Jump-Starting Tomorrow’s Biofuels
Corn and soybeans, grasses and wood chips, even municipal waste dumps—what do they have in common? In a world seeking to trim its dependence on the fossil fuels that, when burned, overload our atmosphere with carbon, these items all have the potential to be turned into vehicle fuels. Unfortunately, biofuels are not all created equal, at least not when it comes to curbing carbon emissions. The future of biofuels depends on making the right choices today.
The basic technology to extract liquid fuel from plants like wood and grass and other forms of biomass has existed for decades, but has not been cost-effective compared with the cost of producing gasoline and diesel. Driven primarily by an influx of federal dollars, production of corn ethanol has grown to 3 percent of the fuel used in U.S. passenger cars and trucks (EIA 2008a). However, land, water, and other resource constraints limit the potential of food-based biofuels—such as corn ethanol and soy biodiesel—to reduce the carbon footprint of our transportation fuels (UCS 2008a; UCS 2008b). A brighter future for biofuels requires technologies for making fuel from wood chips, grasses, and waste products—and then developing sustainable sources of these feedstocks.
Recent breakthroughs in biological research, combined with government support, are bringing us closer to making fuel from plant leaves, stems, and stalks (cellulosic biofuels) a commercial reality. Several new companies are making the transition from laboratory testing to pilot manufacturing plants.
Mascoma, for example, has built a pilot plant in Rome, New York, that can make half a million gallons of biofuel a year from wood chips. Verenium has opened a 1.4-million-gallon-a-year plant in Jennings, Louisiana, to make ethanol from crushed sugar cane stalks. Both these plants use biochemical processes to break down cellulose into ethanol (Verenium 2009; LaMonica 2008). Bluefire Ethanol in Southern California is using a different approach—breaking down cellulose in municipal waste to make sugar via acid hydrolysis—and will begin construction this year of a 3.7-million-gallon-a-year facility in Lancaster, California (Bluefire Ethanol 2008).
However, while exciting, these pilot plants are far too small to meet the nation’s demand for cellulosic biofuels. In comparison, corn ethanol facilities often produce 100 million gallons a year or more, and petroleum refineries can be 20 times that size (EIA 2008g; RFA 2009). The next step is commercial-scale facilities for cellulosic ethanol.
Range Fuels in Soperton, Georgia, is the top contender in the race to produce such fuel at a scale of tens of millions of gallons a year. The company has broken ground on a facility, and expects to begin using high-temperature gasification to turn the cellulose in waste wood chips into liquid fuel in 2010. Range Fuels plans an initial capacity of 20 million gallons a year, eventually expanding to 100 million gallons a year (Range Fuels 2007).
A competing approach to large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol relies on microorganisms to break down the cellulose. Using this technology, Mascoma’s facility in Kinross, Michigan, is scheduled to produce 20 million gallons a year of ethanol from wood waste by 2011 (Reidy 2008). And Verenium plans to build a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility in Highlands County, Florida, to convert grasses into perhaps 36 million gallons of ethanol a year.
The variety of technologies, feedstocks, and locations tapped by these promising projects improves the chances that one or more will produce the breakthroughs that move the approach from laboratory to market. Scaling up next-generation biofuels from less than a million gallons a year in 2008 to more than a billion is essential if biofuels are to be players in America’s low-carbon future.
Bluefire Ethanol. 2008. Bluefire issues annual letter to the shareholders. Accessed on January 30, 2009.
Energy Information Administration (EIA). 2008a. Annual energy outlook 2008 with projection to 2030. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy.
Energy Information Administration (EIA). 2008g. Number and capacity of operable petroleum refineries by PAD district and state as of January 1, 2008. In Refinery capacity report, form EIA-820. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy.
LaMonica, M. 2008. Inside Mascoma’s ethanol-making bug lab. CNET News, September 22. Accessed on January 30, 2009.
Range Fuels. 2007. Our first commercial plant. Online at http://www.rangefuels.com/our-first-commercial-plant, accessed on February 3, 2009.
Reidy, C. 2008. Mascoma gets government funding for fuel plant. Boston Globe, October 7. Accessed on January 30, 2009.
Renewable Fuels Association (RFA). 2009. 2009 ethanol industry outlook. Washington, DC.
Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 2008a. Land use changes and biofuels. Cambridge, MA.
Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 2008b. Food as fuel. Cambridge, MA. Online at .
Verenium. 2009. Verenium announced first commercial cellulosic ethanol project. January 15. Accessed on January 30, 2009.