens; and they are increasing the efficiency of breaking down cellulose so it can be used to make more ethanol.

Bravo, Abengoa! Bravo!  You get two cobs up!