Waste Lines: The hottest trends with bio’s coolest feedstock

May 22, 2012 |

There’s nothing growing faster in the bio-based world than waste-based projects.

Or, rather, is there any disappearing faster than the concept of waste, as bioenergy projects show us how to re-use and re-use and re-use?

There are some names that have gone wrong – badly wrong – in bioenergy feedstocks. For example, vomit nut doesn’t sound too appetizing, which is why its now generally called jatropha. Stinkweed is now known as pennycress. False flax – that doesn’t sound like a good product – maybe camelina, its other name, sounds better. And so on.

But of all the names gone wrong, “waste” has to be the king of them. By definition, anything that you have found a feasible use for has ceased to be a waste and has been promoted to feedstock. Perhaps, “residue” is a better term.

3 reasons why waste is king

Regardless of its naming deficiencies, waste has been hot and getting hotter as a bioenergy feedstock because it solves three of the most pressing problems blocking capacity expansion.

1. The feedstocks are available at fixed, affordable prices – sometimes free, sometimes even transitionally available with a negative-cost tipping fee. And available in fixed, long-term supply contracts.

2. The odious sources are generally already aggregated, for health or noxiousness reasons.

3. They are less subject to considerations such as indirect land-use change that have plagued energy crops, and evoke few protects, if any, from environmental extremists.

Another reason to love waste is that residues can be used over and over again – once you have the idea that waste from one process can be the feedstock for another, there’s no limit but ingenuity from the process being repeated over and over again, making many uses out of the one original aggregation of organic molecules that set the chain in motion.

Why symbiosis is cool

The advantages of industrial symbiosis have long been demonstrated at Kalundborg, where public and private enterprises buy and sell waste products from industrial production in a closed cycle. The residual products traded can include steam, dust, gases, heat, slurry or any other waste product that can be physically transported from one enterprise to another. A residual product originating from one enterprise becomes the raw material of another enterprise, benefiting both the economy and the environment.

For example, organic waste from Novozymes is made into agricultural fertilizer, while smoke from DONG energy’s plant is made into gypsum at Gyproc, while wheat straw from the region is converted into ethanol at Inbicon, whose lignin byproduct is burned by DONG Energy for electricity and district heat, in place of coal – including a feed of process heat and steam to power the Inbicon process.

For all those reasons, waste-based projects have been getting a lot of traction. Projects like Fulcrum, Enerkem, POET and Abengoa have been the ones getting out of the door in terms of finalizing designs and getting financed. The reasons? Primarily, assurance of affordable, aggregated biomass over the long term – reducing the risk of a first commercial project to the technology itself (generally addressed through loan guarantees), and fuel market volatility which is generally addressed through mandates.

What’s up in the market place? Today, we’ll look at the 6 types of waste and some of the most notable recent projects.


What is it? Corn stover, cane bagasse, tops and leaves; soy husks and hulls; palm fruit waste, sugarbeet bagasse, and so on.

Examples: POET project in Emmetsburg, Iowa; the Abengoa project in Hugoton, Kansas

The Pros: First, there’s plenty of it. Costs for enzymes are coming down quickly. Ethanol plants are built near lots of available ag waste, helping with grower outreach. Farmers are getting antsy about corn stover, also. Research is finding that moving a portion of stover off the field improves yield, and reduces exposure to pests that harbor in waste.

The Cons:  Aggregation, its tough – though sugarcane bagasse is already aggregated in the cane delivery. Plus, the costs are expected to be higher than other forms of waste – in the $55-$75 per ton range. Fermentation technologies have struggled – not the least because every load of ag waste is slightly different in content, and enzymes have had challenges in maintaining activity rates, the more mixed the wastebasket.

FOG (fats, oils and greases)

What is it? Includes animal rendering leftovers after meat production; veggie oils from industrial kitchen flyer oil. Generally, FOG ranges in quality from choice white grease, through yellow grease and brown grease.

Examples: The Dynamic Fuels project in Geismar, Louisiana;  or the Diamond Green Diesel project ready for completion in Norco, Louisiana.

The Pros: It’s aggregated, odious and cheap.  The technology is understood for extracting value from the waste stream.

The Cons:  Volumes vary by country. Lots in the US, none to speak of in India. Processing technology costs are high, especially at small scale, and can need extra hydrogen. Specialized technology is just under development for really tough-to-work-with brown greases.

Municipal solid waste

What is it? The biologically active fraction of household, yard and construction waste – the stuff that generally goes into the landfill. Minus the refrigerators and plastics.

Examples: INEOS Bio project in Vero Beach, Florida, or the Enerkem projects in Edmonton, Alberta or Westbury, Ontario, backed by no less than Valero and Waste Management.

The Pros: Already aggregated, can be available at zero or negative costs. Feedstock owners can grant long-term (15-20 years) and are generally credit worthy entities. Feedstock developers are aggressively developing this channel.

The Cons:  Water content, and pre-sortation and impurities are a problem. Generally, fermenting technologies are out (except companies like INEOS Bio that can ferment the syngas from gasifying biomass). Gasifiers are generally expensive and low-yield. Finally, MSW does not generally count as agricultural biomass, for such projects as the DOE/USDA/US Navy collaboration to commercialize biofuels production utilizing Title III provisions in the Defense Production Act.


What is it? There’s forest slash – the fallen stuff in the forest. There’s sawmill waste (up top 45 percent of log volume is wasted after trimming). All this can be converted into wood chips.

Examples: KiOR just completed construction of its first commercial scale facility, located in Columbus, Mississippi.  The approximately $190 million facility is expected to create several hundred direct, indirect, and induced jobs during operation, and over 500 jobs on site during peak construction.

The Pros: Easy to find, and widely available around the globe. Black liquor is an odious problem for mills, so technology can turn problem into opportunity. Lots of mills are closed or clog, leaving one-employer towns eager to help with incentives.

The Cons:  Aggregation of forest slash – really, really tough. Sawmill residues and black liquor are great, but growth is constrained by the scope of mill operations. Not always included in sector credits and incentives, owing to sustainability concerns.


What is it? Industrial off-gases, including carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide; process heat and steam.

Examples: The LanzaTech project in Shanghai, China; Inbicon cellulosic ethanol project in Kalundborg, Denmark.

The Pros: Aggregated, available for zero cost, generally. Lots of infrastructure available at the partner site to help reduce capital costs.

The Cons:  Got to have a close relationship with the industrial partner, as the pad for the process is likely to be on or adjacent to the industrial site.  Not many labs have developed bugs that can handle the conditions.


What is it? Industrial or municipal waste water; can be graded as brown water (sludge) or grey water (e.g. post-industrial use); plus, there’s the pulp mill residue known as black liquor.

Examples: In Massachusetts, ThermoEnergy has brought to market a system that turns soluable sugars found in wastewater into feedstock for ethanol production; or, the Chemrec black liquor project in Pitea, Sweden.

The Pros: Aggregated, and available for zero cost, generally. Lots of infrastructure available at the partner site to help reduce capital costs. Good use for micro algae.

The Cons:  Requires a close partnership with the feedstock partner. Bio-based content in the wastewater is critical (processing too much water for too little energy content is problematic).

10 projects on the move

Fats, oils and greases

In Michigan, a school teacher will soon begin producing 100,000 gallons of biodiesel annually from waste cooking oil that will be traded with restaurants in exchange for locally grown canola oil he will process at a facility that he has been planning for the past eight years. He is also experimenting with ethanol production from food waste for later addition to the biodiesel facility.

In Europe, biodiesel plants are turning to animal fats and waste oils in an attempt to stay viable in a market where poor canola crop forecasts mean canola prices have skyrocketed, eating into biodiesel margins. Margins have halved this season from $100 per metric ton last year. Canola oil use for biodiesel has fallen by 800,000 tonnes, replaced by waste cooking oil and animal fats, as well as a major boost in palm oil imports.

In New Zealand, the Department of Corrections has signed on to supply used cooking oil from all 18 of its prison kitchens across the country to Biodiesel New Zealand. The deal will see about 5,000 liters of used cooking oil a month avoid the landfill and instead be converted into high-quality Biogold renewable fuel. Every liter of used cooking oil makes a liter of Biogold™ fuel and saves more than 2kg of carbon emissions. By supporting a local manufacturer, the Department of Corrections is also helping to support jobs and reduce New Zealand’s dependence on imported fossil fuel.

In Australia, Qantas launched Australia’s first commercial biofuels flight from Sydney to Adelaide using a 50/50 blend of cooking-oil derived jet fuel. Qantas is operating under the AUS$500,000 Emerging Renewables Program grant, which enables Qantas to partner with Shell Australia for a feasibility study of long-term aviation biofuels. Other airlines in the country such as Virgin Australia are also working on aviation biofuels programs.


This month, DuPont Industrial Biosciences announced it will contract with Fagen to build its 25 million gallon cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Nevada, Iowa. During 2011, DuPont Industrial Biosciences purchased land adjacent to the existing Lincolnway Energy ethanol plant, which will enable potential synergies in energy and logistical management.  DuPont had already contracted KBR Inc. to execute the front-end engineering, procurement and detailed engineering design work for the project, and continues to work with Iowa State University to complete large-scale stover supply chain testing.

In March, New Holland strongly backed ethanol production, saying that “ethanol’s success is our success” as many of its machines are used for planting and harvesting feedstock, including biomass baling equipment, originally developed for the forage and hay industry, that is used to collect stover for use in second-generation ethanol production.

Forest products

KiOR just completed construction of its first commercial scale facility, located in Columbus, Mississippi.  The approximately $222 million facility is expected to create several hundred direct, indirect, and induced jobs during operation, and over 500 jobs on site during peak construction. Production is scheduled to commence in the second half of 2012. KiOR’s process produces refinery intermediates for the production of renewable diesel.

Industrial waste

In New Mexico, Joule Unlimited announced last November it is ready to start construction on a biofuels demonstration plant in New Mexico. Joule Unlimited Inc. plans to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide waste into biofuel at the planned facility in Hobbs, which is expected to begin operations in 2012. New Mexico state officials say Joule has the potential to expand its operations to create 500 new jobs in Hobbs by producing up to 75 million gallons of renewable diesel and 125 million gallons of ethanol per year.

Waste waster

In Massachusetts, ThermoEnergy has brought to market a system that turns soluable sugars found in wastewater into feedstock for ethanol production.

The CASTion Sugar Recovery System cane help eliminate the expense of treatment and disposal of biological oxygen demand (BOD) by making concentrated sugars suitable for resale in a wide variety of applications, including feedstocks for ethanol production while, the remaining water is purified to levels suitable for normal discharge.
ThermoEnergy’s Controlled Atmospheric Separation Technology (CAST) concentrates sugar-bearing wastewater to create up to a 65-brix sugar product for use in a variety of agricultural and renewable fuel market applications.

Municipal solid waste

In the UK, an innovative $10.4 million bioenergy project which will see five European countries working together to develop bioenergy initiatives that will significantly reduce the amount of waste being sent to landfill, has been officially launched in the West Midlands.

BioenNW (Bioenergy North West) is focused on promoting the use of green bioenergy power facilities fuelled by waste materials across five regions of North West Europe: West Midlands (UK), Eindhoven (The Netherlands), Ile-de-France (France), North Reine Westphalia (Germany) and Wallonia (Belgium). Waste materials such as straw, wood, algae and sewage sludge could potentially be explored as sources of biofuel, therefore removing any reliance on the production of dedicated food crops.

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