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Biofuel Industry Built From Scratch

October 15, 2009

The New York Times

MADISON, Pa. — On one side of a factory here, workers dump 500-pound sacks of pine chips into a hopper. Deep inside the plant, an 8,000-degree blow torch roars like a jet engine as the chips are processed. At the far end, the workers turn a tap and out pours ethanol, ready for use as a motor fuel.

The facility, built by a company called Coskata, is not quite proof that a new era is at hand for American transportation fuels. But with the company claiming it will be able to convert wood waste into biofuel for about $1 a gallon, the plant suggests that day may be drawing nearer.

“We’re so close, we can really touch this now,” said William J. Roe, the chief executive of Coskata.

Across the country, start-up companies and major corporations are trying to produce biofuel without relying on food crops the way corn-based ethanol does. Congress has already guaranteed these companies a market if they can make the fuel, and the government has given some of them construction grants. The companies have raised millions from investors.

The results of all this effort are starting to show. Pilot facilities are going up, companies are testing their production lines, and they are starting to make better estimates of the likely costs.

None of these facilities is yet operating on anything like the scale that will be needed to offset a big portion of the nation’s oil imports. That era, if it ever comes, is still years away. In fact, no company in the United States even claims to be making commercial sales yet at any significant scale. (Iogen, a Canadian firm backed by Shell, makes ethanol from wheat straw and supplied a Shell station in Ottawa for a month last summer.)

But increasingly, it is possible to visit real plants and see production methods that appear to be working. The plant here, the fruit of $50 million in research and construction, is to be unveiled on Thursday.

It is 65 feet tall, an impressive maze of tanks and pipes. Though some of them resemble the components that would be needed in a full-scale plant, the capacity of the facility is only about 50,000 gallons a year, perhaps 1 percent of the output that would be needed for a commercial-scale plant. The company’s goal is to work the kinks out of its production method, and get a better handle on costs, before going to full size.

Coskata — whose investors include General Motors, the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and the Blackstone Group investment house — has moved toward the front of a crowded field of companies trying to produce fuel from garbage, construction and demolition waste, trees or special crops. Many hope to acquire their raw material for a few dollars a ton, or to use materials that usually go to garbage dumps.

In 2007, Congress set a national goal of creating an advanced biofuel industry, and established a quota for gasoline marketers to blend a modest 100 million gallons of such fuel into gasoline by 2010. The goal is not only to lower the nation’s oil imports, but also its emissions of the gases that cause global warming.

Burning oil or other fossil fuels releases carbon that was buried underground for millions of years into the air as carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. With advanced biofuels, plants would suck carbon dioxide out of the air as they grew, then be turned a few months or years later into biofuel. When the fuel was burned, carbon dioxide would go back into the air. In principle, the process would be neutral on emissions.

The industry is likely to miss Congress’s initial quota of 100 million gallons next year, acknowledging that it will make a few million gallons of the advanced fuel, at most. It could fall even further behind the 2011 quota, 250 million gallons. The quota eventually rises to 16 billion gallons by 2022.

The industry partly blames the credit crisis for its slow pace, but acknowledges that getting the conversion techniques to work is the biggest problem.

“It’s certainly turned out to be more complicated technically than people thought it would be,” said Brian Foody, the president and chief executive of Iogen, which hopes to build a large-scale facility.

At BP America, Tom Mueller, a spokesman, also acknowledged slow progress in his company’s joint venture with Verenium, in Louisiana. “We aren’t seeing fundamental technology issues; it’s more a matter of optimizing the engineering of the pots and pans we use to do the cooking, so to speak,” he said. The two companies are seeking an Energy Department loan for construction of a biofuels plant in Highlands County, Fla.

Also prominent in the chase is Range Fuels, a Colorado company in which Mr. Khosla is an investor. Despite some delays, it says it is about half done with construction of a full-scale plant in Soperton, Ga., that will use wood chips and produce ethanol, but by a different method than Coskata’s.

The waste material the companies are processing is rich in energy-containing substances like cellulose, a structural material from plants.

Some companies use steam, chemicals or enzymes to break down the cellulose so that sugars locked inside can be freed and fed to yeasts to make alcohol. Others break the cellulose into simpler components, like hydrogen and carbon monoxide. These can be re-formed into hydrocarbon molecules that can be used in place of gasoline or diesel.

Coskata uses a plasma torch, which shoots 8,000-degree jets of air at twice the speed of sound, to blast wood chips into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Those gases are pumped into a tank of bacteria that feed on them and excrete ethanol. For each ton of pine chips, the pilot plant produces about 100 gallons of ethanol. Many people in the industry say they believe the economics should work at that yield.

Coskata plans to own some biorefineries and license its technology to others. According to Wesley J. Bolsen, Coskata’s chief marketing officer, “the question is how rapidly we can scale.”

As their testing proceeds, some people in this nascent industry are starting to believe they could replace a fair portion of the nation’s petroleum imports, probably with different types of technology adapted to various kinds of waste.

“You look at the scale of the opportunity,” said Mr. Foody, of Iogen, “and it’s hard to believe there won’t be multiple winners.”

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