Energy as easy as Waffles

September 25, 2013 |

aunt-jemimaOne day, biofuels microbes may be so adept at making fuels, it will be a case of “just add water”.

For now, there’s the hard slog of unlocking feedstocks that are affordable, available and aggregated.

As we look for recent victories in low-cost feedstock development, What can we learn from natural gas?

People from Minnesota are generally so polite — in fact, it was a running joke in the movie “Fargo” — that it is alarming to see them as riled up as many of them are over a billboard that states “North Dakota. Open for Business” that has been featured on the Minnesota side of the border — presumably referring to the job growth and low taxes on the North Dakota side as the natural gas boom takes hold of the prairie economy.

At one point, the billboard had to be moved because of all the negative feedback.

But rather than get grumpy about the North Dakota success story — what, in fact, can we learn from it?

You could call it the Four-A solution. It is this: Nothing is so powerful as an abundant, available, aggregated and affordable feedstock that has a proven technology behind it for the production of fuels.

You see, in biofuels there has been an awful lot of chatter about the Three Es. Namely, energy independence, emissions and economic development.

The Four A’s

But there’s nothing more powerful than the Four A’s.

If you think the controversy over “fuel vs food:” is worrisome and distracting, consider the debate over fracking, the hydraulic fracturing technology that liberates previously uneconomic natural gas and, some say, destabilizes aquifers. Fracking and horizontal drilling made an abundant, aggregated feedstock suddenly available and affordable.

It’s been a controversial technology set, but the debate has not put much of a damper on North Dakota’s party. The reason? The world in general, and the United States in particular, is in love with cheap energy.

The opportunities for making money, or saving it, tend to sweep away many of the objections.

For that reason, we’d guess that there would be a lot less crankiness over “biofuels if corn was consistently available at around $4 per bushel, cellulosic sugars cost less than a dime, municipal solid waste were available in more abundance, or the technologies that utilize carbon dioxide were farther along in their path to commercialization.

Some, like Calysta Energy CEO Alan Shaw, have basically written off renewable feedstocks for biofuels — seeing natural gas as a better platform, excepting high-value nutraceuticals and biobased chemicals.

Here at the Digest, we see others who “think different”, to borrow the Apple formulation.

Long-term, there are numerous opportunities for developing the right kind of renewable feedstocks based on careful development of agricultural markets and gaining grower adoption. But anyone who has been through the wringer in trying to gain adoption for crops like jatropha, camelina or switchgrass can tell you that grower adoption is tough, and slow.

And that establishing the data trail and end-user markets that powers adoption — well, that’s tough too. There aren’t that many staple, bulk-production crops around the world. They’ve been introduced, since the dawn of agriculture, at a rate of about one per century.

And, in using existing crops and the wood basket — ell, there’s fearsome competition for limited resources, which plays havoc with the prices and stable policy.

Parsing out the feedstock assets

So — where are the short-term answers? In residues, of course. They fall into three categories.

1. Already aggregated, “demonstrated at scale” processing technology available.
2. Already aggregated, no “demonstrated at scale” technology.
3. Limited or no aggregation, but (increasingly) “demonstrated at scale” technology.
4. No aggregation, no proven technology, R&D underway.

You could consider, as examples of the above: animal residues, municipal solid waste, forest and industrial gas residues, agricultural residues, atmospheric gases. As for companies, think: Diamond Green Diesel, Dynamic Fuels and Neste Oil; Enerkem, INEOS Bio, UPM, Fulcrum, LanzaTech, Coskata; POET-DSM, GranBio, Beta Renewables, Abengoa, DuPont, and the algae companies. In terms of converting atmospheric CO2 into a reliable carbon source for biofuels — it’s a problem, like battery technologies, that appears to be far, far away at present.

Of course, it would be the last category that would be the happiest outcome of all — using atmospheric CO2, problematic as it is to most observers, to power energy technologies.

It would be as easy as making Aunt Jemima’s waffles: just add water, stir and add heat.

For now, that’s a long ways off. Now, animal residues are a going technology — they just need the market structure that the Renewable Fuel Standard affords them to ensure market entry for their drop-in, infrastructure-compatible fuels.

The technologies chasing municipal solid waste, forest and industrial gas residues — many of them are well on their way, in terms of proving out their viability. What they need are favorable financial structures, as well as market-making mechanisms like the RFS. And when we say “favorable”, what they generally need are the same financing opportunities and terms that proven technologies receive. Which is to say, not a hand-out, but a hand-up. Generally, that means a mechanism that transfers risk from debt-holders to the public, or swells the equity ranks.

The technologies that use agricultural residues — and, in general, the algae technologies — well, they need help in harvest — as well as having similar financing and market-access needs.

Harvest needs?

1. In-field or local pre-processing. Lot cheaper to transport sugars than the whole biomass. Lower cost means larger affordable feedstock footprint for the plant, which means scale. Right now, we have proven technology to separate cobs from stalks — but not yet to separate sugars from the cobs, or algae oils from the water, carbs and proteins that surround them.

It surely would be a good day in the world of algae if they could learn a lesson from nut trees — which aggregate their oils outside of their main biomass. Squirrels can take acorns without taking down the old oak tree.

2. Fast, single-pass systems — aggregating residues in the same pass that aggregates, for example, corn or wheat. One of the great advantages of sugarcane bagasse is that it is aggregated along with the sugars in the field and separation occurs at the plant. Currently, separation takes place in the field for crops like corn — meaning that residues are just left in the field to rot.

The bottom line

If there was one area of R&D that has been left relatively unattended — it is aggregation of already abundant resources in order to make them affordable. In the case of biomass residues — as opposed to previously trapped natural gas resources — they are already abundant. That’s the lesson of the DOE’s landmark Billion-Ton Study. At scale, they will be affordable if the harvest is affordable.

But abundant and affordable means nothing unless they are also aggregated and available. A ton of biomass lying on an acre of ground means nothing unless the sugars can be made more available — so that current aggregation technologies can be employed to make them affordable — or unless new aggregation technologies are urgently developed.

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