The Hot Zone

June 11, 2012 |

South on the Rise

But in the Southeast, there’s been a huge surge in project volume, primarily thermochemical in nature. It’s been the home of the thermochemical technologies that have, so far, made the leap to building out or announcing commercial-scale projects.

To illustrate the trend, we have developed a map of advanced bioenergy projects around the US, which you can view here – including project detail.

Now, there will be thermocatalytic projects in the upper Midwest, too – the DOE has helped to fund a number of pilots and demonstrations in Wisconsin, Michigan., Illinois and Ohio, for example.

And that’s not to say that there won’t be enzymatic fermentation in the Southeast – after all, that is where BP Biofuels will build its first and second commercial-scale projects.

The thermal and catalytic technologies

But, by and large, the Southeast is proving to be the Hot Zone, where technologies that heat biomass well beyond the boiling point are in place – generally breaking through the biomass bonds with the right combination of heat and pressure, and thence converting a gas stream of carbon monoxide and hydrogen into target fuels by passing the cooling gas stream over a carefully designed catalyst.

But far from all companies are using catalytic conversion in the Hot Zone. In the case of INEOS Bio, Coskata and Lanzatech, they ferment the gas streams into their target fuels and chemicals.

To some extent, the technology is dictated by the feedstock. MSW and wood biomass, overall, have been the feedstocks of choice for the projects in the Hot Zone, and the shortcomings of gasification become a lot easier to bear when compared to the challenges of liberating sugars from wood or garbage using enzymes.

Who’s building what, and where

Who’s building demonstrations or commercial projects in the Southeast? The afore-mentioned INEOS Bio, Coskata and Lanzatech; also, Enerkem, Bluefire, KiOR and Sundrop. Shell is building a pilot in Texas based on Virent’s technology, too.

The other technology that is gaining massive traction in the Southeast is hydrotreating, which has been the choice for three large, commercial-scale renewable diesel projects that call Louisiana home: Diamond Green Diesel, Emerald Biofuels, and Dynamic Fuels.

By advanced bioenergy early-stage development standards, the volumes are impressive. Roughly 375 million gallons in capacity completed, or under construction, comprising 8 small-commercial or full-commercial projects. It’s very much a mixed bag of projects, from the pyrolysis of woods into refinery intermediates, such as KiOR is constructing in Columbus, Mississipppi;  to the gasification-fermentation hybrids on view at the INEO New Planet Energy facility in Vero Beach, Florida; to the catalysis-based hydrotreating technologies of the Louisiana bayous.

The Red State Conundrum

One of the ironies of the pace of development has been that the Southeastern states are, generally speaking, a bastion of carbon-skeptic, subsidy-hating, renewables-disliking, card-carrying Republicans. It’s red state heaven, as they say in political circles.

While energy security arguments gain a certain traction in the Southeast, the citizens therein would as likely want to obtain it via “drill, baby’ drill” as anything else, and there’s not a part of the country less interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions based on concerns over global warming.

But in the three-E triad of emissions, energy security, and economic development – there’s always that last concern, and the rural-based economies of the Southeast, driven as much by primary industry as any region in the country – advanced bioprocessing represents a “ca’t turn down” opportunity to add value to Southeastern biomass. There are even projects afoot to use bioprocessing to rid the South of its kudzu infestations.

You won’t catch Southerners chanting ‘the South will rise again’ these days – too much baggage left over from the days of Jim Crow and the Old South; too much looking back in those lyrics to a discredited economic system and culture.

Revolutionizing regional imports and exports

But, if the Old South was a completely failed attempt to develop a sustainable system for adding value to agriculture, there’s merit in the goal, if not the means. For sure, the South has discovered a new and highly sustainable pathway to adding a great deal of value to its agricultural products, in converting them into fuels and higher-value chemicals and bio-products.

That’s bound to lift the South to new economic heights – not only through the cash that high-value ag exports can bring, but through the economic impact of eliminating imports through low-cost domestic production – building the capital pools that help diversify economies through investment.

Overall, it’s a compelling case study for other regions, and countries around the world – how to turn waste residues and low-value biomass into an engine of economic opportunity, and how to attract project flow amidst fierce competition.

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