Cellulosic ethanol: Where are the gallons? Answers for your questions.

July 1, 2015 |

Beta Renewables_Cellulosic Ethanol Deliveries_2Seen a number of high-profile cellulosic projects open in recent years, and not much ethanol being produced?

Wondered why? Here are answers to your questions.

As Jack Webb used to say on Dragnet, just the facts, ma’am.

Fact one. There’s not much ethanol being produced at the new generation of cellulosic projects.

Fact two. We have seen significant changes in senior leadership at a number of key developers.

Industry rumor going around: Psst! These facts are linked! 

For sure, Dorio Giordano has been appointed CEO at Beta Renewables, Dan Cummings has been tapped as president of POET-DSM, Abengoa Bioenergy CEO Javier Garoz has moved over to become CEO of Abengoa Yield, and this week former Segetis CEO Atul Thakrar was selected as the new President of DSM Bio-Based.

And it’s true, we’ve seen elongated commissioning periods for some cellulosic ethanol projects.

Officially, there’s no confirmation of a linkage. Every company loyalist denies it, every company cynic whispers it. Anything to it? Some, not as much as you’d think. There’s frustration around pace, that’s for sure.

The numbers

Officially, by the way, the outlook on cellulosic biofuels is relatively bullish in 2015 compared to 2014. Last year, there were 33.0 million RINs generated for cellulosic biofuels; this year, we’ve seen an impressive jump — in all, 36.9 million RINs for cellulosic biofuels as a whole.

But almost all of the production is Renewable Compressed or Liquified Natural Gas — last year 32.6 million RINs in all, compared to 728,000 RINs for cellulosic ethanol. This year, 668,940 RINs for cellulosic ethanol, through May.

Q&A

So, with four projects open in the US (INEOS Bio, Abengoa, POET-DSM and QCCP — not to mention Beta’s Crescentino project, and GranBio and Raizen in Brazil), you might have found yourself wondering of late, where is all the cellulosic ethanol? What’s taking so long?

Let’s take you through a quick Q&A.

Q: What is the official explanation for the slow production rates?

A: If you should inquire, you’ll be told “de-bottlenecking”.

Q: What exactly does that mean?

A: It will differ from project to project, but it generally means that some aspect of the final design has proven troublesome at scale, and is causing any or all of: a material shortfall in the rate of production, low titer (that is the concentration of fuel alcohol in the broth), excessive or noxious byproducts, low yield in terms of “gallons per ton of biomass”, excessive rates of catalyst destruction, or in the cost or yield in separating the product from catalysts, water, or by-products.

Q: How long can de-bottlenecking take?

A: In a practical sense, anywhere from a handful of months to several years.

Q: Are multi-year de-bottlenecking periods usually expected?

A: If you speculated that a number of projects were expected by their parents to be producing by this time at significant volumes and generating cash, you would not be wrong.

Q: If there was one phrase you could offer to sum up the troubles, would it be “core technology failure?”

A: No. But we have heard “pre-treatment” frequently, though not universally.

Q. What about pre-treatment?

A: A few months before he died, Beta Renewables CEO Guido Ghisolfi spoke at length about “the front end problem,” as he called it, with The Digest. He pointed out that the bales of cellulosic material were coming in “dirtier” than had been expected. In Beta’s case, literally — dirt, rocks, mice, farm tools — a lot of junk was sneaking into the bales, and they installed a washing system to clean the biomass more throughly, as the debris was causing, at a minimum, reductions in productivity.

Q: But what about the entire pre-treatment approach?

A: We’ve heard grumbling about pre-treatment systems (that begin the process of liberating sugars from biomass). Specifically, that the new generation systems — which have, as examples, the promise of high sugar yields at lower enzyme loadings, less conversion of sugars to furfural and HMF, and lower capex and opex — are not producing the front-end results that are expected. But it generally it is all coming back, we hear, to higher degrees of biomass contamination than expected.

Q: You’ve mentioned a new system put in place at Beta Renewables? Any other delays at the other projects for retrofits like that?

A: INEOS Bio put in a new system last year, a hydrogen sulfide scrubber, when higher than expected rates of H2S were materially affecting the production organism.

Q: What was the word about that?

A: Last September, we wrote:

“According to the project team, “INPB has implemented a pilot project at the Fayetteville, Arkansas, facility to test the sensitivity of the fermentation process to HCN concentration. The pilot project involved installation of HCN scrubbing and water regeneration unit to prove that the concept of HCN removal and regeneration can be successful at full scale.

The Fayetteville, Arkansas, system proved that fermentation is operable on mulch syngas after removal of HCN and provided design data for the proposed HCN removal and control system at the Vero Beach facility. The Vero Beach system requires a third column to remove the HCN from the air used to regenerate the recirculated scrubber water.

According to INEOS Bio management, the scrubber technology will be installed and commissioned by October and the plant should be resuming normal operations by the end of the year.”

Q: How confident should we be that these technology problems will be solved? 

A: Given that we have heard no clear indications of “core technology failure” from any party (from bullish company operatives to cynical industry observers), we can be reasonably confident that the companies will “figure it out” and reach the intended productivity levels, though actual timelines would be not much more than pure speculation at this stage.

Q: Why aren’t the companies more up-front and transparent about the difficulties? Don’t they see the risks in going stealthy during periods of adversity?

A: First of all, they see intransigence on the part of obligated parties relating to infrastructure, not stealthy cellulosic projects trying to reach steady-state operations, as the #1 risk factor for the RFS. #2 is the Obama Administration’s lack of faith in the RIN mechanism for getting round E10 saturation.

Secondly, corporate candor is one of those attributes, like greenhouse emission reduction, where they create a public benefit but not always a benefit that accrues directly to the corporation.

Q: We’ve seen a lot of biogas projects pop up, including the afore-mentioned compressed natural gas for CNG vehicles technologies, which have experienced fewer technology hassles and issued millions of RINs — will that trend continue?

A: For the time being, yes. And it shows the benefit of a technology and feedstock-neutral RFS. No one saw it coming that landfill gas CNG would outsell cellulosic fuel ethanol in 2015, but that’s the beauty of the market that RINs create.

Q:  In his presentation on timelines to bring up new systems from installation to expected rates of productivity and uptime, what did Iogen CEO Brian Foody have to say?

A: He didn’t encourage thinking along the lines of “6 months or less to full production”, that’s for sure.

Q. In his presentation at ABFC 2015, Foody discussed the timelines to reach target production uptime in detail, for Iogen’s R6, R7 and R8 technology releases, right?

A. Yes. The R8 technology was the release eventually commercialized at Costa Pinto, Brazil in the Raizen project.

Q. How long did the de-bottlenecking take?

A. According to Foody, “expect everyone to struggle to achieve highly reliable commercial operation.” Specifically with the R6 release, the company took 10 months to reach 10% uptime, and peaked at 40 percent uptime one year after start-up.

Iogen-070215-4

Q. Issues?

A. A lot of unexpected results in the impact of handling large amounts of biomass — blockages and corrosion among them.

Q. Did results improve with the R7 release?

A. Yes, and you can see the tale of the tape, below. The project ultimately hit its “asset utilization” target of 80%, but it took a full 21 months to get there. A year beyond start-up, R7 was still at around 50% uptime.

Iogen-070215-3

Q. So, R8 was commercialized, so it must have gone much better, right.

A. Relatively so. Here’s the data, below. Hit the 80 percent uptime target in 10 months, and stayed there. But still, 10 months of struggle.

Iogen-070215-2

Q. What happens if you plot actual cellulosic ethanol production, as seen in the EPA’s RIN date, against the production capacity out there?

A. Iogen has conveniently done that for us. Here’s the data, below. What you can see is an industry moving along roughly the same performance timeline as Iogen’s R6 release.

Iogen-070215-1

Q. Suggesting that immature technology is in the field?

A. Possibly. But just as likely, that these companies experience steep learning curves as they seek steep increases in month-to-month production uptime.

Q. Bottom line?

A. It could be another year, or more, before we see anything like targeted uptimes at all of these projects.

Q. What can I do about it?

A. Preach patience. These are complex technologies, be generous in your assessment.

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