For some time, critics of cellulosic ethanol (and even some supporters) have been known to ask rhetorically: “Where are the gallons?” followed by a deafening silence (or an extended discussion of the timescales involved in scaling up from bench, through pilot, to demonstration at commercial scale). Well, the time for the guffaws is over.
So where are the gallons? Of all places, the sleepy resort village of Vero Beach, Florida. It has become the temporary center of the universe in cellulosic ethanol with official groundbreaking yesterday on a $130 million Indian River BioEnergy Center project, a joint venture between INEOS Bio and New Planet Energy, that will convert yard, vegetative and household wastes into cellulosic ethanol and renewable power for the local community.
INEOS Bio’s biorefinery will have the capacity to produce 8 million gallons of ethanol and 6 megawatts (gross) of electricity per year—of which approximately two megawatts will be exported to the local community. This renewable electricity will be able to power approximately 1,400 homes. Located at a former citrus processing plant site in Vero Beach, Florida, the BioEnergy Center will provide 380 direct and indirect jobs (including 175 construction jobs) over the next two years and 50 full-time jobs in Indian River County. The project is expected to commence operation in 2012.
The cellulosic ethanol race
One of the most interesting features of the INPB project is its technology. Unlike the enzymatic hydrolysis used by projects such as POET’s Project Liberty in Iowa, or projects from Abengoa in Kansas and Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol in Tennessee, this project features one of the first at-scale appearances of a microorganism (in this case, a bacterium) that ferments syngas directly into ethanol.
For some time, we have seen the complex route to cellulosic ethanol from enzymatic hydrolysis run into problems – primarily over the efficiency and cost of the enzymes. Those costs are coming down quickly – but Novozymes has pushed back its timelines to 2014-15 in terms of when those technologies will begin to reach commercial scale.
In hydrolysis, companies pre-treat the cellulose to soften it, often with a harsh broth of chemicals, use enzymes to tease out the trapped sugars from the cellulose, and then another set of enzymes are used, in a separate chamber, to ferment the sugars into ethanol. There are some variations in the formula – one is the use of weak sulfuric acid in the hydrolysis – that’s BlueFire Renewables. Another is the use of a magic microorganism that can accomplish the saccharification and fermentation in one step. That’s called consolidated bioprocessing, and by saving a whole step in the process, the capex and the opex of the process can come down dramatically. That’s what all the fuss over Mascoma and Qteros is all about – both have CBP magic bugs.
Fermentation of syngas
But more and more of the focus in the development of advanced biofuels has been on the magic bugs that perform fermentation of syngas. There are some tricks in making syngas – which is a high-temp stew of carbon monoxide and hydrogen formed by gasifying biomass – primarily in the balance of hydrogen and carbon. But much of the magic lies in how that syngas is reformed into ethanol as it cools down.
LanzaTech, Coskata and Ineos BIO are three companies pursuing this path. Not too long ago, INEOS Bio sued Coskata over trade secrets relating to the technology, in a case which is not yet resolved.
Of course, companies rarely sue each other to protect trade secrets relating to “losing technologies” – rather, they do so over technologies that took a lot of time, money and aggravation to develop and are about to realize a payback. The use of bacteria to ferment syngas into fuels is about as hot a technology as there is on the market right now.
Consider the excitement over companies like Gevo, Amyris and LS9, whose micro-organisms based on bacteria, yeast and e.coli can ferment sugars into drop-in fuels and high value bio-based chemicals. And that’s sugar – which is trading at more than 30 cents a pound – compared to the syngas which can be acquired by gasifying wood waste, municipal waste and other non-food residues that can range from low cost ($20 per ton for woods) to no cost (sawdust residues) to negative cost (MSW, with associated tipping fees).
That’s another attractive feature of this technology – the INEOS Bio process can produce ethanol and renewable energy from numerous non-food feedstocks, including construction and municipal solid waste, forestry and agricultural waste. This flexibility also allows facilities like the Indian River BioEnergy Center to be built anywhere in the world, wherever there is waste, providing jobs and locally-sourced renewable energy for urban and rural communities.
One of the most remarkable features of the project is the timeline. While just one of the six projects in the 2007-08 DOE bioenergy demonstration funding round have yet broken ground (and that one, the troubled Range Fuels project in Soperton, Georgia), the INBP project moved from its initial $50 million grant from the DOE, out of Recovery Act funding by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Biomass Program, to ground-breaking in just 14 months, and just one month after the project received a conditional commitment for a $75 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of its Biorefinery Assistance Program.
“Today’s groundbreaking at the BioEnergy Center in Florida is an example of how federal investments in innovation and clean energy are helping to grow America’s economy,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “This advanced biofuels project will create new jobs, reduce carbon pollution, provide advanced biofuels and renewable power for local residents and spur the development of America’s biomass industry. Projects like this across the country are helping to put America on the path toward a clean energy future.”
Amen, Mr. Secretary. But let’s also add that this ground-breaking is a game-changer in terms of bringing syngas fermentation forward as an advanced biofuels technology, and answering the questions about the production potential of cellulosic ethanol.