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.

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Are Manufacturers and Investors Looking for the Same Thing From Industrial Biotech?

The morning plenary session at BIO’s World Congress featured Jenny Cross from Mohawk Industries, makers of carpets, and Steven Mirshak of DuPont Tate & Lyle, suppliers of a biobased ingredient for Mohawk, discussing what consumers are looking for and how industrial biotech can meet their needs. Cross noted that their consumer research indicates that the typical consumer is looking for quality and durability, with price and “green” attributes coming second.

One point that Cross emphasized is that the carpet and flooring industry is a mature industry, with established (very old) capital infrastructure and well defined markets. To increase their revenue, the industry can’t raise prices — it must lower costs of production. So industrial biotech applications must fit into existing infrastructure without adding to capital costs.

Interestingly, in the lunch plenary with venture capital investors Michael Curry of Investeco Capital, Kef Kasdin of Battelle Ventures, Bill Lese of Braemar Energy Ventures, and Don Roberts of CIBC, all the speakers reiterated the search for capital-light opportunities. Following the recent economic downturn, venture capitalists are looking for companies with lower capital requirements and lower risks, which means they must have either lower up front costs or shorter timelines to return on the venture investment.

Roberts emphasized that recent IPOs — such as Gevo and Amyris — show good value by keeping capital costs low, ensuring steady low-cost raw material supplies, and planning to reach profitability quickly.

BIO World Congress Begins with Newsmakers

BIO’s 2011 World Congress got off to a strong start in Toronto, with news announcements from G2 BioChem and others throughout the morning.
The big news from BIO was the presentation of the George Washington Carver Award to Royal DSM CEO/Chairman Feike Sijbesma. Sijbesma discussed the evolution of DSM from a coal mining company to a chemical company and now to a global life sciences and materials company. For Sijbesma, this transformation mirrors the current Green Industrial Revolution.
Feike Sijbesma’s acceptance speech is available as written.

Download audio of speech: Royal DSM Chairman/CEO Feike Sijbesma Accepts the 2011 BIO George Washington Carver Award
As evidence of the Green Industrial Revolution, DSM announced plans to build a bio-succinic acid plant in partnership with Roquette. The plant would open in Italy in 2012 if all goes according to plan. BP announced investment in Verdezyne, a California company building a platform to produce adipic acid, which is a building block for nylon.
Genencor published the results of a new survey of consumer acceptance of biobased household products. In a survey of U.S. and Canadian consumers, from 30 to 40 percent of respondents indicated they have heard the term “biobased products.” More than two-thirds indicated they’d be willing to purchase them for their environmental sustainability, if they were comparable to non-biobased products on cost and effectiveness.

Pacific Rim Summit Focuses on Drop In Fuels for Military

BIO’s Pacific Rim Summit came to a close on Tuesday, but not before giving attendees a preview of what the industry expects to be two of the hottest trends for 2011, as recorded in a recent BIO/Biofuels Digest poll.

Department of Defense interest in biofuels is expected to increase, due to the national security implications of reliance on oil. As Chris Tindal, director of Operational Energy for the U.S. Navy, explained to attendees of the Summit, “While the Department of the Navy is a significant consumer of fuel, neither DoN nor DoD can affect the price of oil. Therefore, both are at the mercy of the market – both the stability of supplies and fluctuations in price.”

Tindal noted that the DoD used 119 million barrels of petroleum in FY08. The Blue Navy used 29.4 million barrels (not including Marine Corps). And the airline industry and the Department of Defense collectively consume 1.5 million barrels of jet fuel per day. The Navy has set a goal of replacing 50 percent of petroleum in the commercial fleet by 2015.

Tindal also noted that the Defense Energy Support Center and the Air Transport Association of America signed an Alternative Fuels Pact on March 19, 2010. The pact sets shared goals of spurring the development and deployment of commercially viable and environmentally friendly alternative aviation fuels.

Commercialization of Bioproducts
Paul Bryan, Biomass Program manager at the Department of Energy, gave some detail behind the second expected trend for 2011, that attention will be given to bioproducts and renewable chemicals in addition to biofuels. Bryan emphasized that we need to “develop technologies and supply chains to replace the whole barrel and all products made from crude today.” Because so many products are made from each barrel of petroleum, and biofuels displace a portion of each barrel, oil refineries have no incentive to make a shift.

If we reduce total petroleum usage as a percentage of one market, we need to think about how that impacts other markets. The most obvious issue is that we have to replace diesel and jet in proportion to gasoline, since their combined volume is approximately three-quarters that of gasoline, and their markets are projected to grow significantly faster than that for gasoline. But other products are important, too. The largest chunk of the ‘other products’ in the barrel is the petrochemical industry, virtually all of which is based on crude oil and natural gas.

Final Notes from BIO’s World Congress

On June 29 at BIO’s World Congress, Steen Riisgaard, CEO of Novozymes, and Stephen Tanda, Board Member of Royal DSM N.V., released a report from the World Economic Forum on The Future of Industrial Biorefineries. The report says that a biorefinery value chain could create revenue for agricultural inputs ($15 billion US), for biomass production ($89 billion), for biomass trading ($30 billion), for biorefining inputs ($10 billion), for biorefining fuels ($80 billion), for bioplastics ($6 billion) and for biomass power and heat ($65 billion) by 2020.

You can download and listen to the press conference Release of report on The Future of Industrial Biorefineries.

The highlight of the final day of the World Congress was a debate between Princeton Visiting Scholar Tim Searchinger and MSU Professor Bruce Dale, moderated by Univ. of Minnesota’s John Sheehan. Sheehan sought to explore both the strongest and weakest parts of the arguments for and against including an indirect land use penalty in the carbon lifecycle of biofuels and bioenergy. For him, the central question in the debate is whether or not the world is running out of land to use — for all purposes, not just agriculture — meaning that any new use, such as biofuels, inevitably causes a shift of use somewhere else.

For Searchinger, the central point is that the traditional lifecycle of biofuels and biomass energy accounts a credit for using carbon stored in crops and trees. Bioenergy, he argues, should only get credit for new sources of carbon that it creates or for using carbon that would have decayed and entered the atmosphere anyway, but never for carbon that is already stored.

Dale took an optimistic view that a switch to bioenergy — and away from petroleum — would spur the creation of additional carbon stores. This could be accomplished through increased productivity and yield on the same amount of land, for instance, and through regrowing of crops and biomass sources so that the credit given to bioenergy is repaid quickly.

Raining on Cellulosic Ethanol’s Parade

Writer Alyssa Danigelis posted an item of interest on Discovery News last month detailing the latest supposed “blow” to the biofuel industry. The writer highlights a new study in Agronomy Journal in which Kansas State University Assistant Professor Humberto Blanco-Canqui concludes, “Only a small fraction (about 25%) of residue might be available for removal, depending on soil type and climate. This small amount of crop residues is not economically feasible nor logistically possible.”

Matt Merritt of POET and Professor Bruce Dale of Michigan State University have posted responses to Blanco-Canqui’s conclusion. What they drive at is that the fraction of agricultural residue that can be removed from a field depends greatly on the geography and management of that field. Jim Hettenhaus of CEA Inc. has helped lead a study in Imperial, Neb., to determine optimum stover removal and storage practices based on local variables in soil type and weather, and he was kind enough to share preliminary results (See Stover Value Review). And several years ago, BIO published a study, Achieving Sustainable Production of Agricultural Biomass for Biorefinery Feedstock, that indicates the amount of residue removed from a field can be increased through adoption of no-till soil management.

The economic feasibility of harvesting crop residues for cellulosic biofuel production, of course, is highly dependent on the individual farmer. Aside from its value in managing organic carbon in tilled soil, crop residues are also currently used as animal bedding and other things. Individual farmers are thus faced with a decision whether the biofuel market for crop residues is attractive enought to induce them to change their field management practices, buy new harvesting equipment, and forego current uses of residues to instead transport them to a collection or storage facility. The same economic question faces any farmer who considers growing switchgrass or short-rotation woody crops, which are favored by Blanco-Canqui. And for the most part, biofuel production does not yet provide a compelling market for farmers, although POET and others have begun contracting directly with farmers to harvest and deliver small, easily harvested amounts of residues to pilot production plants.

Perhaps the most pernicious assumption behind many academic and press articles is that cellulosic ethanol “proposes turning waste into something useful.” Considering the costs of trash removal for most cities, even trash won’t be considered “waste” if it becomes a valuable feedstock for biofuels. Just as pernicious, perhaps, is the industry’s assumption that an apparently abundant resource is naturally a cheap resource. Inevitably, these assumptions have led everyone to search for the perfect energy source – one that doesn’t compete with food production, doesn’t require petroleum fertilizers, and doesn’t come with the dreaded “unintended consequences.” A far better plan would be to seek sources that best fit a local area, and then look for ways to manage them in economically and environmentally sound ways.

Biofuels Done Right?

Images from the “slow-motion catastrophe” that began last week 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana brought to mind a bit of sarcasm I offered to a colleague almost exactly a year ago. The NRDC was running the below ad on Capitol Hill, saying, “Biofuels. If we’re going to use them, let’s do it right,” with a picture of the deforestation that many assumed would occur from use of biofuels.

NRDC-- Biofuels Done Right Ad

My facetious idea was to run a counter ad, with pictures from the Exxon Valdez disaster, asking NRDC if they considered “biofuels not done at all” to be done right. And perhaps that ad could have been rerun on March 31, as the Obama administration announced with purely Orwellian logic that plans for expanding offshore oil drilling were “part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

Now, of course, 5,000 barrels of oil each day are spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the ruptured pipes of a deep sea oil well, creating an oil slick covering 400 square miles. While not yet rivaling the Exxon Valdez disaster, where 258,000 barrels leaked, the threat to wildlife and sensitive wetlands still exists. And consider, an estimated 90 rigs drilling in the Gulf of Mexico provide 1.7 million barrels of oil a day, nearly one-third of total US production.

Today, President Obama is touring a POET biorefinery in Missouri and talking about the need for increased biofuel production:

For decades, we’ve talked about how our dependence on oil from other countries threatens our economy. But usually our will to act kind of rises or falls depending on the price at the pump. We talked about how it threatens future generations, even as we witnessed some funny things going on in terms of our climate change, and recognizing the environmental costs of relying on fossil fuels, but, frankly, we always said we’ll get to it tomorrow. We talked about how it threatened our security, but we’ve grown actually more dependent on foreign oil every single year since Richard Nixon started talking about this danger of dependency on foreign oil.”

But of course, cellulosic and advanced biofuel production has fallen short of goals, primarily due to a lack of capital needed for rapid scale up. Investor confidence in the sector was undermined in 2008 and 2009 by a combination of the economic recession, wild volatility in feedstock costs, and predictions of impending doom by opponents of biofuels.

Investor confidence may be slowly recovering, according to recent indications, but the overall mood still remains skeptical. A few of the more choice pronouncements indicate the general mood.

Want to become a millionaire investing in publicly traded advanced biofuel stocks? One way would be to start as a multi-millionaire.”

“Very few investors in any cleantech sector are going to be investing the amounts of capital we saw at the height in 2008,” when venture capitalists were investing in production facilities, says Dallas Kachan, managing director of the Cleantech Group, a research and consulting firm that tracks venture-capital spending in green technology.