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The 11 Top Biofuels Trends of 2011

| December 27, 2011

It’s that holiday time, time to look-back with misty eyes at the glories of yesteryear. In our case, at the 11 Hottest Trends of 2011, in what proved to be a vintage year for biofuels. There were IPOs a go-go, a big comeback from biodiesel. The global ethanol fleet has acquired new popularity amongst advanced biofuels developers looking for capital light steel in the ground. Meanwhile, gasification got hot. Seemed like every algae venture headed for Algstralia, and Brazil and the US Navy became everyone’s new best friends.

But it wasn’t all holly-jolly and ho-ho-ho. The long awaited biofuels shakeout began, with the are-they-with-us-or-are-they-not at Qteros, and the keel-over of Range Fuels. Who’s next, we wonder? Meanwhile, alcohol-to-jet fuel technology got hot, in part because oilseed-to-jet is so darn hard to find at scale.

We celebrate the holiday season with this look back at the 11 Trends for 2011.

1. The Rush for the Exit: Industry IPOs

The Great Green Bull Market in public equities opened up in early 2010 with the Codexis IPO, but gained momentum throughout 2010-11. Our IPO stories, generally styled the 10-Minute IPO,  looked at the S-1 IPO registration statements and looked for the story underneath all the SEC gobbledygook. Our coverage of the Amyris, Solazyme, and KiOR IPOs were the most-read of the year.

More on this trend, here.

2. Biodiesel roars back with mandate, tax credits, B20 OKs

Turns out that predictions of biodiesel’s demise were a tad premature.  The fuel’s boosters are gathering this week at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo, touting a stream of good news. Highlights:

“The EPA has said that they are going to enforce the 800 million gallon volume RFS2 requirement” said National Biodiesel Board CEO Joe Jobe to Biodiesel magazine, “and we will have the tax credit in place. Last year we had neither in place.” He described the combination as a “powerful policy framework” and predicted that 2011 would be the biggest year yet for US biodiesel sales.

At the same time, more good news on vehicle acceptance. Jobe is touting that “We’ve got all of the Big Three American automakers accepting B20 in their vehicles.”
At the same time, there are challenges on the feedstock front. Bottom line, jatropha, camelina and algae are still emerging feedstocks, soy and canola are pricey, waste oils & greases are tough to find at scale, and palm is politically radioactive.

More on this trend, here.

3. Ethanol’s back, too, sort of, or is it that drop-ins have waned?

Drop-in fuels all the rage? Not smart, says Coskata CSO Rathin Datta, ethanol is the champion for biomass-based fuels.
In Washington DC last July , at the DOE’s Biomass 2011 annual conclave, Rick Wilson, the CEO of Cobalt Technologies, and Wes Bolsen, CMO of Coskata, engaged in a formal debate over the motion: “Federal funding for biofuels should focus primarily on the development of infrastructure-compatible, hydrocarbon fuels.”

There has been quite a lot of press in recent years around the development of “drop-in fuels” – from articles like 2009′s “Drop In, Tune Out, Turn On” to the coverage of recent DOE funding of consortia like the NABC that are pursuing infrastructure-compatible fuels.

But Coskata has been on the warpath of late to remind the industry, and the broader stakeholders in a future beyond fossil fuels, about why ethanol fuels were developed in the first place, and why they should be considered a superior alternative to drop-in hydrocarbons, when refining fuels from biomass.

At the end of last summer, Coskata CSO Rathin Datta didn’t exactly descend into the lion’s den, when choosing to present this strongly positive view on ethanol at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop in Indianapolis. It’s sort of like praising Cal Ripken Jr. in the friendly confines of Camden Yards.

More on this trend, here.

4. Aviation biofuels begins take-off

In Washington, U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this month that the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) signed a contract to purchase 450,000 gallons of advanced drop-in biofuel, the single largest purchase of biofuel in government history.

More on this trend, here.

5. Jumpin’ Jack Flash! It’s a gas, gas, gas!

New technologies bring gases into the vanguard of advanced biofuels feedstocks. In traditional biofuels, the story to date been all about solids and liquids – grains, juices, mash, slurries and eventually files, chemicals and biomaterials.

A lot of the early companies through the advanced biofuels IPO gate – like Amyris, Solazyme and Gevo, work on liquids too. In short, the wet stuff is the publicity hog.

But a new generation of technologies is coming along fast, primarily in advanced biofuels, which is gasifying biomass at the front end along its path towards making fuels, chemicals or other biomaterials – or in some cases, using organic chemicals already in a gaseous state.

One of the most exciting new technologies, syngas fermentation – described recently as the “third path for cellulosic ethanol” by Advanced Biofuels USA, is profiled here.

But there are a variety of types. Fisher-Tropsch process companies, such as Rentech; gas fermentation specialists such as INEOS Bio, Coskata, LanzaTech; pyrolysis companies like KiOR; and companies using catalysts to convert gasified biomass to liquid fuels and materials, such as S4, SynGest, and TRI. Plus, there is the hybrid fermentation and gasification approach that ZeaChem takes.

Here is the latest on 12 companies to watch.

6. Algae heads for Algstralia

Are the reports of an algal biofuels revolution in the Back of Beyond true? The Digest takes a look (or, a Captain Cook) at Algae.Tec, Aurora Algae and more. What do you do with a country that is basically a desert, cut off from the global biomass trade by a tyranny of distance, with a carbon emissions problem, a wealthy population, a stumbling rural economy, and the occasional political will to do something about climate change?

As the saying goes: if life gives you lemons, make lemonade; if life won’t even give you lemons, make algal biofuels.
Well, that may not yet be a household saying, but it will be soon enough if Australia has anything to do with it. These days, it feels sometimes as if titer, rate and yield are right up there with “mate”, “G’day” and “she’ll be right” in the Aussie lexicon.

It’s been a giddy couple of years of development, all right.

Solazyme teaming up with Qantas for a renewable jet fuel project. A Dunaliella salina plant at Hutt Lagoon in Western Australia. The South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), which has developed the NCRIS Photobioreactor Facility in Adelaide and is pursuing nannochloropsis and chaetoceros, and participating in an Algal Fuels Consortium with Flinders University and CSIRO to develop a pilot and pre-commercial scale facility on Torrens Island.

But there’s more, here.

7. Green-black technologies

This week, Warburg Pincus announced that it will invest up to $355 million in First Green Partners, a newly formed early-stage venture capital company.

First Green will, in turn, invest in early-stage companies that focus on developing methods of converting renewable carbon, such as non-food biomass and carbon dioxide to fuels and chemicals, and applications of clean or green technologies in the conventional energy or industrial process, otherwise known as green-black technologies.

What is green-black, anyway?

We have been hearing a lot more about these type of technologies of late.

Take LanzaTech as an example. Here’s a technology in which a microorganism ferments carbon monoxide taken from, for example, blast furnaces at steel mills, to make fuels and chemicals. It’s green, of course, in the same way as a microorganism that ferments, for example, low-cost sugars derived from cellulose.

But it’s more than just a greentech play, because it remediates, adds value to, and depends on the old technologies. Hence, it’s green-black, not just green.

Other green black technologies? “Technologies for treating oil sands tailing ponds,” says First green co-president Cameron, “and for the use of methane for making more complex fuels and chemicals.”

It’s a wide field of potential. For example, consider the opportunities in what have been termed XTL processes. There’s biomass-to-liquid (BTL) – that would be a typical biofuels technology such as cellulosic ethanol. But, then, there’s coal-to-liquid (CTL) and natural gas-to-liquid (GTL), and there are a few technologies that can combine two or more, hence XTL. Accellergy, for example, is gaining traction in China with a strategy that uses coal as its basic feedstock for making liquid fuels, and supplements biomass as a means of lowering the overall carbon impact.

More on this trend, here
.

8. Consolidation and changing of the guard

Range Fuels fails. In Georgia, the AgSouth Farm Credit bank, which is the lender of record for an $80 million construction loan that Range defaulted on, is advertising a foreclosure sale of Range’s OneGeorgia plant in the local Soperton (Georgia) News, which will take place on January 3rd.

More on this trend, here.

9. Everyone all aboard for Brazil.

Like MSW? You’ll love bagasse. Lot of the advantages of waste, and there’s a lot more available.
Sugar’s the new oil, DOE Secretary Steven Chu is fond of saying. Codexis agrees, but argues that sugarcane residue (instead of competing for cane syrup) is the path to the real riches.

You can extract sugar from a lot of things. Things that generally cost too much to begin with, or are in short supply (compared to the vast demand for oil), like corn starch, or wheat, or cellulosic wonderstuff.

Then, there’s bagasse. That leftover residue at the sugar mill after squeezing out all the cane juice.

Exciting enough that Cobalt recently signed an agreement with the 10th largest global chemical company, Rhodia, to pursue a fast track program to evaluate, design, and build 30,000 – 75,000 ton plants based on Cobalt Tech’s technology to transform South American bagasse into butanol.

Now, a lot of the excitement about Brazil has centered around the cane syrup, not the bagasse.

Pshaw, says Codexis CEO Alan Shaw.

The problem with the easy sugars

Shaw grabs a magic marker and begins to scribble out the equations on a white board in Redwood City. “It costs $275 a ton for the sugar,” as he pencils out the conversion from sugar carbohydrates to hydrocarbons, “and you lose up to 60 percent in the conversion. You need 3-5 tons of sugar to make a ton of diesel, once you have blown off all the oxygen. No one is going to pay more for your diesel because it is renewable. Acrylic acid, adipic acid – now there you have some good margin to work with.

But not diesel fuel.

More on this trend, here.

10. Alcohol to jet and other R&D pops in aviation biofuels

In Washington, the monster event of the year for aviation biofuels, the CAAFI annual meeting, concluded yesterday with $7.7 million in new grants announced by the FAA, going to eight companies to assist in the development of sustainable, affordable, available renewable jet fuels.

The FAA funds are being distributed by the Department of Transportations (DOT) John A. Volpe Center. The contracts address a recommendation issued by the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, which was commissioned by Secretary LaHood last year.
The committee, comprised of experts from industry, academia, labor and government, specifically recommended that DOT exercise strong national leadership to promote and display U.S. aviation as a first user of sustainable alternative fuels.

More on this trend, here.

11. Military matters. The Green Strike Group: the fuels, the force, the skinny

The US Navy has announced a Green Strike Group. What exactly is that, and what does it mean for energy security, and domestic biofuels production?

Tactically, a Green Strike Group, powered by renewable diesel-electric engines, nuclear power and aviation biofuels, is able to operate independent of fossil fuel supply line threat or disruption. In the near term, this is a theoretical independence, as the Group will operate on 50/50 blends of biofuels and conventional fossil fuels. It expands the range of suppliers and the available ports of call.

Strategically, of course, the overall thrust is to foster a domestic fuel supply capable of reducing the strategic threat to the US economy and security posed by dependence on imported fossil fuels and OPEC.

There are real world reasons to suppose a connection between fuel supply and military tensions. The conversion of the British fleet from coal to oil after 1911, which enabled a more powerful, compact class of warship, has long been identified as a contributing factor in tensions that caused the outbreak of the First World War. The 1941 embargo on export of US oil to Japan is routinely cited as a proximate cause of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The US Government recently invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950, issuing a presidential finding the advanced biofuels were total to national security. The DPA authorizes the President and Congress to directly invest in the commercialization of vital defense technologies that would otherwise not reach (or too slowly reach) commercial-scale production at affordable prices.

More on this trend, here.

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