The Biorefinery Project of the Future – Part 8 of 10 – adding lowest-cost feedstocks

October 1, 2010 |

In part VIII of our series, as we reduce the carbon intensity in every aspect of our process, we start to have options to reintroduce some lower-cost feedstocks into our process, even if in some cases they cause an increase in emissions. We’ll find that lowering our carbon intensity has given us a lot of flexibility to reduce cost while still producing qualifying fuels, and that spurs adoption.

The Backstory.

In part I of our series, we outlined the beginnings of the Bioenergy Project of the Future, based on dozens of interviews on the future of technology, policy, rural communities, finance, and the demand for bio-based products and renewable fuels.

We outlined three principles for development:  First do no harm. Less is more. Add ingredients slowly and stir.

In Part I, the product goal is to make and distribute ethanol (butanol is fine too) or biodiesel through the acquisition or construction of a first-generation ethanol (or biobutanol) plant.  We not only have to demonstrate technological prowess in bioprocessing, we have to demonstrate financial and management acumen to all our stakeholders – the community, policymakers, lenders, and customers. As well as to begin to establish that eco-system of relationships in our community that will serve us later on, when we add-on riskier and more advanced second-generation features.

In Part II, the Bioenergy Project of the Future began a graduated series of bolt-ons, beginning with the collection of cellulosic biomass. No, we won’t aren’t adding the capacity to convert that into fuels just yet. That would be getting ahead of ourselves. First, we have to demonstrate that we can build a sustainable ecosystem around the harvest and delivery of biomass.

Part III: Add renewable chemicals. If we have learned anything from the stories of hot companies like Amyris, LS9, Gevo, Solazyme, ZeaChem, Algenol, or Cobalt Technologies, as well as exciting pure-plays like Segetis, Elevance, GlycosBio or Rivertop Renewables, it is the importance of producing chemicals or other bio-based materials first to generate revenues, before taking the company further down the cost curve and up in scale in order to make competitively-priced renewable fuels.

Part IV,  adding renewable fuels. No longer are we producing advanced biofuels “because we can”, as a demonstration of technology. We are demonstrating the power of our network of relationships in the community, and the power of our growing balance sheet. Now that capacity expands and we begin to saturate some of the market we developed in high-value organic acids, we turn to the fuel market with a capacity expansion effort.

Part V, adding algae. We started to add even more exotic technologies when we look at algae-based options, and other CO2 munching technologies that will help us create renewable fuels from the CO2 we are producing as a byproduct, adding economic strength as well as reducing our carbon footprint.

Part VI, add bioammonia. In our Bioenergy Project of the Future, our goals continue to be not only to increase income, but the sustainability of the project and the carbon impact of our community. Within our slipstream of corn or sugarcane feedstocks, one of the quick wins in terms of producing income while reducing carbon intensity is to add a bioammonia production capability.

Part VII, add clean diesel. We look at the addition of clean, renewable diesel fuels, as produced by the magic bugs of the type developed by Amyris or LS9 – or utilizing the catalytic bio-forming process under development at Virent. Our goal: the production of even more diesel fuel to replace the fossil-fuels utilized in the farming practices of our community of growers.

Part VIII – adding the lowest-cost feedstocks

In our Bioenergy Project of the Future, our pursuit of lower carbon, in the form of introducing into our field-to-wheels community of growers, and utilizing biomass in place of fossil fuels in producing process heat and steam, has given us a platform of feedstock flexibility and we can look at introducing some feedstocks into our process based on the lowest possible cost, rather than on a difficult-to-achieve blend of low cost, low carbon, and high yield.

Trap grease and other hard-to-handle feedstocks

Our first opportunity is to find higher and best use of existing waste and co-product streams. For example, we have a base in corn ethanol, and our growers are thereby supplying us with a source of corn oil, which can be reprocessed into biodiesel with the addition of low-cost modular biodiesel technology. This will allow us to supplement and extend our clean diesel sales, but also allows us to consider adding technology to strip out free fatty acids, which are difficult to process into biodiesel – by so doing, we can begin to utilize additional low-cost feedstocks, such as local trap greases. By stripping out the high FFA content, we make these feedstocks work for biodiesel, and also give ourselves a stream of high FFA waste stream, which we will be able to process via technology like that being developed by Renewable Fuel Products. They have a modular, small scale Fischer-Tropsch technology that can process high FFA waste streams into drop-in clean diesels and jet fuel.

Again, this allows us to extend the provision of clean, affordable diesel to our community of growers and the immediate surrounding area near our Bioenergy Project of the Future, reducing carbon intensity and retaining income within the community (as opposed to importing fuels and exporting cash).

The field of stripping out fat, oil and grease from wastewater is full of innovation, and offers new options for acquiring feedstock that reduces both carbon and cost. For example, FogBusters announced the successful deployment of its Fogbuster™ device at the Ontario, California manufacturing plant of Ventura Foods,  the maker of Marie’s  and Hidden Valley dressings. Ventura has added the Fogbuster to its existing treatment system for wastewater from the plant’s margarine and vegetable oil manufacturing operations. The Fogbuster is helping the plant comply with local wastewater regulations, recovering waste oil in concentrated form for resale, reducing expenses for treatment chemicals and improving the reliability and performance of the entire treatment system.

“The recovered oil is key to our return on investment, because if you separate the oil without using chemicals, it more than doubles the resale value for recycling, and the Fogbuster is recovering oil of 95% purity and in much greater volume than what we were producing previously. We’re considering expanded use of the Fogbuster device at Ontario and at other Ventura facilities as well.” said John C. Brown, Director of Safety and Environmental Affairs at Ventura .

Opportunities in municipal solid waste

Another feedstock to consider, is to bring municipal solid waste into our feedstock supply. As we have built out our Bioenergy Project of the Future, in Part III we added cellulosic biofuels processing, and in this part VIII we may well be able to massively reduce the cost of our feedstocks and fuels with MSW. Not every plant location is well suited to the acceptance of a solid waste stream, but if geography lends itself, a long-term offtake contract for post-sorted organic wastes can be acquired not for a fee from us to the grower, but with a fee from the municipality to us. It is the same with the acceptance of municipal trap greases, above. Essentially, the more flexible our feedstock, the more we pay, as is the case with wood biomass or corn. At the other end of the scale, the more we work with waste streams that are a nuisance more than an asset, the more likely we are to acquire them with a “tipping fee”.

Another feedstock to consider are the industrial waste streams and gases in your area. Bioenergy projects do not exist in a vacuum – in fact, they benefit from co-locating with other industrial processing technologies because it allows for shared infrastructure, and helps to solidify relations in our sustainable community – more companies, more jobs for spouses, children, friends. That’s a wider hiring pool that keeps communities together, and makes it easier to hire talent as we expand.

But these projects may well have something more than just a shared rail line, water tower or power substation. Their waste streams can be our feedstock. Take for instance the waste gas that comes from cement plants – perfect for growing algae. Or the waste gases produced in the steel making process. That’s perfect for the fuel-producing technology that LanzaTech has developed and is now deploying in China.

The dread coal – are there options?

One final feedstock to consider is the dread one, coal itself. What we like about coal is its low cost and high BTU content. What we don’t like about coal are the associated CO2 emissions. But in our Bioenergy Project of the Future, we have introduced CO2 munching technologies such as our associated algal ponds. One impact of doing so is added revenue, another is lower carbon intensity. But the real advantage may well be in the fact that our Bioenergy Project of the Future, in having the ability to utilize CO2, can handle the emissions downside of coal, freeing us to take advantage of its cost and BTU advantages.

There is much talk about “clean coal” – our project is, rather, a “coal cleaner,” and will give us cost advantages that will make our fuels more affordable to our community of growers and customers. We are beginning not only to drive down carbon intensity in our sustainable community, but to drive down cost.

On Monday, in part IX of our series, we look at adding other renewables technologies to our project and our community of growers and customers, such as solar, wind or geothermal. Different geographies have different opportunities in other renewables, but we will be pursuing maximum advantage of the resources we have built up, and the land available to use through our processing plant and in the community we sustain. It may well be that we use our growing balance sheet to introduce a concentrating solar thermal technology, that will supplement the power we generate from our biomass that provides electricity for our system. In so doing, we release biomass for cellulosic conversion, boosting yields and reducing per-gallon costs of fuel.

The complete Bioenergy Project of the Future series

PART IX – Adding other renewables is here..
PART VIII – Adding lowest-cost feedstocks is here..
PART VII – Adding cellulosic diesel is here..
PART VI – Adding bioammonia is here..
PART V – Adding algal fuels is here..
PART IV – Adding cellulosic biofuels is here.
PART III – Adding renewable chemicals – is here.
PART II – Adding cellulosic biomass is here.
PART I of the series – Ethanol as a Base is here.

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