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.
Solar Impulse is spending the week in Washington, DC, and the C&EN headquarters is slightly abuzz with geeky giddiness. So, living a mere 15 minutes from the solar plane’s temporary home in a hangar at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center next to Dulles International Airport, I couldn’t resist the invitation to a Solvay-sponsored event with the pilots and crew on Tuesday evening. Melody
twisted my arm kindly invited me to write about my visit for the Cleantech crowd.
I had to walk past the ginormous Discovery space shuttle, which is spending retirement at the Udvar-Hazy Center, then dodge raindrops to get to the the temporary hangar housing Solar Impulse just outside of the museum. The rainy weather and mugginess of the hangar didn’t exactly create the setting you’d expect for admiring a plane that runs on energy from the sun. But I digress. Compared to the robust space shuttle, the solar plane looks like an oversized toy glider. As Alex Scott pointed out in his article on the chemistry behind Solar Impulse, the plane has a wingspan about the same as a 747′s but weighs about the same as a small sedan. There is no other way to describe the cockpit than as tiny. It’s basically a chair with a bubble over it. And, of course, there are lots and lots of solar panels.
Before the pilots’ presentation, I was in a group chatting with a member of Solar Impulse’s communications team. When asked about the plane’s assembly at Moffett Airfield near San Francisco, she explained that it took the team basically three days to put the plane together and equated the process to assembling furniture from IKEA. No nails, just glue. Hopefully, no leftover parts. It is, apparently, that amazingly simple.
Bertrand Piccard was the first of the two pilots to speak. His psychiatry background came through as he talked about changing your altitude in order to fight against the winds while in a balloon. My mind was starting to drift away a bit when he brought me back with this line: “This is all very poetic, but useless. Let’s make it practical.” He then showed a picture taken at the end of his around-the-world-in-a-balloon mission in 1999. “Many people think this is the last picture of a balloon trip,” he said. “In fact, it is the first picture of Solar Impulse.” Piccard then shared that it was the amount of fuel spent on the trip and that there was only 40 kilos left at the end that ignited the Solar Impulse project.
André Borschberg spoke more about how the plane actually works. While listening to him, I came to realize that Solar Impulse epitomizes the theme of the fall national meeting in Indy: Chemistry in Motion. Without chemistry (again, read Alex’s excellent article), this plane would have never taken flight.
Hearing Piccard and Borschberg speak and looking up-close at the plane was all very cool, but I’m left with the feeling of “What next?” Borcshberg pointed out that they had considered making the plane large enough to accommodate two people, but safety became an issue. So to me, at this point, Solar Impulse is really just a proof of concept. Under certain conditions, one can indeed travel long distances at both night and day using only solar power. But I go back to Piccard’s statement earlier and wonder how do we move from poetic to practical? Certainly, the materials created for this plane will find new uses elsewhere and to make our current vehicles greener, but we’re still pretty far away from using only solar to get us in motion. Or is Solar Impulse’s role as a solar energy, nay, innovation ambassador enough for now?
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.
I’m in Montreal today for the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology – put on by the Biotechnology Industry Association. The soaking rain that threatened to drown my arrival on Sunday has given way to warmer weather with just a few threatening clouds. Similarly, the mood at the show is one of patient optimism.
This year is the show’s tenth anniversary and it is reported to be the largest one yet with 1200 attendees. There are actually seven tracks of breakout sessions which makes it rather difficult for this reporter to follow along.
The major change that I’ve noticed compared to my first show four years ago is in the content of the presentations. It used to be all about the super microbe – speakers would show off elaborate slides with metabolic pathways – they all looked like very complicated subway maps. Since then the industry has learned that microbes can build a lot, but they can’t build your business for you.
This year the subject matter is all about scale up and applications. The language is more MBA than MicroBio. Supply chains, value chains, financing, customers, joint ventures, IPOs. Of course by now any start-up with a microbe has learned by now if their business plan is worth money or not – and only those that answer yes are still here.
I’ve been told to expect some major announcements this morning so follow along with my tweets @MelodyMV if you want the dish. Yesterday Myriant said it got its bio succinic acid plant up and running in Lake Providence, LA. It will be ramping up tp 30 million lbs per year.
Behold the Gribble – a true gutless wonder. The Gribble (pictured here) is a marine wood-boring creature of around 2 millimeters in size. Scientists at the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have been spending quality time with the Gribble because of its exceptional innards.
The tiny animal eats wood that finds its way into the sea. The wood can come from mangrove swamps or wash into estuaries from land. Gribbles, also called ship borers, have also been known to chow on wooden sailing vessels (including, rather famously, those of the Columbus voyages). “I’m sure they’ve taken down a few pirate ships, too” says Simon J McQueen-Mason a BBSRC researcher and materials biology professor at the University of York.
Most critters that eat wood or other lignocellulose plant material rely on symbiotic relationships with a diverse population of gut microbes – called the microbiome – to break down the tough-to-digest meal. When news reports suggest that pandas may hold the key to biofuels breakthroughs because they can live on tough bamboo, it’s really the microbes, and the enzymes made by the microbes, that are of interest.
(You can read a C&EN cover story about pandas, microbiomes and biofuels )
But the Gribble has no microbiome. And it doesn’t have the squishy, absorptive digestive system that most animals have. In fact, it digests its meals of wood in a sterile, hard-sided chamber in its hind gut. McQueen-Mason likens the environment to “a steel container you might use in an industrial lab.”
Instead of microbial helpers, the gribble has a separate organ where it produces the key enzyme itself. Termites do not do this (they have microbes). The gribble “must use quite aggressive chemistry; the enzyme is so harsh that it would kill any microbes” that might otherwise occupy the space, McQueen-Mason says.
The research team found the mystery organ and looked at the genes expressed there. Many of them encoded instructions for making what is called GH7 cellulase. This is a family of enzymes that are normally found in wood-degrading fungi. “These cellulases are abundant but were never reported in an animal before,” McQueen-Mason notes. “We were able to express the genes in a lab fungus and describe the properties.”
They also used X-ray crystallography to discover the structure of the enzyme and show how it binds cellulose chains and breaks them into small sugar molecules.
The Gribble’s enzyme appears to be very rugged and long-lasting, which is a good quality for an enzyme that might be used in an industrial setting to make biofuels from wood or straw, McQueen-Mason points out. It works very well in highly saline conditions and may also function well in ionic liquids. The use of salt water and ionic liquids for biofuels processing may cut down on the use of expensive, precious fresh water. And like a true catalyst, the enzyme may be reusable.
You can see a video of the Gribble – which I highly recommend – it’s kind of cute.
For more on the enzyme, check out the journal paper: ‘Structural characterization of the first marine animal Family 7 cellobiohydrolase suggests a mechanism of cellulase salt tolerance’ www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1301502110.
Today, the International Energy Agency put out a report saying that CO2 emissions in 2012 grew by 1.4%, or 31.6 gigatonnes. This increase means that the chances of constraining emissions to cap global warming at 2 degrees C are narrowing.
When I first started covering the cleantech/renewables space for C&EN back in 2008, there was a common belief among technologists and some policy makers that within a few short years, a price would be put on carbon with policies (such as cap and trade or a carbon tax) that would act like jet fuel, powering demand for renewable fuels and related industries.
But as IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven points out, ““Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities.” The good news in the report is that the growth in renewable energy production in the U.S. and Europe has helped those regions decrease carbon emissions. However, it was the switch to shale gas from coal that had the biggest impact on U.S. emissions. In contrast, growing energy demand from China and other developing nations has more than made up for those changes.
(You can read C&EN’s recent coverage of the EU Carbon Trading scheme here: http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i7/EU-Carbon-Emissions-Trading-Scheme.html)
IEA is pushing four policies that are all outside of the renewables space. The organization’s plan would shave 8% off the carbon emissions compared to no further constraints by:
1. Making buildings, industry, and transportation more energy efficient, to get 50% of the cut.
2. Limiting construction of the least efficient types of coal-fired power plants, for 20% or more of the cut.
3. Halving methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations (18% savings)
4. A partial phase-out of fossil fuel consumption subsidies (12%)
From The CENtral Science Blogs
- Dec 3rd, 2013By Melody Bomgardner
- Nov 28th, 2013By Jeff Huber
- Nov 27th, 2013By Carmen Drahl
- Nov 22nd, 2013By Jyllian Kemsley
- Oct 24th, 2013By Rick Mullin
- Oct 13th, 2013By David Kroll
- Sep 30th, 2013By Alex Tullo