03 Nov 2014: Report

For Cellulosic Ethanol Makers, The Road Ahead Is Still Uphill

While it has environmental advantages over other forms of ethanol, cellulosic ethanol has proven difficult to produce at commercial scale. Even as new production facilities come online in the U.S., a variety of economic and market realities suggest the new fuel still has big challenges to overcome.

by erica gies

For years, cellulosic ethanol has been touted as a just-around-the-corner technology that would provide cleaner, greener transportation fuel and an alternative to environmentally dubious forms of corn-based ethanol. But the complexity of drawing fuel from the cellulose found in agricultural wastes, grasses, and other non-food sources has proved daunting, nudging the advent of the cellulosic fuel industry ever-further into the future — until now.

This fall, three new, commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants are coming online in the United States. They join two other advanced biofuels facilities in Italy and Brazil that have begun operations within the last 12 months, and others are in the pipeline — suggesting to many industry-watchers that
Poet-DSM cellulosic ethanol plant
The new Project Liberty biofuels plant in Iowa will use corn cobs, husks, and stalks to produce 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year.
the long-predicted arrival of cellulose-based fuels might finally be here.

Energy experts aren’t so sure.

For starters, despite U.S. government mandates requiring that some ethanol be blended into the nation’s fuel supply, the market remains constrained by the design of most modern car engines, which are generally unable to tolerate more than small percentages of the cleaner-burning fuel that cellulosic ethanol provides. Complicating matters, federal officials are now considering a reduction in those very blending mandates — a move that cellulosic fuel supporters say would stymie the industry before it ever gets off the ground. Meanwhile, recent studies have suggested that ethanol made from crop residues, which have the nominal advantage of not competing with food markets like corn-based fuels, could have environmental downsides of its own.

Whether or not cellulosic ethanol will overcome these challenges — or be subsumed by even more advanced biofuels — remains to be seen. Yet backers of the industry are confident that cellulosic ethanol will find its niche — even as they hunt for other ways to supplant oil with their products by using them in everything from plastics manufacturing and industrial lubricants to household detergents.

“Cellulosic ethanol will lead us closer to energy independence,” said Christopher Standlee, executive vice president of global affairs for Abengoa, one of the companies behind the new cellulosic ethanol facilities. “We won’t have to pay $1 billion a day to import foreign transportation fuels.”

The first U.S. commercial-scale plant to come online, in September, was the $275 million ‘Project Liberty’ plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, a joint project of Sioux Falls-based Poet, which owns 27 corn ethanol plants, and Royal DSM, a Netherlands-based biotech company. It plans to eventually produce 20 million gallons of cellulose-based ethanol a year, using 770 tons of corn cobs, husks, and stalks every day.

Abengoa, the Spanish renewable energy giant, opened its $500 million facility in Hugoton, Kansas, on October 17. It plans to produce 25 million
Producing ethanol from stalks and stems has proven far more difficult than producing it from corn and other crops.
gallons annually, using 1,000 tons daily of corn stover and wheat straw, along with dedicated feedstocks like switchgrass and prairie grasses. And chemical giant DuPont’s $200 million plant in Nevada, Iowa, is scheduled to come online by year’s end, with target production of 30 million gallons per year.

Combined, these three plants are slated to produce nearly 80 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually — a substantial uptick for such fuels, but still far less than 1 percent of the 135 billion gallons of gasoline used in the U.S. last year. And that’s just a fraction of the 1.75 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol that federal guidelines currently call for blending into the nation’s fuel supply.

Producing ethanol from stalks and stems has proved far more difficult than producing it from corn and other crops.

After the oil crises of the 1970s, ethanol appeared to offer an attractive, natural alternative to politically fraught imports of oil. Brazil launched a booming industry producing ethanol from sugarcane, while in the United States, crops like corn — rich in the simple sugars needed to produce the fuel — were plentiful and in need of new markets. The U.S. began subsidizing ethanol production in earnest, and early studies also suggested a key environmental benefit: Burning ethanol emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions than burning gasoline, especially when factoring in all the carbon dioxide that the plants would absorb while growing.

The U.S. quickly became the global leader in ethanol production, followed by Brazil. But scientists soon began taking a harder look at this “green” fuel. A number of studies suggested that when the entire production cycle was considered, the emissions profile of ethanol derived from food crops such as corn was only marginally better — and sometimes even worse — than that of petroleum-based fuel. And as agricultural acres were converted to grow these fuel crops, scientists began to worry about additional emissions associated with land-use changes, increased pollution from fertilizer runoff, and additional consumption of limited water for irrigation and processing.

A spike in corn prices in 2008 also sparked concern — rightly or wrongly — that ethanol production was driving up global food prices.

Cellulosic ethanol, which is made from the non-food parts of plants, such as corn cobs, stalks, and leaves — or even organic wastes like municipal compost — was supposed to be the answer to these myriad problems. There was no competition with the food supply, and a study from the U.S. Department of Energy found that cellulose-based ethanol would reduce
The government’s fuel-mix requirements for cellulosic ethanol have been something of a punch line for critics.
greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 86 percent over gasoline.

In 2007, the federal government augmented existing requirements for blending ethanol into the nation’s liquid fuel supply by adding targets specifically for cellulosic ethanol — in the billions of gallons. But that has proved wildly optimistic. Cellulose molecules are tightly bound up with lignin and other materials that give the plant its rigidity and strength, requiring a complex disentangling process before the sugars can be converted to fuel.

Over the last decade, companies have developed novel ways to overcome these hurdles, but at a prohibitively high cost. Meanwhile, the government’s fuel-mix requirements have been something of a punch line for critics, given that refiners and fuel blenders have been technically required to include billions of gallons of cellulosic ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply, even though, for all practical purposes, no cellulosic ethanol was being produced anywhere in the country.

Backers are hoping that the three plants coming online in the United States — two built with the aid of federal loan guarantees — will finally start to change that equation. But Wallace Tyner, an energy economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., said the success of the new plants will depend on a tenuous combination of factors. “It will require that enzyme costs come down, efficiencies go up, and feedstock costs come down,” he said, adding that the three plants are enjoying half-price feedstock for their first two years, thanks to a government subsidy.

All of the new production plants, Tyner said, depend heavily on the federal fuel-blending targets to keep them alive.

Given this, biofuels makers were alarmed by a new rule, proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency last fall, that would dramatically reduce both the total renewable fuel target and the advanced biofuels blending target. For cellulosic ethanol, this would mean a 99 percent reduction, down from 1.75 billion gallons to just 17 million gallons annually.

The biofuels industry has been vocal in its opposition to the proposal and is now anxiously awaiting the EPA’s final rule for 2014 — although the Office of Management and Budget is not expected to release it until after the midterm elections.
‘We had hundreds of millions of dollars walk away from us because of the proposed rule,’ one ethanol producer said.

The uncertainty, said Rob Walther, director of federal affairs for Poet, has chilled the investment climate over the last year. “We had hundreds of millions of dollars walk away from us because of the proposed rule,” he said.

Yet even if the EPA were to deliver higher targets for 2014, ethanol makers of all kinds still face a tough road.

Producers, for example, are pushing for states to approve a 15 percent ethanol mix in gasoline supplies — and so far about a dozen states have. Cars designed to run on blends of ethanol as high as 85 percent are also gaining market traction. But gas stations must install special pumps to dispense E15 or higher ethanol blends, and with many of the nation’s tens of thousands of filling stations controlled by major oil companies, such retrofits are not an easy sale.

“It requires substantial investment on the part of service stations,” said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, “and that sector has been reluctant so far.”

Meanwhile, engineers are also busy developing newer, so-called “drop-in” biofuels that can directly substitute for gasoline, and which require neither specially designed engines nor complicated infrastructure changes — and investments here are on the rise.

“Exxon just gave Iowa State [University] $1 million to develop [drop-in fuels] further,” said Tyner, who added that the U.S. military has also shown keen interest in drop-in fuel technology. A collaboration among the Navy and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy, called Farm to Fleet, is planning three plants that would produce drop-in jet fuel.

Cellulosic ethanol also took a hit with the release of a government-funded study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change last April. That study suggested that biofuels made from corn crop residues can


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actually generate more planet-warming emissions than gasoline — at least in the short term. The problem arises, the researchers’ models suggested, when those crop wastes are removed from millions of acres of land, rather than left to nourish the soil with carbon.

Cellulosic ethanol backers quickly condemned that study as flawed, but given the difficult market in the United States, all three of the companies behind the new cellulosic U.S. plants are busy eyeing other markets for their products. All have plans to license their processes and technologies, and DuPont recently announced that it will supply cellulosic ethanol to Tide for use in its detergents. Nancy Clark, external relations manager for DuPont, said the company is also creating enzymes for other consumer products, such as carpet and apparel. Markets for cellulosic ethanol outside the U.S. — in South America, Asia, and Europe — may also help to buoy the fledgling industry.

But for the Environmental Working Group’s Cox, the economic and policy complications raise important questions for both the industry and policymakers. “I think it raises the larger question,” Cox said. “Are we on the right biofuel road?”

“If we could wipe the slate clean, and sit down and say, ‘OK, we want a biofuel that could make a substantial contribution to reducing fossil fuels, and would actually reduce greenhouse gases from liquid transportation, and was good for the environment, good for the air, good for soil, good for water — would we have picked corn ethanol?’” he said. “I think the answer is clearly no.”

POSTED ON 03 Nov 2014 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Energy Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Europe North America 


I work for POET-DSM, and I wanted to point out that other researchers are weighing in on the GHG study in the November issue of Nature Climate Change: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2014/10/20141030-liska2.html
Posted by Matt Merritt on 03 Nov 2014

Excellent article.
Cellulosic ethanol is a biofuel produced from wood, grasses, or the inedible parts of plants. It is a type of biofuel produced from lignocellulose, a structural material that comprises much of the mass of plants. Lignocellulose is composed mainly of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Corn stover, Panicum virgatum (switchgrass), Miscanthus grass species, wood chips and the byproducts of lawn and tree maintenance are some of the more popular cellulosic materials for ethanol production. Production of ethanol from lignocellulose has the advantage of abundant and diverse raw material compared to sources such as corn and cane sugars, but requires a greater amount of processing to make the sugar monomers available to the microorganisms typically used to produce ethanol by fermentation. Switchgrass and Miscanthus are the major biomass materials being studied today, due to their high productivity per acre. Cellulose, however, is contained in nearly every natural, free-growing plant, tree, and bush, in meadows, forests, and fields all over the world without agricultural effort or cost needed to make it grow. According to Michael Wang of Argonne National Laboratory, one of the benefits of cellulosic ethanol is it reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 85\% over reformulated gasoline. By contrast, starch ethanol (e.g., from corn), which most frequently usesnatural gas to provide energy for the process, may not reduce GHG emissions at all depending on how the starch-based feedstock is produced. According to the National Academy of Sciences, there is no commercially viable bio-refinery in existence to convert lignocellulosic biomass to fuel. Absence of production of cellulosic ethanol in the quantities required by the regulation was the basis of a United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decision announced January 25, 2013 voiding a requirement imposed on car and truck fuel producers in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency requiring addition of cellulosic biofuels to their products. These issues, along with many other difficult production challenges, lead George Washington University policy researchers to state that "in the short term, [cellulosic] ethanol cannot meet the energy security and environmental goals of a gasoline alternative."
Dr. A. Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 03 Nov 2014

The downstream market issues are complicated for cellulosic ethanol, but ethanol is the least valuable molecule to be potentially made from the cellulosic sugars. The breakthrough these three commercial plants usher-in is the supply chain and conversion of large volumes of cellulosic material into sugars that can make a myriad of products now made from oil. Don't be distracted by the noise about ethanol -- its still about substituting renewable, sustainable feedstock for oil. If the fuel markets can't reward this breakthrough then the biochemical or drop-in fuel markets will.
Posted by Harrison Pettit on 03 Nov 2014

The article does not discuss why there is a push to reduce the cellulosic fuel goal of 1.75 billion gallons by 99 percent. Is there a cost to not meeting the goal if the industry can only produce a small fraction of that amount in the next years? If there is, I have not heard of it and think it is minimal. Shouldn't it be fairly obvious that the oil companies are moving to close down a threatening rival to their markets? The cellulosic goal is indeed high, but is there to provide a stable market for investors in new technology to be incentivized to invest. And what the article does not emphasize is that this is a developing area of new technology and, in the right market environment, many innovations will come along so we must have some patience and policy stability.
Posted by Peter Cook on 04 Nov 2014

in the book "American gold rush of the 21st century" I emphasis the tremendous benefit of corn ethanol, but question the costs in producing fuel from cellulosic materials. The enemy is the low yield vs the overwhelming handling and storage costs of such material.

I owned a 200-cow dairy and know about the cost of producing and delivering hay on a volume basis, which still would be small as compared to what would be required for a successful plant.

I shudder to think of the costs, and even though I own interest in plants that are involved in this experiment I wish they were not.
Posted by keith zacharias on 06 Nov 2014

There are alternative biofuel production methods that also eliminate the issues discussed in this article. Algenol Biofuels leads the way in turning algae fuel into the next big biofuel, and the advantages are clear. Algenol’s patented technology enables the production of the four most important fuels (ethanol, gasoline, jet, and diesel fuel) for around $1.30 per gallon each by using proprietary algae, sunlight, carbon dioxide and saltwater at production levels of approximately 8,000 total gallons of liquid fuel per acre per year. The company not only has the added benefit of eliminating the use of farmland and crops to produce ethanol, but also has the technology to consume carbon dioxide from industrial sources, and the ability to provide freshwater.
Posted by AlgenolBiofuels on 07 Nov 2014

The article is long overdue in exploring the hype and false promises that have driven cellulosic ethanol to date, and the final question is interesting.

"If .... we want a biofuel that could make a substantial contribution to reducing fossil fuels, and would actually reduce greenhouse gases from liquid transportation, and was good for the environment, good for the air, good for soil, good for water — would we have picked corn ethanol?’”

The prime alternative to both cellulosic and corn ethanol is the reduction of biomass by pyrolysis (kilning with minimal oxygen) into syngas (CO + H2 + peripheral CO2) which is then reacted into Methanol (CH3OH).

This exceptionally clean-burning fuel has remarkable combustion characteristics - to the extent that it was the standard fuel for the Nazcar races, despite being a little less energy dense than ethanol. It will power normal SI-IC engines, and EC engines such as the Sterling, and also gas-turbines. It can be supplied via garages for the cost of lining the tanks and replacing the pumps, and could be used in cars with similar corrosion-proof fuel lines.

The basic production process goes back about a century, though recent advances in the catalyst used in the reaction have raised yields from 45\% by weight to around 65\% (i.e. 1.0T dry wood yields 650kgs of methanol).

A large area of the coppices in the Forest of Dean served a methanol plant there until the 1970s, when methanol production from cheap North Sea gas drove it out of the market. It is worth noting that in-cycle coppice woodland (wherein the trees are allowed to regrow from the stump) accomodates the highest biodiversity of any European ecosystem.

So why has US research funding been flowing into the cul-de-sac of cellulosic ethanol for the last 25 years rather than into readily viable methanol? Surely it has nothing to do with obscuring the fact that we can produce liquid fuels anywhere in the world that trees grow well?



Posted by Lewis Cleverdon on 08 Nov 2014

Timely and well done article which accurately explains why the petrochemical lobbies are so terrified of these four plants coming on line successfully. The others being started in Brazil and Europe and a few moving forward in China are remarkable epitaphs to those who said it could not be done. But the real leading indicator that this disruptive energy source is starting to be taken seriously is that the oil companies have decided that to survive they will have to push oil prices below $50/bbl to bankrupt the newcomers before they cause more permanent damage to their shareholders. Cannibals with drillbits.
Posted by Dave Gibson on 23 Dec 2014

It seems to me that cellulosic ethanol farming will
cause the same sorts of problems that industrial
conventional agriculture causes (including corn grown
for ethanol).

If the soil is 'mined' to grow grass or shrubs, which
are removed off site to make into ethanol, then the
soil is depleted of the nutrients and minerals that
grew the plants. If this is repeated over and over,
the soil will become more and more depleted (much
as modern agriculture has done to our farmland).

Eventually the soil will be barren, and you'll have to
fertilize to get anything to grow. Given the
petrochemical-intensive nature of conventional
agriculture, this means more petrochemical inputs.
So not only are you degrading untold more acres of
soil, but you're using even more petrochemicals.
Which sort of defeats the purpose, no?

We need to be putting organic matter (carbon from
crop residues, etc) back into the soil where it
belongs, not taking it out of the cycle. And guess
what, it would sequester CO2 from the atmosphere
while making our farmlands fertile again and helping
to capture more moisture. All important things in a
warming, polluted world. We HAVE to start
considering the whole cycle....
Posted by Tom on 24 Dec 2014

I would prefer that we use last year's sunshine stored in plants and easily accessed, rather than sunshine stored in oil and coal deposits stored deep beneath the soil's surface and deep below the ocean's floor. Remember the Exxon Valdez oil leak from deep below the ocean's floor? There is definitely some environmental impact from the oil leak!

Some of the ethanol plants are using cogeneration to capture the smoke stack and convert that into electricity to power the boilers that heat up the mix that goes into the smoke stack.

Somewhat related, is an interesting Internet picture of Bill Gates, he is drinking a glass of water captured from a sewage treatment process. Input is the city sewer and the output is drinking water, electricity, and some ash. Enough electricity is left after powering the sewage treatment to sell into the grid. Enough electricity into the grid to finance the operation with a profit. The article did not discuss the volume of water produced and possible commercial usage. So maybe the water is simply a fringe benefit. Yummy, it is very clean water. The heat source for processing the sewage is so hot that no odor produced.
Posted by Marvin Trimble on 16 Jan 2015

Hi Algenol guy,
Are you kidding? One whole year and one acre to produce 8,000 gallons? What's the use of that? Can you get it down to 8,000 gallons per day?
Posted by Bob Kelly on 01 Feb 2015


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Erica Gies is an independent journalist who writes primarily about water and energy. Her work appears in various outlets, including The New York Times, the Guardian, Ensia, Scientific American, and The Economist. She is a co-founder of Climate Confidential, a news startup that illuminates the crossroads of environment and technology.



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