Reporter’s notebook: Do we still need advanced biofuels?

Source: By James Osborne, Houston Chronicle • Posted: Tuesday, August 8, 2017

  • Research continues into the elusive formula for cellulosic ethanol (AP)
Research continues into the elusive formula for cellulosic ethanol (AP)

Remember that scene at the end of the 1985 movie “Back to the Future” where Doc Brown shows up fresh from the future with a retro-fitted time machine powered not by hard-to-find plutonium, but rather food scraps and half an old can of beer?

Well, so apparently did Congress, which in 2005 created biofuel mandates that among other things called for the development of a form of ethanol derived from wood chips, old corn stalks and all sorts of by-products of our farming and timber industries. It was supposed to be the fuel of the future, taking the country off Middle Eastern crude while freeing up space in landfills.

Only engineers never really figured out how to make it work economically. Now, the EPA is considering reducing the mandate for so-called cellulosic ethanol for the first time since the program began, drawing protests from across the biofuels industry, which along with its political allies in Washington, claims cellulosic ethanol is gaining some real ground of late.

“We know that many plants are in the process of adding bolt-on fiber conversion technology to their existing facilities that could dramatically increase cellulosic ethanol production next year, and we intend to provide you with updated projections during the comment period,” Bob Dinneen, president of the trade group Renewable Fuels Association, testified to the EPA on Tuesday. At least four ethanol plants are now using the technology and, if all goes well, many more are likely to do so, according to the RFA.

But what is fiber conversion technology? And is it the real breakthrough that fuel futurists have long hoped for?

Attempts to get an answer from analysts who follow the industry met with a collective shrug. So I called Wallace Tyner, an agricultural economics professor at Purdue University who studies the ethanol industry.

Tyner laughed when I asked him if this was a breakthrough, explaining that “fiber conversion” technology simply allows standard ethanol producers to convert a little more of the corn kernel into fuel – namely the fibrous by-product that usually ends up in cattle feed.

“The fiber is about 8 per-cent of the corn kernel, so it’s not going to make a huge difference,” he said.

Last year the United States produced roughly 200 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol, which sounds like a lot until you look at the original legislation, which called for 7 billion gallons of annual production by 2018.

The problem, Tyner explained, is making fuel from plants has proved more technically difficult than first imagined. For instance, to convert corn stalks into fuel, engineers first need to separate out lignin, the rigid material that acts like a skeleton for plants. And that’s proved vastly expensive.

Tyner estimates cellulosic ethanol will not become economic – on a pure market basis – until crude rises above $120 a barrel. And, as he points out, “You can buy oil on the futures market out to 2025 for less than $75.”

“We have technologies that work, but we haven’t been able to bring the costs down to make them economic,” he said. “Should we keep trying? That’s a judgment for a higher pay grade than mine.”