Aviation Industry an Enormous Growth Challenge for Biofuels

To meet the demand for sustainable aviation biofuels with algae, the industry would have to build a new plant every month for the next 20 to 30 years, Biojet Corp. Chairman Chuck Fishel noted during Tuesday’s General Plenary Session at BIO’s World Congress.

Michael Lakeman of Boeing put forward a more cautious goal of meeting 1 percent of jet fuel demand with biofuels by 2015. That would still require 60 million gallons, though, and from Boeing’s perspective, they must be truly sustainable.

Fishel still worries whether the airline industry is an attractive market for algae and advanced biofuels. Biotech companies can make more money by pursuing low-volume, high-value chemicals than high-volume, low-value jet fuels. So would airlines be able to compete for these sustainable solutions?

Navy Director of Operational Energy Chris Tindal, however, is far more certain about the Defense Department’s needs for sustainable biofuels, particularly from algae. The Navy has set a goal of using 50 percent renewable energy by 2020 and launching the Great Green Fleet by 2016. Currently, the military uses about 2 percent of all energy used in the United States, with most of that represented by transportation fuels. So, it is a niche market, but one that still requires cost competitiveness as well as a sustainable level of greenhouse gas emissions.

Navy Asst. Sec. Chris Tindal Speaking at the 2011 BIO World Congress

Tindal also made clear that what the Navy wants is to be able to pull into ports around the world to refuel with biofuels. Relying on a single large producer of fuel and a long worldwide supply line would recreate one of the problems with the military’s reliance on oil.

Advertisements

Will Congress focus on petroleum replacement alternatives this year?

During the breakout session titled “What is Congress Up To?” on Monday, June 28 at BIO’s World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology, distinguished staff from key Congressional offices addressed World Congress attendees to give an industrial biotechnology legislative update. BIO was fortunate to provide this unique perspective on industrial biotechnology policy to World Congress attendees in Washington, DC. Will there be energy or climate legislation this summer to accomplish the goal of reducing our petroleum use and to take advantage of the desire for alternative fuels in response to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico? The answer is a clear… maybe. The House has passed H.R. 2454: the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. The Senate has introduced several energy bills and we have seen at least two different climate change bills drafted in the Senate. The question is, what, if anything, has the 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate? The next work period, the time between the Independence Day and August recesses will be crucial. If the Senate does pass energy or climate legislation this summer, it will still then need to be conferenced with the House legislation. Both the House and Senate could have energy tax provisions to consider as well.

The bottom line is this, the legislation Congress passes this summer or fall should aim directly at lowering our petroleum use. That is the motivation behind enery and climate legislation at this time. While all renewables and alternatives have merit and are necessary for a low carbon future, the biofuels and biobased products industries are the only renewable industries that can impact our petroleum use in the immediate future and are ready to assist in accomplishing the goal of reducing petroleum use through renewable alternatives. Those technologies should be the driver for new legislation.

Wrong Question: Can Biofuels Be Carbon Friendly?

The Science Insider blog last week hosted an interesting debate between Tim Searchinger, Princeton visiting scholar, and John Sheehan, of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, regarding the recent policy proposal in the pages of Science by Searchinger et al. to “fix” the carbon accounting of biomass for bioenergy and biofuels in U.S. legislation and the successor to the Kyoto protocol, by giving credit only to biomass that can be managed in such a way as to sequester additional atmospheric carbon in the soil. As Searchinger puts it in the recent debate, “bioenergy only reduces greenhouse gases if it results from additional plant growth or in some other way uses carbon that would not otherwise be stored.”

To be sure, use of bioenergy can only reduce the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in the soil (in root systems). And yes, individual biofuel or bioenergy producers could use only new biomass that has recently pulled carbon from the atmosphere (although other environmentalists may differ on that) or biomass that would otherwise be left to decay and emit the stored carbon anyway. The question then is whether there is enough of this type of biomass to meet energy needs.

But that is not the point of the current Kyoto protocol or of U.S. cap-and-trade legislation. Their shared goal is to reduce overall GHG emissions, over time, ideally lowering the cap until emissions reach equilibrium.

Searchinger cites recent modeling studies to say that not employing his fix to global carbon accounting “would lead to the loss of most of the world’s natural forest because clearing those forests for bioenergy becomes one of the cost-effective means of complying with laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” However, the fossil fuel industries are certain to receive allowances under the U.S. legislation. Employing a carbon accounting model that treats biomass as equivalent to fossil fuel would definitely make continued reliance on fossil fuel the cost-effective alternative.

Another interesting response to the Searchinger et al article comes from Geoff Styles of the Energy Collective, who extends the carbon accounting argument to electric vehicles. All alternative energy sources can be opened up to particular scrutiny. What is needed is a truly accurate and balanced accounting of fossil fuel use to compare these arguments.

The only other political option would be to drastically cut use of all energy. Models do project that the current worldwide economic recession has brought about a reduction in climate emissions by cutting energy use.

Searchinger does note that biomass and biofuels have the potential to balance greenhouse gas emissions – depending on land management. A better question here is whether his models can show that fossil fuel use also has the potential to balance greenhouse gas emissions with proper land management.

Road Music: From Bluegrass to Switchgrass

To get from here to there sometimes you need a little road music, and that’s just what the Biofuels Center of North Carolina is aiming to do. Earlier this week, according to Science in the Triangle,

a RTI Fellows Symposium,

“was held Monday and Tuesday at the University of North Carolina’s Friday Center in Chapel Hill.

Global warming and what role biofuels will play in the energy supply were two of the scientific challenges addressed at the symposium.”

According to Science in the Triangle, North Carolina focuses,

“on biodiesel and ethanol from corn and biomass to meet an ambitious goal: By 2017, 10 percent of liquid fuels sold in the state should be locally grown and produced.

The first corn ethanol plant is scheduled to go online in January in Hoke County, said Burke (Steven Burke, chief executive of the Biofuels Center of North Carolina) of the biofuels center.

Fourteen biomass feedstocks have been planted at research sites and private farms statewide and North Carolina’s 18 million acres of forest are expected to contribute wood waste for ethanol production.

The state also has a partnership with RTI to produce ethanol in other ways than fermentation. Outside of that partnership, RTI recently was awarded a federally funded contract to work on a process that turns biomass into a type of bio oil, which can be mixed and refined with petroleum.

The state’s 10 percent goal is a tall order, Burke acknowledged. It will require an increase of biofuels production from 2 million gallons in 2008 to 600 million gallons in 2017.

He’s counting on music to gain support and boost demand for biofuels. The biofuels center signed up 19 artists, who agreed to have their fan Web sites linked to the center’s site. All artists are featured on a CD called “From Bluegrass to Switchgrass.”

Burke called it music “for a state obsessed with fast-driving NASCAR.”

To listen to “From Bluegrass to Switchgrass,” for yourself visit the Biofuels Center of North Carolina.

Compounded Climate Accounting Errors

Timothy Searchinger, visiting scholar at Princeton University, Dan Kammen of the University of California Berkeley, David Tilman of the University of Minnesota and other authors from the Environmental Defense Fund published an interesting new proposal in the Policy Forum section of Science magazine today. The argument put forward is that “Replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy does not by itself reduce carbon emissions, because the CO2 released by tailpipes and smokestacks is roughly the same per unit of energy regardless of the source.”

The premise behind this proposal is that the world is facing such a great need to reduce carbon emissions that future sources of energy and biofuels cannot make use of any currently sequestered carbon. Maybe… but there’s a perverse consequence of using this logic. Fossil fuels are a source of sequestered carbon. If you then say that all existing biomass is an untouchable source of sequestered carbon, you are essentially counting that sequestration as a benefit of having used fossil fuels for the past 150 years.

The logic is particularly tortured when a foregone sequestration penalty is attributed to biofuels when none is counted for petroleum.

There is much in the paper to agree with — particularly in recognizing carbon sequestration benefits from improved land management practices and energy crops. And certainly, the challenge of climate change is so great that implementing best practices for carbon sequestration is a necessity.

But a proposal that attributes carbon sequestration in trees as a plus in the accounting of fossil fuel use is counterproductive.

Weekly Blog Wrap Up

There’s a lot going on in the blogosphere about the world of biofuels this week. Yesterday, the World Wildlife Fund released a report,which according to NCTechnews.com,

“concludes that industrial biotechnology can provide dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and provide strong progress toward a green and sustainable economy. WWF calls for increased political backing for the industry to leverage the positive environmental effects. The findings are based on peer-reviewed research from Novozymes, the world leader in bioinnovation, as well as contributions from experts and WWF”

Renewable Energy World writes about the “The Algal Advantage.” Algae is big because,

“The big pay-off in algae biofuels will be as drop-in replacements for gasoline or jet fuel. Successful test flights have already been run on mixtures of petroleum and algal-based jet fuels. Chisti says, “generally, only a portion of the crude algal oil is suitable for making biodiesel, but all of it can be used to make gasoline and jet fuel.” For this, the fatty acids in the algal oils are refined by hydrogenation and hydrocracking.”

Algae is also big because, Sapphire Energy has developed a car that runs on algae derived fuel, that can cross the country on just 25 gallons of fuel. The Singularity Hub writes about the car, called Algaeus and has this to say,

“According to the press release, the coast to coast trip will be a ten day journey (September 8 -18) that culminates in the nationwide premier of the new movie Fuel by Josh Tickell of Veggie Van fame. See the trailer below. While the media coverage of the movie is sure to be hyperbolic, I’m much more interested in the premises behind Sapphire Energy. This San Diego based company hopes to use its algae-based fuel to work in the three major petrol markets: gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. They plan on ramping up production to a rate of than 2 million gallons of diesel per year in the next two years. That’s a small blip on the petroleum market, but a blip that is arriving much sooner than many expected.”

Still in the world of biofuels, Green Tech writes about making better biofuels,

“Research on nuclear energy and hydrogen has yielded what backers say is a technology that could replace U.S. oil imports with biofuels made from agricultural by-products.
Scientists at Idaho National Laboratory have been working for the past year and a half on a process to convert biomass, such straw or crop residue, into liquid fuels at a far higher efficiency than existing cellulosic ethanol technologies.”

“The key advantage is that bio-syntrolysis would extract far more energy from available biomass than existing methods, said research engineer Grant Hawkes. Using traditional ethanol-making techniques, about 35 percent of the carbon from wood chips or agricultural residue ends up in the liquid fuel. By contrast, the bio-syntrolysis method would convert more than 90 percent of that carbon into a fuel, he said.”

The New Energy World Network, picks up the story with a post about Continental airlines,

“Biofuels are increasingly being seen as a viable alternative to conventional jet fuel in the US, according to Continental Airlines’ managing director for Global Environmental Affairs, Leah Raney. The Houston-based carrier has also been implementing its green initiatives across its ground services fleet in its major hubs in Houston, Newark and California by switching to electric vehicles and related infrastructure and using biodiesel in cold weather locations.”

Do you like dates, the fruit, not the social activity? Can you imagine those little packages of sweetness being turned into biofuel? They can in Iraq.

According to the Bioenergy Site,

“Iraq’s prime minister has approved a project by a United Arab Emirates-based company to make biofuel from dates that would otherwise be wasted because they have started to perish, Iraqi officials said on Sunday.”

“Faroun Ahmed Hussein, head of the national date palm board, said the Emirati company would produce bioethanol from dates that farmers cannot export because they are starting to rot. It would be used domestically at first, then possibly later exported.

He declined to name the company, estimate the cost of the project or say how much bioethanol it was expected to produce.

He said Iraq produces 350,000 tonnes of dates annually, a sharp fall from 900,000 tonnes produced before the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein but still more than the 150,000 tonnes it currently consumes. Some are fed to animals, he said.

“They can’t export the left over quantities owing to their poor quality,” Hussein said. “Farmers will be happy to sell their rotten dates instead of throwing them away.”

And finally the world of biofuels winds up with a serious policy issue, that is a “Greater Distinction Needed for Biofuels as Fuel Component under Cap and Trade,” writes 25x’25, they go on to say,

“As Congress continues its debate on comprehensive climate legislation, any measure adopted must adequately recognize and incentivize the extensive benefits biomass and the production of biofuels can provide to address global climate change. The 25x’25 Carbon Work Group has recently reemphasized the need for policy makers to modify pending cap-and-trade provisions to more clearly recognize those agricultural and forestry practices that can contribute to climate change regulation and make those practices eligible as offset projects. Policy makers also should make clear in a final climate change bill that biofuels, including the biofuel component of fuels blends, are not obligated under the emissions cap and are a preferred alternative to fossil carbon-based transportation fuels.”

That’s it for this week. See you next week.

It’s Not Easy Being Green When It Comes to Technology

Being environmentally friendly can be difficult, particularly if you’re not sure which products are which. Now all that may change and being green may become easier.
According to treehugger, a Discovery company, the USDA is proposing a “BioPreferred” label for biobased products.

Treehugger writes,

“Under the proposed plan, the label could be used on any product that is “wholly or significantly” made with renewable biological ingredients; in other words, anything made with “renewable plant, animal, marine or forestry materials.”

So just how many products are we talking?

“According to a USDA press release, there are currently about 15,000 products in 200 categories that would qualify for this label.”

But according to Treehugger this opens up a whole other can of worms, that is:

“Will imports qualify for the BioPreferred label? And what about imported raw materials used in manufacturing in the United States?

It seems there’s some discrepancy between “using American agricultural products” and the BioPreferred products. Colorado-based Sustainable Flooring has several bamboo flooring products listed in the online database, which would presumably end up carrying the BioPreferred label. But they are all made with Mao Tzu bamboo, which is grown in China.”

“I’m a little confused as to how this uses American agricultural products or how it is beneficial to rural America’s economies,” writes Treehugger’s blogger, Naturally Saavy.

Then there is our (BIO’s) post, “Roundtable: Biobased Products Are a Missed Opportunity for Climate Change Legislation.

This is a roundtable discussion that can be downloaded as a podcast, roundtable discussion with biotechnology companies that make renewable chemicals and oils for everyday products to talk about the environmental benefits associated with these products. Speakers include Matt Carr, policy director, BIO; Snehal Desai, Business Vice President, Segetis (Golden Valley, MN); Aaron Kelley, Senior Scientist, Genencor (Palo Alto, CA); Marc Verbruggen, CEO, NatureWorks, LLC (Minnetonka, MN); Ben Locke, Director of Government Programs, Metabolix, Inc (Cambridge, MA); Corrine Young, Director of Government Affairs, Myriant Technologies LLC (Quincy, MA). Jim Imbler, President & CEO, ZeaChem, Inc. (Lakewood, CO)

Next, in the world of synthetic biology, Pharmtech.com reports that Craig Venter’s team has announced a

“key advance in synthetic biology.”

What was the advance? Well,

“they successfully transformed one bacterium into a different strain by transferring the entire bacterial genome of the first strain into a second, related strain of bacteria. In order to accomplish this feat, the team performed what they called a genetic first: they transferred genes from a prokaryote to a eukaryote and back to a prokaryote. The genetic manipulations they performed represent an important advance in synthetic biology.”

That’s pretty nifty technology if you ask me.

Patricia Van Arnum, the blogger for Pharmtech.com finishes off her post by talking about synthetic biology’s market potential.

“The field of synthetic biology is still emerging, but market analysts are optimistic about its commercial potential. The global market for synthetic biology was $233.8 million in 2008, according to a June 2009 report by Business Communications Company (BCC), a Norwalk, Connecticut-based market research firm. This value is expected to increase to $2.4 billion in 2013, for a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 59.8%.
Chemicals and energy represent the largest market segment for synthetic biology, which was valued at $80.6 million in 2008, and is projected to reach $1.6 billion in 2013, for a CAGR of 81.6%, according to BCC. The biotechnology and pharmaceuticals segment is the second-largest market sector, valued at approximately $80.3 million in 2008. This segment is projected to increase at a CAGR of 49.2% to reach $594 million in 2013, according to BCC.”

What could be a better way to end a blog post, than with hope for the future. That’s it for now. See you next week.