Monster Downloads: Algae, jatropha, jet fuel, pyrolysis and bio-based chemicals lead Top 12 list

March 12, 2012 |

The usual suspects, the unusual and some downright shockers amongst the industrial biotech industry’s top downloaded reads.

Since the establishment of the Bioenergy Information Zone two years ago, Digest readers have requested a total of 868,880 downloads from our free collection of reports, presentations, and studies.

The downloads, out of the 376 files available, form a fascinating portrait of what industry thinks of as roadblocks and opportunities.

(Note – like to add your report, study or presentation to the Bioenergy Information Zone? Send it to us at [email protected] We operate this part of the Digest’s overall service on a non-commercial basis (that is, free downloads) – happy to add yours to the mix.)

They follow, in general the 80/20 rule, 17 percent of them (64 in all) account for 71 percent of the download activity. But the top 10 reports – just 3 percent of the whole, account for 55 percent of all download activity. There’s much to be learned from the tale of the tape. Let’s have a look.

1. Fast Pyrolysis and Bio-Oil Upgrading.

This classic from Iowa State’s Robert Brown and Jennifer Holmgren (back in her days as GM of UOP’s biofuels unit and before taking the LanzaTech CEO job) clocks in at 130,426 downloads – the all-time Digest download champ. It’s title covers it all – a comprehensive guide to the various types and methods of fast pyrolysis.  A must-read primer for those looking at Envergent, Dynamotive, Cool Planet, or KiOR – just to name a few white-hot companies. It’s also a tell-tale sign that not everyone agrees with DOE Secretary Steven Chu that the future inexorably revolves around a global glucose economy.

2. Top Value Added Chemicals from Biomass Volume I—Results of Screening for Potential Candidates from Sugars and Synthesis Gas.

It may not have a sexy title, but a survey completed by staff at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and NREL, from all the way back in 2004, has earned 120,635 downloads, and gives the gives the down-low on why 12 bio-based chemicals matter more than others. Get ready for a big headache reading these:

1,4 succinic, fumaric and malic acids, 2,5 furan dicarboxylic acid, 3 hydroxy propionic acid, aspartic acid, glucaric acid, glutamic acid, itaconic acid, levulinic acid, 3-hydroxybutyrolactone, glycerol, sorbitol, xylitol/arabinitol

If this looks like alphabet soup to you, that’s understandable. But you can bet your bottom dollar that companies like Myriant, BioAmber, Rivertop Renewables and other pure-play renewable chemical companies have been all over this one. And reinforces that just about everyone in the biofuels field must be thinking hard about their opportunities amongst the small-volume, high-value markets.

3. Cultivating Clean Energy: The Promise of Algae Biofuels

A team from Terrapin Bright Energy and the Natural Resources Defense Council penned this overview of algae’s opportunities and promise, and it has clocked a whopping 76,625 downloads to date.

This report was carried out from July 2008 to June 2009 for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) under the sponsorship of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (Palo Alto, CA). Preparation was supervised by NRDC and Terrapin Bright Green and conducted with the advice and assistance of the NRDC Algae Biofuels Advisory Committee, which included Al Darzins (then of NREL), Jennifer Holmgren, Scripps’ algae guru Steve Mayfield and Evan Smith (then of Verno Systems). It essays the potential environmental impacts, the pathways of production, and the stages of production including cultivation, harvesting, extraction and conversion. It’s a 70-page tour, and two years old now, but remains one of the most-popular reads out there.

4. Ethanol Industry in Canada

Think of Canada as an afterthought – think ethanol is yesterday’s fuel? Readers are thinking otherwise, putting this survey by a quartet of researchers from Laval and Lethbridge University into fourth place with 27,656 downloads, and it continues to be popular, rating 204 downloads just last week. It’s an oldie-goldie, written in 2004, but goes through the opportunities, province by province, with intelligence and, at 52 pages, with detail but not drowning you in it.

5. Bio-Ethers as Transportation Fuel: a Review

A quartet of researchers from the Indian Institute of Petroleum at Dehradun looked at the the ethers – which include anything from additives like bio-based MTBE to dimethyl ether, which is promoted as an alternative fuel for internal combustion engines. Not what you would call a mainstream subject, looking at the usual stream of biofuels headline, but it has recorded 26,671 downloads over the past couple of years, and is a chart-filled presentation that goes through the emissions, the yields and the economics.

6. Jatropha curcas in South Africa: An Assessment of its Water Use and Bio-Physical Potential

A quartet of researchers compiled this “Report to the Water Research Commission on the project “Investigation into the Impacts of Large-Scale Planting of Jatropha curcas on Water Resources, through Process-Based Research and Modelling” back in 2007, and it has generated 26,635 downloads in total.

The team warned: “From the interviews with potential growers and processors of J. curcas it is evident that they are not well informed regarding establishment, survival and yield, areas which show growth potential, water use implications, and government’s position on J. curcas as a potential SFRA and alien invasive. The private sector interest in J. curcas has largely been stimulated by the perceived potential to generate biofuel/diesel, although economic analysis (Hallowes, 2005) illustrates that this is not a lucrative option. Jatropha. curcas has been presented as a wonder-plant when, in reality, very little is known about it and actual large-scale success stories cannot be found.”

Well that just about sums up the story for jatropha 1.0 – and those who read this 127-pager back in 2007 are probably very glad they did. It remains an excellent cautionary tale and data source today.

7. Algae as a Biodiesel Feedstock: A Feasibility Assessment.

This Alabama-oriented survey from Ron Putt, released in 2007, has generated 20,899 downloads. Putt wrote: “The economic analysis estimated an installed cost for 100 acre algae farms of less than $1 million, and annual nets of $200,000. The analysis identified key cost and price variables which are likely to have the biggest impact on the economic performance of the algae farms, including those for petroleum crude, algal oil and meal, carbon from carbon dioxide capture, and commercial fertilizer. The assessment resolved three phases to algaculture within Alabama, two near term and another somewhat longer term. The near term phases employ animal litter as the nutrient source for the algae ponds.”

Accordingly, its been a guidepost for those looking for low-cost algal biofuels options, particularly in the Southeastern US, where aqua farming (especially catfish) has been well-established but is under pressure.

8. Jatropha Production Technology

Is Jatropha 1.0 dead and completely buried? The popularity of this three-page primer from India, which has clocked 18,811 downloads to date, suggests otherwise. Soil, climate, irrigation, intercropping, fertilizers and other topics are covered, lightly. Readers are considering it a good basic overview to get the jatropha enthusiast started on their road to discovery – though perusal of the longer tracts, giving more in-depth details, is something that presumably not every jatropha enthusiast undertook back when jatropha was going from wonder crop to blunder crop.

9. Biofuels and the Energy-Water Nexus

One of the real gurus in biofuels, Sandia’s Ron Pate, gave this presentation back in 2008 and it has clocked 15,524 downloads for this examination, primarily, of the appeal of algal biofuels. Pate found: “Challenges with Algal Biology, Systems, Processes [include]: Cost-effective, commercially-viable production scale-up; sustainable resource utilization (Energy-balance, water-balance, net GHG emissions, productive use of waste streams); Thermal management & salt management are issues/concerns.” Overall, though, an encouraging survey from 2008, both graph and data-rich.

10. What’s the Potential Market for Algae for Advanced Biofuels?

No all-time download list would be complete without a classic from algae’s Dr. No, John Benemann, which really need a good read because Dr. Benemann is known to present slides at a speed that generally exceeds photon absorption rates.

This 22-slide deck, originally given at the 2009 edition of World Biofuels Markets, scored 11,395 downloads and highlights some of the glories of Botryococcus braunii while talking down a great deal of algal-related hype and what Dr. No calls the special field of “algaepolation”.

11. Evaluation of Bio-Derived Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene

To the elect and elite scientific community, its Bio-Derived Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene; for the rest of us, renewable jet fuel made from veggie oils will do nicely. This report from the Sustainable Biofuels Research & Technology Program at Boeing has recorded 10,342 downloads to date and was co-signed by Air New Zealand, CFM, Continental Airlines, DARPA/STO, GE-Aviation, Honeywell Aerospace, Japan Airlines, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce, Honeywell’s UOP, and Virgin Atlantic.

This 2009 evaluation, which has recorded 10,342 downloads to date, was one of the foundational documents associated with the approval of Bio-SPK (now known, confusingly as HEFA fuel, after a spell as Bio-HRJ, following its time as Bio-SPK – confused yet?) as an aviation fuel suitable for 50 percent blending ratios.

12. A Realistic Technology and Engineering Assessment of Algae Biofuel Production

This survey, complied by EBI from a team at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Caly Poly, and including both Tryg Lundquist and algae’s Dr. No (again), John Benemann, clocked in at 9,861 downloads. This is one assessment that really is a must-read for an industry that has attracted zillions of entrepreneurial entrants who have sometimes struggled to find good data that cuts through the hype and gets to the point.

The Bottom Line

The usual suspects. Algae, jatropha and jet fuel are perennially popular topics both in the downloads, and in the popular press. Of course, they have all gone through their periods as “wonder solutions” followed by Gregorian choruses of “where are the gallons?” chanted by supporters and detractors alike.

The unusual suspects. Careful observers of the Biosphere will not be completely surpassed that the two titanic download champions relate to fast pyrolysis and renewable chemicals. Though they were topics that were generally ignored during the halcyon days of 2005-2008 when biofuels, it seemed, could do no wrong – since the commodities crunch choked off growth in first-generation fuels and slow progress plagued the emergence of cellulosic ethanol, project developers have been looking for smarter processes and higher-value products, and both fast pyrolysis and renewable chemicals have been fitting the bill for quite a lot of investors and their teams.

The shockers. Ethanol in Canada? Alternative fuels like Bio-DME (dimethyl ether)? You’d be hard pressed to find a lot of industry people who would agree that these are hot industry topics. But 54,000 downloads, between two reports on those topics, suggest that quite a lot of study of alternative geographies and alternative fuels and additives is underway.

Does that mean that Canada has been considered by many and left aside for another day – or that its tomorrow’s hot geography? Though ethanol may not be the only target fuel, we think that Canada is a long-term “win” for biofuels – an emissions-focused, land-rich country that struggles with cooler temperatures than the US – but that makes them feel the urgency of alternative fuels whenever they look at winter  heating bills in an era of $106 oil.

Bio-DME – considered and discarded, or tomorrow’s hottest fuel? If you ask Chemrec, Bio-DME is a great solution for the forest products sector because the fuel can be made, using Chemrec technology, from the pulp and paper industry’s black liquor residues. Goodnewsss knowns that the fieriest products sector could use a lift, and though forestry companies are focused on partnerships with companies like Cobalt, Mascoma, KiOR, Coskata and a plethora of companies selling wood chips to the EU as renewable fuel for power-generating boilers – for the pulp and paper industry, Bio-DME may well be a first product of interest.

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