Is Cellulosic Ethanol Dead?  Despite Setbacks, Signs of Progress

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Saturday, November 11, 2017

With DowDuPont’s recent announcement that it will be selling its commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa the United States is left with only two commercial-scale projects in the United States. Just two years after the grand opening of the DuPont (now DowDuPont) facility in Nevada, IA, Quad County Corn Processors and POET’s Project Liberty are all that remain after the initial four that were greatly celebrated in 2014.

Along with advanced fuels (primarily biodiesel), cellulosic ethanol – sourced from wastes such as corn cobs, stalks, oat husks and rice stubble – are set to make up 21 billion gallons of the 36 billion total gallons called for by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Yet production of significant gallons of cellulosic fuel has not yet materialized. In 2016, 230 million gallons of cellulosic fuel was produced in the United States, most of this came from utilizing renewable natural gas as vehicle fuel.

Several factors have hindered the production of the volumes originally envisioned: extracting energy from cellulose proved much more difficult than extracting it from corn starch, challenges of collecting, moving and storing significant volumes of biomass were underestimated, rock bottom gas prices, consumer confusion around biofuels and appropriate vehicles, and regulatory uncertainty which chilled investments in the space (BIO puts the investments lost at a staggering $22.4 billion). All these and more have put downward pressure on the industry.

DowDuPont Latest to Exit Cellulosic Fuel

According to DowDuPont, the production of fuels does not align with its plan to divide into three companies: chemicals, agriculture, and specialty products. While the company will remain invested in cellulosic technology through biofuels enzymes, they are now looking for buyers for the facility.

Similarly, biofuels watchers will remember that the Abengoa facility was dragged down by the bankruptcy of parent company Abengoa S.A., also a major holder of solar facilities. Abengoa’s cellulosic plant, in Hugeton KS, was sold to Synata Bio Inc. in late 2016 for $48.5 million, just a fraction of its design and build cost.

The list of out-right failures or companies exiting the fuels world and pursuing chemicals or other products continues to grow: KiOR, INEOS Bio, Solazyme, just to name a few. Despite these high profile setbacks, significant milestones continue to be met by the industry.

POET Clears Significant Bottleneck in Pretreatment Process

Earlier this year, it was revealed that POET, the largest US producer of ethanol, had sued engineering firm Andritz Inc. Andritz was hired to design a pre-treatment system at the Project Liberty facility to facilitate the movement of dry biomass — corn stalks and cobs –through the facility.  Unlike corn starch, moving biomass through the facility presented new issues.  According to court filings, “Andritz was never able to fix its engineering and design of the system.”

Despite these setbacks, POET announced in October that they had reached a breakthrough in the pre-treatment process, which enables them to soften the biomass so the enzymes can work more effectively. POET is feeling so confident that they are considering licensing the technology.  According to Matt Merritt, POET, “The leaps in performance seen at the plant this year are better than in previous years … Now that we have pre-treatment figured out we can devote our time to downstream processes. It’s super exciting.”

Corn Ethanol Plants Bullish on “1.5 Gen” Technology  

Another development in 2017 is that existing corn ethanol plants, such as Quad County Corn Processors and ICM Inc. are scaling up bolt-on facilities that employ “1.5 gen” technology. It allows corn ethanol facilities to convert corn kernel fiber to ethanol.  The overall result is a new technology at existing ethanol plants that could potentially squeeze anywhere from 1.5 billion to 2 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol from existing corn feedstocks.

1.5 gen technology removes the outer coating of the corn kernel to convert it to ethanol. Since corn kernels contain 10 to 12 percent fiber, utilizing the fiber yields up to an additional 10 percent of ethanol and up to 50 percent additional corn oil.  Other industry players include D3MAX, Novozymes (producing enzymes for the process), Edeniq, ICM and Syngenta.

New Cellulosic Facilities Coming Online

New investors are still jumping into the cellulosic game, as well. Just this week, Aemetis Inc. announced it will be producing cellulosic ethanol at a former U.S. army facility in Riverbank, California. The new facility will be located near an existing Aemetis ethanol facility.  The feedstock will be 1.6 million tons of orchard waste, such as shells and wood, that are generated each year across 1 million acres in California’s Central Valley.  Aemetis hopes to provide 10 million gallons of cellulosic fuel, both to comply with the RFS as well as California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

Additionally, Canadian company Enerkem Inc. recently secured approval by EPA to sell its waste-to-ethanol fuel in the United States. Enerkem is the first commercially successful plant to produce waste-to-ethanol for the U.S. market. It is currently scaling up production to 13 million gallons per year of cellulosic fuel at its Edmonton, Canada facility.

Therefore, while the U.S. biofuels sector still remains short of its 21 billion gallon goal for advanced and cellulosic fuels, there are reasons to remain optimistic. POET’s Merritt commented, “Twenty years from now we’ll have many cellulosic biofuels [facilities] all around the country … and we’ll be happy we had aggressive targets.”

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