The Loaves and the Fishes: Drop-in renewable biofuels, from unlikely sources

August 2, 2011 |

Terrabon creates fuels from the wet, nasty stuff, for a multitude hungry for drop-in alternative fuels

Terrabon has been one of the most closely-watched biofuels companies in the country for some time, marching into the 50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy last year, though they were three years out at the time from completing their first commercial scale project.

It could have been the signature investments from Waste Management and Valero that caught so much attention – but it probably was the promise of the technology, which aims to produce drop-in renewable gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from municipal solid waste – the ultimate high-value fuels from the ultimate, low-cost, “take my landfill, please” feedstock.

In articles like Waste makes Haste, its been noted for come time that the projects getting traction in cellulosic biofuels have been working with residues – primarily, to date, agricultural, animal and above all municipal solid waste. MSW has been particularly active, with projects like INEOS Bio in Florida and Enerkem in Alberta and Mississippi moving rapidly towards commercialization in 2012 and 2013.

Mahi-mahi and day-old bread

Terrabon, however, has the added allure that it is making fuels from particularly nasty feedstock – mahi-mahi skeletons, day-old bread, slop from the cafeteria – and dials in a group of drop-in fuels from its process. That is, taking the stuff no one can use, and making the fuels that anyone can use – getting something from nothing, as it were, in the very old tradition of the feeding of the multitudes with the Loaves and the Fishes.

That’s one of the reasons why, at the Digest, though we field a lot of questions about all the near term technologies, but we get an elevated number about Terrabon.

A conversation with Terrabon COO Simon Upfill-Brown

To update you, and ourselves, we spent time recently with Terrabon COO Simon Upfill-Brown.

BD: Last time we profiled Terrabon, the drive was on for a first commercial facility in 2013. Is the project still on track?

SU-B: Our 5 million gallon project, by 2013, looks good. We are in the middle of detailed engineering right now, and have also applied for a USDA loan guarantee.

BD: How’s the loan guarantee coming along?

SU-B: They extended the deadline a couple of months, but we are now in detailed review. It’s looking good, and the USDA is very thorough, which helps bring discipline to any project.

BD: Fuels or chemicals, for the first project?

SU-B: We are still very much focused on fuel, we feel that fuel is the way to go for the first plant for a variety of reasons. For one, minor impurities are not an issue if you are burning.

BD: What about the jet fuel opportunities?

SU-B: We passed all the tier one specification, and are supplying 6000 liters for the next set of tests, which include the fit-for-purpose components, and maybe an engine test. After that, the flight tests.

BD: How do the economics look?

SU-B: It’s higher density, so we make a little bit less, but the prices looks good and there’s a lot of interest from DOD. We will make the spectrum of fuels. The way we do our oligorimerization, we can orient more diesel if we want.

BD: So it really is an integrated biorefinery.

SU-B: Well, actually, its a water treatment plant, followed by a sewage treatment plant, followed by the biorefinery. Three in one.

BD: Feedstocks. Terrabon’s been looking at some of the tougher material to work with. How’s the testing coming along?

SU-B: The stuff that we want is the wet nasty food stuff, which is a pinch point for biofuels, because the guys that do gasification or pyro don’t want it too wet. For that material, the only other option is composting or anaerobic digestion. That works in parts of the country, but with natural gas prices, composting is tough. You lose a seventh of the volume. We are the large scale option to handle that.

BD: How wet?

SU-B: 20-30 percent solids we can handle fine.

BD: No wonder Waste Management talks you up.

SU-B. That’s their game, extracting added value from the waste material stream.

BD: How wet and nasty can you take it – and how do you handle the variability of food waste.

SU-B: We have been feeding waste to our process for 18 months, material from cafeterias and the like. One day, skeletons of mahi-mahi, the next day its unused loaves. Our naturally occurring mix of salt tolerant bugs handles the mix well.

BD: how many projects could you do, for example, with Waste Management’s material stream in the nearer term?

SU-B: In our line of sight, there are at least 15 with WM, with the DOD we can do at least some near military installations.

BD: Project size?

SU-B: For the small scale, there’s that high fixed cost to overcome, so our smallest scale, commercially feasible project is 220 dry tons of feed per day, or 5 million gallons

BD: Do you stay at that size?

SU-B: For the first 2-3, we’ll stay at 220 tons per day, then move to 500 or 1000 tons per day.

BD: Preferred location? Taking separated waste from WM?

SU-B: Yes, separated  – next door or close to the existing facility.

BD: Operating and capital cost?

SU-B: At the 1000 dry ton feedstock per day scale, our operating cost per gallon is approximately $1.00, as mentioned this morning. Capital cost per annual gallon is between $6.00 and 8.00 – everybody handles capital cost differently in calculating a total cost of production. To get to an ethanol equivalent, as you know, you would have to divide by 1.5  – for $0.67 per gallon operating cost and $4.00 – $5.33 per annual gallon capital cost.

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Category: Fuels

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