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.

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!

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.



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!

Forget hydrofracking: Think Corn Fractionation!

4 11 2011

I’ll be upfront and honest, as always. I had no idea what corn fractionation was until 10 minutes ago. So, chances are that you’re almost as uniformed as me concerning this topic.

I came across a news release from Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville lauding the University’s new mulit-million dollar equipment upgrade and partnership with Cereal Process Technologies. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity also offered a $3.5 million capital grant to SIUE’s National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center.

(Photo)National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center, SIUE, ethanol

Back to fractionation. According to the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center’s director, John Caupert, corn fractionation is a process which ” the corn kernel is separated from its fibrous husk, the starchy portion and the oil.”  The goals of this process are twofold: improve efficiency of conversion and drive down the costs associated with this intensive process. By increasing efficiency and driving down costs, they are also researching ways in which left-0ver material from corn fractionation can be utilized in tertiary processes to make useful corn-derived byproducts. (Photo)BioEnergy Research, corn ethanol tube

Why should we care? According to Cereal Process Technologies, corn fractionation is the next modern step in reducing the energy inputs needed in the ethanol process and augmenting the energy return on investment through ethanol conversion. As we’ve already learned from Argonne National Laboratory, ethanol does have a positive energy return.

And these researchers are looking to drive that return up as much as possible.

Free Trade Agreements – A Vital Constituent to Ethanol’s Success.

12 10 2011

In Congress this week, thColombia, Korea, Panama, Free Trade Agreement, Corn Exportere is buzz regarding a vote on free trade agreements with several latin American countries such as Panama and Colombia in addition to Korea.

So why do these free trade agreements matter when ethanol is concerned? Well, the United States is the world’s leader in corn exports. Stemming from that foundation, much of ethanol’s success depends on the steady supply and fair access to other countries.

As Congress stalls, this ambivalence is costing rural America jobs and hurting our local and national economies. FoExport, Colombia, Korea, Free Trade Agreement, Corn r example, over the past two years when corn exports decreased dramatically to Colombia, it resulted in a half a billion dollars in lost revenue to our economy.

It is also important that we recognized the emerging alliances between the European Union and Korea Fair Trade Agreement that was implemented the middle of this summer. In order to maintain our competitive edge in an ever prevailing global market, we need to stake our seat at the table.

I hope Congress recognizes this potential importance to the health of our local and national economies.

America’s Biofuels – Putting America Back to Work

5 10 2011

as also seen on the IL Corn Corps…

We’re reminded of it every day when we tune into NPR on the way to work or turn on any media station at night. This omnipresent “elephant in the room” isn’t good for business, and it certainly isn’t good for morale. Michigan and Illinois alone have 11.2% and 9.2% unemployment, respectively.

How can we fix it? How can you and I make a difference?

The truth is, I don’t think we’ve ever really lost sight of how to apply our vast knowledge as a nation. As our economy shifts to a more global one, other countries advance and become more competitive. They see our industrialized success as an example and push us harder than ever before to keep our competitive edge.

Living in Michigan near the auto industry capital, I see cars on a frequent basis proudly displaying bumper stickers that say “Out of a Job Yet? Keep Buying Foreign.”

Whether meant to warn as a result of their current situation or not, these drivers offer a somber reminder and a reality. It really does matter, on a macro and micro economic scale, what products we buy and where they come from. This trend to buy American products continues to garner greater attention in mainstream society, but I feel we only pay attention to the origin of particular household products, such as t-shirts or new wrenches.

So, let’s go back to the beginning. How do we fix our unemployment? I think the answer is twofold.

First: as a society, I think we need to commit to not accepting skyrocketing unemployment. Just last week the USDA and the Obama Administration announced that they will be creating extensive and diverse jobs throughout rural America through various biofuel programs in 41 states.

Second: we need to continue to take a serious look at where our products, especially fuel, come from. Ask yourself: Where were they made? What communities do they impact? Does the revenue from my purchase stay within my economy, or state, helping my neighbors, families and friends? We don’t always have the opportunity to buy American-made products anymore, but we absolutely do have that option with fuel.

To celebrate Alternative Fuels Day yesterday, I encourage you to look at the pump when you fill up to see how much biofuel is in your gasoline. That percentage, small or large, is the direct result of hard work from families throughout the Midwest.

A lot of people—politicians, business and industry leaders alike—think they know who or what to blame for the downslide or stagnation in our current economy. Whatever the cause, the solutions are clear. We need to focus on viable, effective solutions to putting our ingenuity back to work through American made, American bought—biofuels.