The Need for Speed: POET-DSM’s Project Liberty advances on yield and cost, but still seeking rate

February 19, 2017 |

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In Iowa, we reported late last week that POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels will build an on-site enzyme manufacturing facility in Emmetsburg, pending state and local approvals.

It gives us a chance to review the progress with cellulosic biofuels. In that, you might find yourself in one of three camps, in looking at cellulosic’s slow ramp-up:

1. The “Laurel & Hardy” crowd, expressing some version of “Another Fine Mess. It’s all Bunk, and I Told You So.”

2. The “Miracle on 34th Street” crowd, expressing some version of “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”

3. The “Cabaret” crowd, expressing some version of ’Maybe This Time…It’s gonna happen, happen sometime. Maybe this time, maybe this time I’ll win.”

The path to cellulosic has been as tragedy and misstep-filled and fraught with panic and delay as the Apollo moonshot program, but the Apollo program never actually had the requirement of landing on the moon for an affordable price, and just producing cellulosic fuels is only half the battle, or less than half. And, cellulosic fuels have a habit of staging very grand openings with ribbons and music and a bevy of notable speakers, and then disappearing down the Rabbit Hole for several years. Apollo did better on managing the theatrics, for sure.

In the case of cellulosic, to stretch the Apollo analogy, the problem has been with the front end, what you might call the rocket’s First Stage. The goal of a pre-treatment technology is to provide a wet stream of biomass, ready for enzymatic hydrolysis — and provide it at a steady rate of something like a half-ton bale per minute.

You see, you can’t produce 25 million gallons at a plant, with say 90% uptime, without producing something like 75,000 gallons per day, and at 70 gallons of fuel yield per ton of biomass, you need to jam that bale through the system in about a minute. Else you get the same thing happening in cellulosic fuels that you get on the Santa Monica Freeway at rush-hour — a logjam that’s frustrating, cost-wasting and time-wasting — and everyone gets crabby, especially the people who invested the money.

So, you have 60 seconds to get that bale wet, sloppy, and moving along the pipeline and into the fermenter. It’s the most dangerous 60 seconds in the cellulosic movement — something like the moments of peak-stress on a spacecraft during re-entry.

If it takes five minutes to get that bale nice and sloppy wet and ready to be completely enveloped by enzymes and dissolving into a vehicle-ready fuel, you might have a wonderful yield, and you might have a wonderful fuel. But you are going to get something like 5 million gallons of fuel per year out of that $250 million wonder you’ve built near a cornfield, and you are going to get your financial fanny paddled, and hard.

Here’s what we’ve heard from POET-DSM.

“The facility is producing at a rate of 70 gallons per bone-dry ton of biomass, near the target conversion rate, and is currently in a ramp-up phase.”

And what that tells you is everything you need to know. If they could jam a half-ton bale a minute into that system, they’d be shipping massive quantities of high-value cellulosic fuels to California, minting money, and we’d be chatting about which POET facility gets the next cellulosic license.

It’s the rate. It takes a certain amount of technical Whoopee to get a bale that sloppy, that ready for enzymes, and that ready for hydrolysis, in 60 seconds or less. It’s a game of Beat the Clock and, so far, the industry is getting a bad beat.

Now, we could toss bricks at the pre-treatment supplier, which was Andritz, as was proudly reported in October 2012, when everyone in cellulosic was quite a bit happier about the state of progress.  But let’s be fair — there were alternatives and Andritz’s advanced steam explosion (SteamEx) process won the business fair and square.

Turns out that we had Apollo 1 here — tight timelines, nervous backers, a hopeful nation, the glitzy hype, and then a fire on the Pad and a tragedy and a terrible and worrying delay. Thankfully no loss of life in this case — but some careers that went off-track, for sure. And in the process the cellulosic fuels teams have earned a solid reputation as the “Can’t Do Crew”, which is going to be tough to reverse, and no progress will be made on reputation until we see some major fuel volumes at the pump.

The new enzyme package

The facility will be integrated into the Project Liberty technology package, replicable in future facilities — without requiring downstream processing, stabilizers and other chemicals required for enzyme transportation.

New enzymes developed by DSM are also expected to improve effectiveness of the enzyme mix, further reducing costs for the process. CRB has been awarded the contract for the design, engineering and construction management. Basic engineering is complete, and construction is expected to begin in late spring or early summer.

Reaction from the principals

“Enzymes for cellulosic ethanol have been improving dramatically in recent years, and this is another leap delivered by our partner DSM in both cost and performance,” POET President and COO Jeff Lautt said. “It will be a valuable addition to POET-DSM’s integrated licensing package.”

“We have reached some important production thresholds in recent months. This gives us the confidence to move to this next level of technology development,” Atul Thakrar, President DSM Bio-based Products & Services said. “The startup and ramp-up of Project Liberty have provided valuable experience for developing a cost-effective process that can be replicated across the U.S. and world.”

The Bottom Line

Here’s your takeaway. Cellulosic is going to happen. Some skeptics are pointing to supplying fuels to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Won’t take that long, amigo — but the best thing to do right now is take the eyes off the clock and let cellulosic’s pioneers do what pioneers do — deliver the frontier.

Does it really matter whether the West Was Won in 1847 or 1852? The important thing is the winning of the west. And the pioneers will get there — no matter how many swamps they have managed to fall into along the way. They’re not winning against the clock but they will beat the prairies and the mountains and the quicksand and the deserts. California here they come — you can count on that.

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