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.

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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.

Where is BIO: Dr. Rina Singh, Growing and Strengthening the Biobased Chemicals Industry

BIO is involved in many different policy areas, but did you know that BIO’s staff is participating in the biotech community—giving talks at various conferences and meetings around the world.  Yesterday BIO’s very own Rina Singh Ph.D., Policy Director in the Industrial Biotechnology section at BIO, gave a presentation at a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Public Meeting: Biobased Intermediate Materials and Feedstocks.  The title of her talk: Growing and Strengthening the Biobased Chemicals Industry.

According to Dr. Singh biorefining isn’t just for bio-ethanol.  Biorefining can produce polyester, nylon, and amino acids just to name a few.  In fact, one feedstock may produce many different products.

Plastics and ethanol were among the first chemical products to use biorefining methods for production.  Then as the technology advanced, methods using bioconversion entered the arena and advanced methodologies, like the succinic acid platform were developed to produce a variety of biochemicals.  The latest in this technology includes synthetic biology and systems biology which bring new production methods to biofuels, renewable chemicals, specialty chemicals, and other bioproducts.

View Dr. Singh’s presentation, Growing and Strengthening the Biobased Chemicals Industry.

Weekly Blog Round Up

Biofuels are big in Iowa. So big in fact, that according to domesticfuel.com

Iowa State University will get $8 million of a $78 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to research and develop advanced biofuels.”

“These Iowa State research projects are paid for by stimulus bucks … the same money that is funding the $44 million to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo. (…..) and the $34 million (plus $8.4 million in non-federal, cost-share funding) that is going to the National Advanced Biofuels Consortium led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.”

Biofuels Digest is running a special update on biomass and algae. That is, they are showcasing meeting highlights, from the Pacific West Biomass Conference in Sacramento. One hot issue according to Biofuels Digest was the,

“conflicting definitions of biomass and what qualifies as a legitimate source or conversion process. The conflicts run across the standards for earning carbon credits and renewable energy credits, attaining the Renewables Portfolio Standard (for utilities), meeting AB32 carbon reduction goals, and meeting California Integrated Waste Management Board landfill diversion goals. These issues reach beyond California since the State’s standards strongly affect those of many other States.”

Other topics discussed were amplifying feedstocks, biomass investment, learning from one another, and diversity of the biomass industry cluster.

Green Inc. a New York Times blog writes about increased funding for biofuels. They have this to say,

The United States Department of Energy announced last week more than $80 million in financing from the economic stimulus package for a new national program dedicated to biofuels research.
The goal is not only to develop high energy, dense fuels, but also to figure out how to use existing infrastructure as much as possible to save costs, said John Holladay, head of biomass research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, one of the groups leading the program.”

And that is why biotech innovation brings us hope for a better future.

Biotech in the Blogosphere

Wow, what a blog post title, “Synthetic Biology: Why Not Pursuing Crazy Biotech Is Dangerous.” The the crew at Gizmodo who came up with that title talks with Michael Spector who covers science for the New Yorker and is the author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.

The Gizmodo crew says about their discussion with Specter,

“For our discussion—fitting the theme of This Cyborg Life—we singled out synthetic biology, a pursuit, as Specter describes it, that “by combining elements of engineering, chemistry, computer science and molecular biology, seeks nothing less than to assemble the biological tools necessary to redesign the living world.”

To find out what Specter had to say about synthetic biology read the blog.

Next, Xconomy of San Diego, writes a post, Big Energy Collaborations Seen to Jump-Start Emerging Biofuels Technologies .

Xconomy attended presentations organized by Biocom, San Diego’s life sciences industry group. Xconomy says according to industry experts at the conference,

“As startups developing next-generation biofuels emerge in San Diego, Boston, and elsewhere, a business model for rapidly expanding to commercial-scale operations already can be found in the biotech industry”

“The premise of presentations organized by Biocom, San Diego’s life sciences industry group, is that collaborations being formed between biofuel startups and big energy are comparable to the partnerships formed between biotech startups and big pharmaceutical companies.”

Slice of MIT writes about, Synthetic Biology Rodeo: Designing Living Materials at iGEM where they mention a story on the iGEM competiton in WIRED UK.

Slice of MIT says,

“The Wired story, written as a first-person account by a friend of the winning team, describes arriving at MIT with the crew from the UK: “seven rainbow-haired undergraduates who spent their summer engineering a new kind of E.coli that secretes a palette of seven colors, christened E. chromi after a tense online vote.”

To find out more about iGEM, check out the slice of MIT.

Weekly Industrial and Environmental Bio Blog Roundup

This week we start off with a little Road Music, From Bluegrass to Switchgrass, from our colleagues at the Biofuels Center of North Carolina. They’ve put together a nice set of bluegrass pieces. To listen visit their web site.

Gas2.0 announces this week that BP could start selling biofuels in 2010, writing that,

“BP has partnered with Verenium to bring a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility online next year to start bringing alternative fuels to a gas”

Wednesday, according to the Government Monitor,Tom Vilsack announced,

“the publication of nine additional BioPreferred product categories which will now be eligible for Federal procurement preference.”

Making, “more Than 1,000 Biobased Products Eligible For Federal Procurement,” the Monitor reports.

You can find USDA biopreferred on Twitter, http://twitter.com/BioPreferred and on the Web at: www.biopreferred.gov.

So what’s the deal with this conversation on whether or not biofuels are carbon friendly? We at BIO have certainly have had a lot to say on the matter and you can find all our opinions on our biofuels page.

However, our opinions aside, the folks at the journal Science, where the initial study and follow-up policy paper were published say that they are giving us the inside story, by holding a moderated conversation between Tim Searchinger and John Sheehan—kind of interesting, take a look for yourself.

That’s all for this week. See you next week!

Weekly Biofuels and Climate Change Blog Round Up

This week in the blogosphere in Industrial & Environmental Technology we start off with NASCAR. Yes that’s right NASCAR . Domestic Fuel.com quotes an article in USA Today about NASCAR,

“The concept might seem incongruous in a sport inherently tied to an internal combustion engine that many find synonymous with global warming, but NASCAR, despite cars with an eye-popping 5 mpg, is trying to embrace its eco-conscious side as the federal government has begun prodding the racing industry to become leaders in efficiency…

On the competition side, NASCAR is exploring the replacement of its carburetors with more efficient fuel injection (perhaps as early as 2011) and the use of alternative fuels in at least one of its national series…”

Remarkable, but it just shows that biofuels are catching on everywhere.

Joshua Kagan wrote on GOOD.is/BLOGS a piece that mainly discusses the cons of corn ethanol and concludes that,

“There are non-food crops that can be used for biofuel. The federal government has awoken to this and is heavily promoting “second generation” cellulosic biofuels. Cellulosic refers to the “non-food” component of a plant or tree—like the husk of the corn or tree trimmings—that contain lots of energy in the form of carbohydrates called polysaccharides that can, in turn, be processed into biofuels. The next installment in this series discusses what is cellulosic ethanol, why you need to know about it, why you are not wrong if you find it ironic that cutting down trees is a carbon mitigation strategy, and how algae are really the future of biofuels.”

Now, I’m aware that different people have different opinions about which line of biofuels research we should pursue, but it’s important to remember that to ensure our energy security we must pursue all avenues of research. Advances in medicine didn’t come about from restricting areas of research, and the same will be true here. Diversity in energy research will ultimately lead to the most sustainable and energy efficient solution.