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Biomass to fuels firm Cool Planet has raised $60 million from venture backers in its fourth round of funding. Until now, two things had made Cool Planet unique in the biomass space – it attracted investment from Google Ventures, and its business model calls for small-scale, modular biorefineries.
Since venture backing for cellulosic fuels start-ups has been negligible lately, Cool Planet’s $60 million fund raise gives it a third unusual quality.
In some ways, Cool Planet is a bit like Khosla-backed KiOR – it relies on specialty catalysts to transform biomass (i.e. wood chips, agriculture waste) into drop-in, gasoline-like biofuels rather than ethanol like in most cellulosic fuel plants.
But Cool Planet sequesters the untransformed bits of biomass into what it calls biochar, which can be used as a soil enhancement in agriculture. Cool Planet did not invent the idea of biochar (which is sort of like charcoal), nor did it invent the idea of using it to boost soil productivity (through water and nutrient retention). But the carbon sequestration that biochar represents allows the company to advertise its fuel as carbon negative.
It’s not yet clear if farmers would adopt Cool Planet’s output, however. In fact, the company’s website says it is actively seeking partnerships to get this particular ball rolling. From the outside it is not clear to what degree profitability hinges on the sale of biochar.
Having a modular biorefinery sounds like an attractive concept, considering the module could be placed where biomass exists in significant quantities but would not be profitable to ship to a distant, huge biorefinery. Still, these facilities are not tiny; each “station” would produce 10 million gal per year of biofuel. And Cleantech Chemistry has not yet determined how the company plans to get the fuel output from these distributed outposts transported to a point of sale.
Cool Planet’s fund raising will be used in part to finalize engineering design for its first commercial facility as well as capital for construction in the Port of Alexandria, La. The company says it will be in operation before the end of 2014.
In addition to Google, Cool Planet has backing from North Bridge Venture Partners, Shea Ventures, BP, Energy Technology Ventures, and Excelon.
In Solar, a novel by acclaimed author Ian McEwan, the protagonist, a physicist named Michael Beard, has been tasked to evaluate submissions from the public sent to a UK panel looking for new ideas for clean energy. He divides them into piles: those that violate the first law of thermodynamics, those that violate the second law, and those that violate both. This cleantech reporter could relate.
That’s why ideas that start with the laws of thermodynamics – rather than those that have to account for them later – are so attractive. Take entropy, for example. In our daily life we struggle against entropy – the iPod headphone wires that get totally knotted up in my handbag, the fact that the neatest person you know still has a junk drawer, and so on.
This week’s issue of C&EN explores research that tries to harness the universe’s arrow-like movement to disorder. When CO2 laden emissions from power plants are released into the atmosphere, the CO2 mixes into the ambient air mass. As Naomi Lubick explains, an electrochemical cell could harvest the energy that is released when these two gases mix. Researcher Bert Hamelers of the Dutch water treatment tech center Wetsus, has developed a lab scale device to do just that.
But Lubick points out that to implement such a solution would require overcoming at least two hurdles – one, the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides may foul the system’s membranes. And two, it is no easy task to dissolve huge amounts of CO2 in liquid.
In fact, dissolving the gas uses quite a bit of energy. Which reminds me of another literary reference: the witches of Shakespeare’s MacBeth chant “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” – indeed, there is some toil and trouble involved.
I know that many other researchers and technology companies are working on these two problems. For example, there are programs working on carbon capture and storage that are using liquids, catalysts and membranes to grab components of power plant emission gases. And firms such as Calysta Energy and Lanzatech have plans to use microbes to make useful products out of gases such as methane and flue gas. For that, they need to dissolve the gas in water. It is not a trivial problem.
This week’s cover story – Seeking Biomass Feedstocks That Can Compete – discusses the competition that natural gas might bring to the young renewable fuels and chemicals industry. [You can also check out the YouTube video about Energy Cane]
The story discusses one positive that the rise of natural gas brings to biobased chemical makers – at least those that produce C4 chemicals (i.e. butanediol, butadiene). As the chemical industry swaps petroleum feedstocks for natural gas, their processes will generate a much smaller ratio of C4 chemicals. Firms that rely on those intermediates will seek other sources of C4s.
But there are a few other ways that the natural gas story intersects with the renewable industries – some obvious, and some not so obvious. One obvious way – cheaper energy from natural gas may help decrease operating costs at all chemical producers, including ones that use biomass feedstocks.
Less obvious – there is a group of renewable companies that use syngas as a feedstock. You know what makes an excellent syngas? Why, that’d be natural gas. Sure, you could gasify plant matter, old tires, construction debris, municipal waste (anything carbon based). Any of those feedstocks will make a flow of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. With chemical or biological catalysts, that syngas can be made into chemicals and fuels.
At least two firms that started out with plans to make syngas from biomass or waste sources now say they will ramp up on natural gas – Coskata, and Primus Green Energy. Coskata’s end product is ethanol, while Primus is targeting drop-in hydrocarbons. Presumably, with a working gasifier and catalysts, they could switch feedstocks whenever the cost basis dictates.
Newlight Technologies wants to make polymers from waste gases like methane from water treatment plants. But methane from under the ground would work well, too. The company says it can also make polymers from CO2 (with a helping hand from a hydrogen generator). Which brings us to…
BASF, which is not really a renewable company, but has got some irons in the fire. The chemical giant has a research project going to rip the hydrogen off of natural gas, and mix that with waste CO2 to make a custom-blended syngas. The firm says getting hydrogen this way is cheaper than other ways (tearing up water molecules, etc). Waste CO2 is something many industries – especially in Europe – would like to do something with. LanzaTech is also in the waste CO2 business. Not sure what its natural gas plans are.
Lastly, two stalwarts of the biobased chemicals industry, Genomatica and OPX Bio are getting a handle on natural gas. Genomatica is working with Waste Management to make C4s from syngas (derived from municipal waste). The syngas project came up in my interview with Genomatica’s CEO Christophe Schilling about natural gas.
More directly, OPX Bio, which is working to make acrylic acid from sugar, has a lab-scale project for its second product – fatty acids. The company says its process can use syngas made from all the usual suspects including natural gas. There is already a significant market for chemicals based on fatty acids; they can also be converted into nice things like jet fuel.
Natural gas is not a renewable resource, so one might wonder why these green tech firms would bother using it at all. I can think of three reasons: one – as a first feedstock to prove one’s catalyst technology, two, as an alternate feedstock to balance price and availability of biomass or waste, and three, as a way to fix the mass-balance of hydrogens and carbons in your syngas. If adding 10% of syngas increases yields by 20%, that might be tempting.
There is one way that natural gas as a feedstock might be considered “green.” This comes via Alan Shaw of Calysta. The company uses methane munching bacteria to capture natural gas, then enzymes in the cells can make desired products. Shaw suggests a good use of the technology would be to install small-scale units where there is so-called “stranded” natural gas. That would include oil wells that flare the natural gas that comes up with the crude oil in places like North Dakota.
It’s going to be 6 million gallons. That is how much cellulosic biofuel EPA’s research (crystal ball?) shows will be produced in the U.S. this year, and what fuel blenders, who live by the Renewable Fuels Standard, will have to put in their product.
EPA’s final rule on this question was published today. And the text includes a remarkable figure: “From 2007 through the second quarter of 2012 over $3.4 billion was invested in advanced biofuel production companies by venture capitalists alone.”
Egads. Anyway, for at least one more year, cellulosic biofuel will be the black-footed ferret of fuel types, which is to say, exceedingly rare. By comparison there will be over 16 billion gal of regular biofuel (like the stuff made from corn and soybeans) this year.
The 6 million figure comes from output from two sources – the largest is Kior’s Columbus, MS plant, which is projected to make between 5 or 6 million gal of gasoline and diesel from woody biomass using a special kind of catalytic cracking technology. The remainder will be produced by Ineos Bio (see the below post).
I note that the Kior facility’s output is not ethanol and so nicely side-steps the issue of the “blend-wall”, which affects ethanol producers. For 2014, however, the fact that most advanced biofuels are ethanol will cause the EPA some RFS problems. EPA is now saying that there will be changes:
EPA does not currently foresee a scenario in which the market could consume enough ethanol sold in blends greater than E10, and/or produce sufficient volumes of non-ethanol biofuels to meet the volumes of total renewable fuel and advanced biofuel as required by statute for 2014. Therefore, EPA anticipates that in the 2014 proposed rule we will propose adjustments to the 2014 volume requirements, including the advanced biofuel and total renewable fuel categories.
We expect that in preparing the 2014 proposed rule, EPA will estimate the available supply of cellulosic biofuel and advanced biofuel volumes, assess the ethanol blendwall and current infrastructure and market-based limitations to the consumption of ethanol in gasoline-ethanol blends above E10, and then propose to establish volume requirements that are reasonably attainable in light of these considerations and others as appropriate
The prize for the first company to get a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant up and running in the U.S. goes to Ineos Bio. Ineos Bio is a Swiss firm, a subsidiary of the chemical company Ineos.
The facility is located in Vero Beach, Fla. and has a capacity of 8 million gal of ethanol per year. It also produces 6 MW of renewable biomass power. Vero Beach is on the Eastern coast of the state (a bit more than halfway down), near Port St. Lucie.
Folks following cellulosic ethanol might have thought the U.S. would be the first in the world to get a cellulosic ethanol plant, but that distinction goes to Italy, where Beta Renewables owns a 20 million gal per year facility running on wheat straw and giant reed (Arundo donax).
The feedstock for the Vero Beach facility is “vegetative and wood waste.” I’m hoping to learn a bit more about what’s going in there. Because Ineos Bio’s front end process involves gasification, it is likely not terribly picky about the biomass – apparently it has converted vegetative and yard waste, and citrus, oak, pine, and pallet wood waste.
Projecting when the cellulosic ethanol industry will really take off has historically been a fools’ errand. But clearly, having two facilities in existence is infinitely more than zero, which is what we had in 2012. You can review my feeble attempt to forecast the 2013 crop of ethanol makers and check out the list of other facilities set to come online soon.
Remember that old school-yard comeback? “I’m rubber and you’re glue…”? It looks like the unfair trade claims that the U.S. and Europe lobbed at China’s solar industry have bounced back and stuck.
Last October, the U.S. Commerce Dept. made good on a months-long threat to impose a 24-36% tariff on solar panels imported from China. And last week, China completed the tit for tat by putting a tariff on U.S.-made polysilicon, the main raw material used for solar cells. [h/t Washington Post]
Originally, the U.S. accused China of unfair trade practices – saying the government heavily subsidized the industry and manufacturers were selling modules at less than the cost of production, a practice known as dumping. The EU took similar action early this summer.
China pretty quickly started to point out that the U.S. has given large grants to polysilicon producers, which has helped them quickly build huge new, more efficient production facilities. Those facilities export a lot of polysilicon to China. C&EN has covered this part of the industry pretty closely – both Hemlock Semiconductor (majority owned by Dow Corning) and Wacker Chemie had big expansion plans, some of which are now on hold.
So let’s review. Tariffs don’t tend to take an unfair situation and make it fair. What they do reliably produce is uncertainty and higher prices – at a time when what the world needs now is not love, sweet love, but cheap, renewable energy (well, and love, too).
The general idea is that the solar panel tariff will protect U.S.-based manufacturers of solar panels, but frankly, we lost that war a long time ago. At the time the original complaint was lodged, China already had a 2/3 global market share. Will any of the solar companies that folded because they couldn’t compete on price now re-open their doors?
It has truly been an awful downward spiral for developed-world solar makers. Trying to stay in business while panel prices plummeted was like trying to catch a falling knife. But in the time that was happening, guess what industry was booming in the U.S.? Solar power! That is, the projects built to create electricity from the sun. Cheap panels plus renewables mandates and tax incentives magically created several utility scale solar farms. [Take that, shale gas!]
And while the U.S. doesn’t compete very well with China on commodity crystalline silicon solar panels, we do lead the market in new and efficient types of inverters, which convert DC current from the panel to the AC current that runs your TV. More demand for cheap solar panels has meant a boom time for makers of inverter equipment.
U.S. companies that innovate can still make a buck in solar these days. But it is a mature, consolidated industry and not every player is going to stay afloat, regardless of where they do their manufacturing.
In the quest for chemicals and fuels made from biomass, there are a few important black boxes that make it difficult to compare different companies’ business models and likelihood of success. One of them is the process by which a particular facility obtains sugars from its biomass feedstock.
In many cases, the first step is expensive, but low-tech – chopping up the stuff. This is the part that reminds me of Choppin’ Broccoli, the Saturday Night Live song as performed by Dana Carvey. Since cellulosic ethanol is sort of an offshoot of corn ethanol, it’s helpful to imagine how different it is to process a corn cob or stalk or an entire sugar cane, compared to grinding up a starchy corn kernel. Getting sugar from cellulose is difficult enough, getting the cellulose away from the clutches of a plant’s lignin first requires heavy machinery to chop it into little pieces.
So say you have tidy chipped up pieces of biomass. What do you do then? Like the SNL song, it ain’t pretty. Generally it requires some combination of thermochemical assaults to get the sugar out. Steam, alkali-acid washes, and pricey enzymes… In an otherwise green business, the pretreatment steps use energy and possibly chemicals that you wouldn’t want to spill.
Since pretreatment of biomass has a lot to do with both costs and the yield of sugars from feedstock, it is a busy area of research. An article by Chris Hanson in the appropriately named Biomass Magazine delves into some intriguing ideas. To release the useful cellulose from lignin, researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the U.S. DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute are investigating ionic liquids. Instead of using a traditional, two-stage alkali-acid pretreatment, a dose of butadiene sulfone got the job done in one step, according to U. of Illinois scientist Hao Feng. Another major benefit is that the butadiene sulfone can be recovered and recycled.
In California, the JBEI has been experimenting with imidazolium chloride. It has succesfully obtained sugar yields of 95% from mixed feedstocks and recycled 95% of the ionic liquid.
And a company called Leaf Energy has been studying a glycerol pretreatment method. Compared to acid pretreatments, the company says their method gets more sugars faster by dissolving lignin with a relatively inexpensive reagent with low temperature and standard pressure.
The goal with improving pretreatment steps is to bring down the cost of sugar from cellulose so that it is not more expensive than sugar from corn or sugar cane. Maybe if major cellulosic ethanol producers take up these technologies, we’ll have a better window into how they get the sugar out.
Gevo, a maker of bio-based isobutanol, is now actually making isobutanol. It says something that a publicly-traded company has been not making its commercial product for some months. The problem was a bug in the production system – technically a microbe – a microbe other than the one (a yeast) that was supposed to be making isobutanol.
I spoke with Gevo’s CEO Pat Gruber yesterday at the BIO show in Montreal. He was rather forthright about what happened. First, they were running the plant at full scale with their own yeast and had their separation process running. They were producing truckloads of isobutanol. The facility had previously been an ethanol fermentation plant. With the new operating conditions, a dormant microbe sprang to life, contaminating the process. The product was still being made but the company decided to shut down the plant and decontaminate it.
“We had to identify the sources of the contaminant, change the pipes, sanitize the equipment, train the staff and modify the operating conditions to favor our yeast,” Gruber recounted. He emphasized that these plants are not sterile like a pharma plant would be. Instead, vectors of contamination are controlled so they stay at very low levels.
When I wrote about biobased chemicals last summer, analysts held out Gevo as an example of a success story. It was shortly after the story ran that Gevo stopped its process at its Luverne, Minn. plant due to problems with contamination. The episode shows the kind of growing pains that the industry and its followers are learning to anticipate and accept.
Other companies might face different kinds of growing pains – for Gevo there was what is called technical risk. Other firms are making chemicals such as biosuccinic acid. They also face a market risk because for most applications their product is not a drop in raw material, so downstream customers must adopt it.
This year is the tenth anniversary of the World Congress for Industrial Technology. Historically, it seems to take about a decade for a new chemical concept to reach commercialization, and then some more time to penetrate new markets. This makes 2013 a very interesting year for the biobased chemical industry.