The Top 10 Biofuels Stories of the Year – print-friendly

July 25, 2013 |

CrescentinoBP, KiOR, Terrabon, DuPont, Beta Renewables, Sapphire Energy, Gevo and more — project starts, stops, births, deaths, predictions, and policy — the readers judge the most important stories of the year.

In years to come, historians will look back and identify with the lusty “aha!” the true trends that emerged from 2012-13 — all of us in the here and now, we lack the illuminating power of hindsight, and instead have to use the dim bulb of our sensibilities and judgment to decide what the really, really big stories are.

If there’s no perfect way to measure in the present what will matter to the future, there’s Winston Churchill’s formula, all the same. “There’s one person smarter than anyone,” he said, “and that’s Everyone.”

So, here as a first draft for history are the ten stories you thought were the most important of the year, as measured in the clicks as you surfed through 12 months and 4400 stories in the Digest.

From 2012-13, here are the Top 10 most viewed stories in Biofuels Digest.

10. Gevo restarts isobutanol production at Luverne: what’s happening now, what happened?

Editor’s Note: If there’s any story better than a rise, or a fall, it’s a comeback, and Gevo’s been making one with the restart of isobutanol production at Luverne. There’s probably been on overage of hand-wringing over Gevo’s decision to stop production in the face of high corn prices and lower-than-optimal yields back in 2012. But if readers were overly worried, they were certainly eager to read the news when production restarted this spring.

In Colorado, Gevo announced that it has resumed commercial production of isobutanol at its Luverne, Minn. plant in single train mode, successfully utilizing its proprietary Gevo Integrated Fermentation Technology (GIFT).

“I am pleased to report that we have been successful in operating our full scale fermentation and our GIFT separation system that separates the isobutanol from the fermentation broth. This serves to further validate our technology as we had not previously run the GIFT system at full scale. I can now say that it runs beautifully,” noted Gevo CEO Patrick Gruber.

“We plan to be producing isobutanol and operating throughout the rest of this year, bringing all of our fermenters and GIFT systems online in the third and fourth quarters, testing run rates, then ramping up production and sales in 2013 and 2014” Gruber added.

“We will sell the isobutanol we produce, using it for market development in the specialty chemicals market, in specialty oxygenated fuel blendstocks markets, and as a building block to make fuel products such as jet fuel and chemical products such as paraxylene for polyester used in the production of bottles and fibers.” Isobutanol applications for the specialty chemicals and chemical intermediates sectors include work in paraxylene with Toray and Coca-Cola.

9. Why Sugarcane Bagasse is the Most Promising Pathway for Cellulosic Ethanol

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Digest content partner site Energy Trends Insider, a free newsletter by Consumer Energy Report, which is geared toward financial and investment issues in the energy industry. It turned out to be a hugeley popular read, from Robert Rapier, whose sword is always kept well-sharpened when it comes to cutting away the cant, pettifoggery, tripe, hype from a value proposition; or, in this case, spotting a trend worth watching.

By Robert Rapier

The history of cellulosic ethanol is a lot longer than most people probably realize. In 1819, French chemist Henri Braconnot discovered how to break cellulose down into component sugars by treating biomass with sulfuric acid. Once sugars are released from cellulose, the solution can be fermented to ethanol in processes that are very similar to those used to produce corn ethanol or sugar cane ethanol. Regardless of the way the sugars are released, processes that produce ethanol from cellulosic sugars are collectively categorized as cellulosic ethanol.

The Germans first commercialized cellulosic ethanol production from wood in 1898. The technology was commercialized in the U.S. in 1910, when Standard Alcohol Company built a cellulosic ethanol plant in South Carolina to convert lumber mill waste into ethanol. Standard Alcohol later built a second plant in Louisiana. Each plant was capable of producing over 5,000 gallons of ethanol per day from wood waste, and both were in production for several years before being idled for economic reasons.

Many subsequent attempts were made to commercialize cellulosic ethanol during the 20th Century, but there were huge challenges in developing
cellulosic ethanol as a cost-competitive energy option. Because of the extra steps involved relative to corn or sugarcane ethanol, capital and operating costs are higher for cellulosic ethanol than for ethanol derived from carbohydrates. But the ongoing attraction of cellulosic ethanol is the potential to utilize waste streams that are cheap or even negatively priced to produce the ethanol. Therefore a number of companies continue to work toward commercialization.

8. Top 10 Biofuels Predictions for 2013

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual feature — the top 10 predictions of the year, and never is an article more  nervously prepared as the Digesterati attempt to pick the trends for the upcoming year. So far, the trend predictions have been relatively in line with the year’s newsflow — but the year-end is a long way off, and there’s still plenty of time for reality to knock the prognosticators off their perches.

As the sunset of 2012 gives way to the dawn of 2013, here at the Digest we resist the holiday temptation to look back over the challenges and highlights of the year gone by, and instead once again roll the dice as we list the Digest’s 10 Top Biofuels Predictions for 2013.

1. Fiscal cliff.

2. US ethanol blend wall – E15 and blender pumps.

3. US ethanol blend wall – Alternative molecules and feedstocks.

4. RFS2.

5. Hot Markets.

6. Finance.

7. Technology.

8. Scale-up.

9. Cellulosic ethanol via fermentation.

10. Downstream.

7. Change the World: Sapphire Energy’s Green Crude Farm, illustrated

Editor’s Note: Rain or shine, algae articles are perennially popular, but none more so than Sapphire Energy. In this pair of articles, readers got the news on the commencement of production at the Green Crude Farm and, in the follow-up, got to see the Farm in a series of images taking the reader from pond inoculation to harvested biomass. It proved to be a popular read.

As locations go, Columbus, New Mexico is hard to find but is a pretty good place to stage the first attempt, here on Planet Earth, to cultivate crude oil as an agricultural crop.

Let’s say that again – growing crude oil as an agricultural crop. It’s never been done before. Not a crop for something to eat, or to wear, or for materials for walls or floors – but something that is deep inside all three: energy itself.

To do so, three partners are attempting to do something else that has never been achieved before – using algae as a major, global crop platform – not on the scale that has produced vitamin and nutritional supplements, but on the scale and at the costs more closely associated with the dozen or so great staple crops around the world. Which is to say, this is a tall order. A monumental, change the world attempt.

The partners? The US Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the private investors behind Sapphire Energy – who have jointly financed the construction of Sapphire’s Green Crude Farm, of which 100 acres is in place, out of an eventual 300-acre facility, converting brackish water, CO2 and sunlight into oil-rich microalgae, from which a crude oil is extracted.

More on the Green Crude Farm here.

6. DuPont breaks ground on world’s largest Cellulosic Biorefinery

Editor’s Note: Just about any news out of Wilmington finds an audience — given how closely identified with advanced biofuels DuPont has become. But this was the hottest news all year, in terms of a ground-breaking — and a shot in the arm for those wondering if the big balance sheets would put their strength behind the new technologies; they did. And none of them got as much attention as this one.

In Iowa, DuPont broke ground today on its $200 million, 30 million gallon cellulosic biofuels facility in Nevada, Iowa. Expected to be completed in mid-2014, the new facility produce cellulosic ethanol from corn stover. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was on hand to celebrate the official beginning of construction on the facility, adjacent to the Lincolnway Energy grain ethanol plant.

“This site in Nevada is the next critical step in our cellulosic ethanol journey. We look forward to bringing these advanced technologies online, creating local jobs and helping to deliver clean, sustainable energy,” said Governor Branstad.

Local impact and energy independence

With a local population of 6,900 and a local demand of 3 million gallons of gasoline, with the opening of the new plant, Nevada will become the largest producer of cellulosic biofuels in the world when the plant is completed, and a significant energy exporter. Combined with the 100 million gallons nameplate capacity at adjacent Lincolnway Energy, the town will produce 130 million gallons per year of biofuels.

The economic impact of the project will range far beyond its effect on energy independence. To supply the corn stover for its plant, DuPont will contract with more than 500 local farmers to gather, store and deliver over 375,000 dry tons of stover per year into the Nevada facility. If stover is priced at $50-$60 per ton, that will generate $1.75-$22.5 million in additional income in a 30 mile radius around the new facility, where stover will be harvested off of 190,000 acres.

In addition to the estimated 60 full-time plant operations jobs, there will be over 150 individuals involved in the collection, stacking, transportation and storage of the stover feedstock seasonally during each harvest.

5. Advanced biofuels pioneer Terrabon files for chapter 7 bankruptcy: One-off or trend?

Editor’s Note: Terrabon’s demise was sad news, everywhere in the industry; but it also set off “the jitters” amongst many observers who wondered if it was the beginning of the end for MSW-based technologies, especially those backed by Waste Management. As it turned out, it was more of a one-off, and WM expanded its portfolio around this time with an investment in Renmatix. But the end of the road for this widely-admired drop-in gasoline technology drew a whole bunch of onlookers.

In Texas, Terrabon filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection; the company’s operations will cease and a trustee will be tasked with liquidating the company’s assets for the benefit of creditors.

The complete Chapter 7 announcement is here.

In a statement, Terrabon’s leadership said that company could not obtain additional corporate funding to finish developing and engineering its first commercial-scale plant. Suspension of operations resulted in lay-offs of approximately 60 full-time employees, effective with the bankruptcy filing.

The storyline is clear enough: Terrabon had a financing round planned for this year, which Waste Management was expected to lead. In August, Terrabon learned that Waste Management would not be participating in the round – part of what Terrabon was informed was a cutback in WM’s overall capital investment following a late July corporate shake-up.

4. Biofuels Mandates Around the World: 2012

Editor’s Note: It’s been an annual Digest survey — the latest on the mandate front as countries shift their biofuels and greenhouse gas goalposts. 52 countries are in the survey, which is a perennial reader fave, but never ranking higher than this appearance on the US Thanksgiving holiday — and in fact is the first article ever published on a US holiday to make the annual top 10.

In Florida, the Digest today releases its annual review of biofuels mandates and targets around the world, looking at the state of biofuels mandates in 52 countries.

The bulk of mandates continue to come from the EU-27, where the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) specifies a 10 percent renewables content by 2020 but is under significant challenge over food vs fuel and indirect land use change concerns.

13 countries in the Americas have mandates or targets in place, 12 in Asia-Pac, and 8 in Africa.

Besides the EU, the major blending mandates that will drive global demand are those set in the US, China and Brazil – each of which has set targets – or, in the case of Brazil, is already there – at levels in the 15-20 percent range by 2020-2022. India’s fast-growing economy also has a 20 percent ethanol mandate in place for 2017, but the country has a shaky record of implementing mandates, so far.

3. Tranquility Base Here. The Crescentino project has landed.

Editor’s Note: They called them crazies in Crescentino, but the joke was on the critics when the “moon shot” opened on time, and on budget. After some months of commissioning, the plant has commenced shipping product and the company’s development attention is shifting to its North Carolina project. But in mid-September of last year, not only were all Beta eyes on Crescentino; the industry as a whole was gazing in wonder.

The first thing you notice about the Beta Renewables cellulosic ethanol plant in Crescentino is the size and scope. Tucked away in the sprawling, agriculture-rich plain that lies just south of the Italian Alps in the vicinity of Torino, the towering columns dominate the surrounding landscape like the gantryways of Kennedy Space Center’s launch pads, lording it over the Florida flatlands at Cape Canaveral.

After the long “five years away” era of cellulosic biofuels, where systems fit on benches, or in small shacks that held pilots, the Digest had recently profiled large-scale demonstrations started coming along at locations like Boardman, Oregon (ZeaChem), and Rome, New York (Mascoma), Kalundborg, Denmark (Inbicon) and Sherbrooke, Quebec (Enerkem). They were a startling expansion in size.

This year, the 8 million gallon INEOS Bio facility in Vero Beach, Florida has been completed and is going through its commissioning process now. It is awesome in its own right.

But to see a 20 million gallon cellulosic biofuels project, up close and in person, is like seeing the Saturn V rocket for the first time. The Titan that powered Project Gemini, the Redstones and Atlases that powered Project Mercury, look like midget rockets launched out of backyards by comparison.

2. Gusher! KiOR starts production of US cellulosic biofuels at scale

Editor’s Note: Turns out that good news on cellulosic biofuels pulls readership, too — this story on KiOR’s start-up of biocrude production drew a lot of eyeballs. The start-up has been elongated, and some KiOR observers have become frustrated with the pace from mechanical completion to producing fuels at or near capacity. But those quibbles were far from sight when readers heard the news last November that KiOR production was starting up.

“With a roar like a hundred express trains racing across the countryside, the well blew out, spewing oil in all directions.”

Well, the startup of biocrude production at KiOR’s Columbus plant arrived with less drama than the above-described gusher at Spindletop in 1901. And James Dean was nowhere to be found, in a rain of oil that spread across the flickering screen in Giant.

But the news from Columbus, Mississippi, that cellulosic biocrude production has started up, on schedule, on budget, and at scale — it’s a shocker for the skeptics, not to mention any short-sellers for KiOR.

Cellulosic biofuels, at scale, at parity, — “five years away” for so long that the phrase was assigned to a dustbin also containing President Hoover’s 1932 statement that “prosperity is just around the corner” — has arrived in the United States, via a new generation of catalytic technologies developed by KiOR.

At its Columbus-based 500 ton per day plant, KiOR is processing renewable oil that is on-spec for hydrotreating into gasoline and diesel. With scale-up, total cost per gallon drops to $5.95 by 2013, $3.73 per gallon in 2014, and the magic sub-$3.00 figure in 2015 when it is expected to reach $2.62 per gallon at full-scale.

1. The October Surprise: BP Cancels Plans for US Cellulosic Ethanol Plant

Editor’s Note: “If it bleeds, it leads” goes the old newspaper saw — and this story, on BP’s cancellation of a Florida cellulosic ethanol project, did much to confirm the saying when it became the most widely-read article of the year in the Digest. 

In Florida, BP announced it is canceling plans to build a 36 million gallon commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Highlands County. The company said that it would refocus its US biofuels strategy on R&D, as well as licensing its industry–leading biofuels technology.

“Given the large and growing portfolio of investment opportunities available to BP globally, we believe it is in the best interest of our shareholders to redeploy the considerable capital required to build this facility into other more attractive projects,” said Geoff Morrell, BP vice president of communications.

BP originally announced plans to build the Florida facility in 2008 with the intention of turning thousands of acres of energy crops into 36 million gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol.

While BP did not directly comment on its plans to build a second, 72 million gallon plant in the southeastern US by 2017, the company, in a statement, said that was “ending its pursuit of commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production in the US.”

As recently as the London Olympics, BP had described its long-term lower-carbon strategy as investing in the right feedstocks and technology ‘to do biofuels well’. In London, BP continued to guide media and its shareholders that it was “developing a commercial facility in Florida, where the first 2,000 of a future 20,000 acres of energy grasses are being grown.”

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