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UnNintendoed Consequences: Biofuels and the feedstock challenge

| December 12, 2012

It’s been years of struggle to get cellulosic feedstock supply chains downfield.

Now, companies like Woodland Biofuels, Sweetwater Energy, Ceres, Delta BioRenewables and Commonwealth Agro-Energy are moving the chains.

For grownups of a certain age, memories of December past take us back to childhoods before Madden Football and XBox, when Electric Football sets were found under the Christmas tree for the NFL Football-crazy amongst us.

Electric Football had a game surface consisting of an elevated, flat metal sheet that vibrated when the power was turned on. Thereupon, 22 plastic “players” would float around the game top.

It all looked very orderly, right out of the box. Action figures painted to look like the real teams. A cardboard backdrop representing the fans in the stands. Tiny felt “footballs” that tucked under the arms of the runners. The vibrating metal surface painted to look like a real field.

But the actual game was pretty chaotic – players seems to wander around everywhere, not always in the direction of the ball or the goal line. Action figures painted to resemble the greatest runners of the era would simply spin around in a tight circle of disorientation.

And so, young fans flocked to primitive digital games like Mattel Football or, later, the Nintendo system’s Tecmo Super Bowl. Now, tons of sophisticated products, of the Madden-era type and beyond, flood the Xbox and Wii markets.

UnNintendoed Consequences and cellulose

It feels sometimes that way in the world of cellulosic feedstock – on paper, everything has looked pretty orderly, out of the box.

“Hmmm, we’ll grow some of this novel feedstock there — that’ll be, hmm, pretty affordable if I, hmm, grow it there, and there, and this guy here will, hmmm, bale it up with a technology to be, hmmm, determined later, and I’ll get this kind of price, and hmmm, I’ll store it there and there and hmmm, we’ll get this incentive and that subsidy. Yep, it pencils out all right.”

But it didn’t always work out that way. Some group of players in the supply chain were always running off in the wrong direction when the game began. “Unintended consequences” always seemed to race unstopped into the backfield and get a hold of the ball.

“Grower #14 – no, no, not that way – the goalposts are over here! Harvester #26, you just fell over. Trader #46, you want (gasp!) how much per ton? Incentive #96 and Grower #81, what are you doing tangled up in each other?”

Signs that the advanced biofuels industry has moved beyond the Electric Footballera and towards something like a world beyond UnNintendoed Consequences arrived this week in Digestville, in a series of three unrelated announcements from Woodland Biofuels, Sweetwater Energy, and a collaboration between Delta BioRenewables, Commonwealth Agri-Energy and Ceres.

Woodland Biofuels gets into crop wastes and the wood basket

This week in Canada, the MaRS Cleantech Fund announcedthe completion of a venture deal with Woodland Biofuels, positioned to become North America’s lowest-cost producer of ethanol.

“First-generation fuels from food are a non-starter – they can’t scale up,” said Tom Rand, co-managing director of the Fund. ”There were a few early, high-profile failures in cellulosic fuels, which made investors flee the sector. But if you do your homework, it’s clear not all second-generation technologies are equal. Woodland Biofuels is on track to become the first company to profitably make renewable fuels from non-food sources without requiring any form of subsidy. That’s the kind of game-changer we target.”

Woodland Biofuels produces cellulosic ethanol from wood chips and other types of biomass, converting forestry and agricultural waste into fuel using a proprietary gasification and three-step catalytic conversion process. The company recently opened a demonstration plant in Sarnia, Ontario.

Sweetwater Energy Patents Decentralized Cellulosic Sugar Production

In New York, Sweetwater Energy announced that it received a US patent for the use of portable pretreatment units designed for the extraction of sugars from any cellulosic feedstock. This proprietary technology allows Sweetwater to locate its cellulosic pretreatment technology in diverse areas where an available feedstock provides the best economics for sugar production.

The flexibility to take advantage of these “economic pockets” is part of what allows Sweetwater to supply low-cost cellulosic sugars to its customers. Sweetwater uses a unique technology to produce low-cost sugars from non-food plant materials, including waste materials such as wood thinnings or purpose-grown crops such as energy sorghum. This sugar solution is sold to refineries, which use it to produce biofuels, biochemicals, and bioplastics.

Delta BioRenewables, Commonwealth Agri-Energy debut sweet sorghum hybrids from Ceres

In Tennessee, Delta BioRenewables announced that its collaboration partner Commonwealth Agri-Energy successfully produced ethanol from sweet sorghum sugars at its corn ethanol facility in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The industrial-scale evaluation, which utilized fermentable sugars from improved sweet sorghum hybrids developed by Ceres, marked the first step in demonstrating the commercial viability of integrating the new feedstock into existing domestic corn ethanol facilities.

Delta BioRenewables has been developing the supply chain for sweet sorghum and other industrial sugar crops at its Memphis-area processing facility since 2009. It serves as a companion crop to corn and soybeans in an annual crop rotation system.

“The sugars in sweet sorghum were fermented in the same way as corn, without any significant changes to our process. I believe that our co-op could produce 5% or more of our overall annual ethanol production using sweet sorghum grown on nearby marginal land and under-utilized pasture,” said Commonwealth General Manager Mick Henderson “Everything came off without a hitch.”

The bottom line

New options in sweet sorghum. Cellulosic expansion in crop waste and wood. The prospect of affordable cellulosic sugars from Sweetwater.

All welcome news for producers looking for lower cost inputs.We’ll wait to see how the economics and geographies of these transformations line up with the exact needs of the market.

But for sure, to return to the imagery from Electric Football, the power appears to be on and the players appear to be vibrating in the general direction of the goal posts. Touchdowns may well be on the horizon. That’s timely for the cellulosics, who as a class of technologies have been doing so much so well, but have, as Alan Shaw put it when he was CEO of Codexis “arrived late to our own party.”

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