RFS Plagued by Critics While Bio-based Chemicals Move Forward

In the U.S., the push to increase the percentage of fuel that comes from bio-based feedstocks has turned into a tug of war. This year’s drought has re-invigorated the longtime “food versus fuels” debate that is now targeting the EPA’s Renewable Fuels Standard. Both the EPA and the USDA are working hard to hold the line on what is supposed to be a year-by-year increase in the amount of biofuels that go into the transportation fuels supply.

Big drought puts ethanol in doubt. Credit: USDA

When it comes to using corn for something other than food (i.e., animal feed), ethanol for transportation fuel is getting a big thumbs down from many quarters, while bio-based chemicals made from sugar is an endeavor that’s quietly moving right along.

This year, a projected lower corn harvest has alarmed many who keep a close eye on global food markets. The U.S. exports about 13% of its yearly corn harvest. Another third goes to animal feed, and between one-third and 40% is used to make ethanol. Many critics both in the U.S. and abroad are suggesting that the U.S. ease up on the amount of corn used in ethanol to prevent skyrocketing global food prices — of the kind that caused food riots in 2008.

In an August 8 editorial in the Financial Times, [registration required] the United Nation’s food and agriculture head José Graziano da Silva wrote, “With world prices of cereals rising, the competition between the food, feed and fuel sectors for crops such as maize, sugar and oilseeds is likely to intensify,” he wrote. “One way to alleviate some of the tension would be to lower or temporarily suspend the mandates on biofuels.”

The USDA says that any increase in food costs due to the drought will be small and will not greatly affect the 3% or so rate of inflation that has been the average for food in recent years. And EPA has brushed off suggestions that it set aside the 2012 mandate, which calls for 13.2 billion gallons of ethanol.

One way to get around the food versus fuel debate would be to make ethanol from non-food crops and agricultural and other waste biomass. Unfortunately, cellulosic ethanol production has seriously lagged expectations. On Monday, EPA rejected a petition from the American Petroleum Institute asking that it stop requiring fuel blenders to use cellulosic ethanol or pay a per-gallon charge. API takes issue with EPA’s ability to forecast production of cellulosic ethanol.

It seems an interesting contrast then that the use of corn starch (or cane sugar) to make chemicals seems to be flying under the radar of these kinds of criticisms. The chemical industry is fortunate that the amount of sugar required to satisfy planned bio-based chemical production is well under the 5 billion bushels of corn needed for ethanol. At the same time, the bio-based chemicals makers are already making plans to piggyback off advances in cellulosic sugar-making that are being tackled by major ethanol producers like Iowa’s POET.

One example of big developments in bio-based chemicals is acrylic acid. Late last week, BASF joined an already established partnership between enzyme producer Novozyme and agriculture giant Cargill to commercialize a route to acrylic acid from biomass. Other companies looking to make bio-acrylic acid are OPX Biotechnologies and its partner Dow Chemical, and bio-based succinic acid producer Myriant.

Author: Melody Bomgardner

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