For years, scientists and engineers have been juggling various combinations of acids, steam, bacteria, catalysts and the digestive juices of microorganisms to convert agricultural waste and even household garbage into motor fuel.
So far, such alternative fuels have not moved beyond small pilot plants, despite federal incentives to encourage companies to develop them. But that could be about to change.
Officials at two companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories say they are very close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of these so-called cellulosic biofuels, and others are predicting success in the months to come.
In Columbus, Miss., KiOR has spent more than $200 million on a plant that is supposed to mix shredded wood waste with a patented catalyst, powdered to talcumlike consistency. Its process does in a few seconds what takes nature millions of years: removes the oxygen from the biomass and converts the other main ingredients, hydrogen and carbon, into molecules that can then be processed into gasoline and diesel fuel.
KiOR aims to turn out 13 million gallons of fuel a year and has already lined up three companies to buy its output, including FedEx and a joint venture of Weyerhauser and Chevron. KiOR said Thursday that it had begun producing what it called “renewable crude" and intended to refine that into gasoline and diesel that it would begin shipping by the end of the month.
And Ineos, a European oil and chemical company, is putting the final touches on a plant in Vero Beach, Fla., that would cook wood and woody garbage until they broke down into tiny molecules of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Those molecules would be pumped into a giant steel tank, where bacteria would eat them and excrete ethanol. The company has spent $130 million on the plant, which is supposed to make 8 million gallons a year, about 1 percent of Florida’s ethanol demand. The plant is next to a county landfill, and executives covet the incoming garbage.
Both plants are far smaller than typical oil refineries, but commercial production at either one — or at any of several of the plants that are a step behind them — would be a major milestone in renewable energy.
At such plants, the goal is sometimes to make ethanol and sometimes gasoline or diesel fuel or their ingredients.
The pathways to make the biofuels are varied. But the feedstocks have something in common: They are derived from plants and trees, but not from food crops like corn kernels, which are the basis of most of the biofuel currently made in the United States.
Often, the raw ingredients for the cellulosic biofuels are the wastes of farms, paper mills or households, with a value that is low or even negative, meaning people will pay the fuel producers to dispose of them. And the companies developing the new fuels say that their products produce far fewer carbon emissions than petroleum-based gasoline and diesel.
KiOR says that its fuel will release one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide as an equivalent amount of petroleum fuel. That is mostly because every tree or woody plant fed into its process will eventually be replaced by a new tree or plant, which will suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And a byproduct of its factory is surplus electricity, which will be exported to the grid, displacing electricity that would otherwise be generated from natural gas or coal.
Ineos goes a step further, saying its production process actually reduces the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
“We could make the argument that we’re carbon-negative," said Peter Williams, the chief executive. The reason, he said, is that electricity produced from its plant averts emissions that would have come from other electricity sources.
Just becoming the first company to produce commercial volumes of these alternative biofuels is no guarantee of commercial success. That depends on further optimizing production processes to get more gallons of fuel per ton of raw materials at lower operating costs.
Industry officials say that profits also depend on continued high prices for oil, the commodity that biofuels would replace, and a continuation of a federal government mandate that requires fuel blenders to mix a certain percentage of biofuels into the gasoline sold at service stations.
“Sustainability requires good economics," Williams said.
Many companies have produced biofuel successfully, but only in quantities characteristic of a factory that makes fine whiskey or perhaps perfume. The trick is to get reliability up and costs down to a level that allows operation on a large scale.
Government policy has anticipated far more technical progress than the industry has made. Congress set a goal of 250 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel for 2011 and 500 million gallons for this year, but the Environmental Protection Agency cut the requirement to 6 million gallons for 2012 because of the lack of commercial production.
Six governors, oil refiners and companies hurt by high corn prices have asked the agency to waive its requirements for ethanol and other renewable fuels. Some single out the corn ethanol mandate, but others want the quota for cellulosic fuels waived, too, partly because there is no actual production.
The cellulosic biofuel industry has asked the EPA to keep all the rules intact. Waiving the rule for corn ethanol would discourage investment in advanced biofuels as well, said Brent Erickson, a spokesman for BIO, a trade organization. “You can’t de-link them," he said.
The agency was expected to rule Tuesday but instead said it would rule “shortly." To grant the waiver, it would have to find severe harm to the economy. Energy experts say that eventually renewable motor fuel could have a much bigger impact on the U.S. economy than renewable electricity from wind farms or solar cells. Renewable electricity saves coal and natural gas, which are cheap and domestically plentiful. Renewable motor fuel displaces oil, which is much more expensive and often imported, which poses a host of national security and trade issues.
If either Ineos or KiOR began commercial production, it would break a long string of overly optimistic promises made by the industry and the government.
In October 1998, for example, the Energy Department showed off a plant in Jennings, La., that made ethanol from sugar cane wastes; the department said it would reach commercial production within a few years. At the time the plant was owned by a government-subsidized firm called BC International, which was later reorganized and renamed Celunol. Then it was taken over by Verenium, which, with backing from BP, tried another method. BP announced Oct. 25 that it was dropping plans for a commercial plant based on technology piloted at Jennings, although it still does research there.
Mascoma, based in Cambridge, Mass., and backed by General Motors and Khosla Ventures, among others, is trying to make ethanol from wood waste. Samir Kaul, a board member representing Khosla, confidently predicted in 2006 that it would be in commercial production by 2008, but that goal remains elusive.
Iogen, an established Canadian producer of enzymes, began producing ethanol from wheat straw in 2004, and said in the fall of 2005 that it hoped to announce plans for a commercial plant by the end of that year. Eventually, it announced plans for a plant in southern Manitoba, but in April 2012 it dropped that idea and laid off some workers at its Ottawa headquarters.
But new chemistry technology, like hope, springs eternal.
POET, a major producer of ethanol by conventional means, is building a plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, that is supposed to digest 700 tons of corn cobs a day and feed the resulting sugars into a conventional ethanol plant next door. The goal of the project, which is supposed to be ready by late 2013, is to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year.
Abengoa, a Spanish firm, has been running a pilot plant in Salamanca, Spain, and in June 2011, broke ground on a $350 million commercial plant in Hugoton, Kan., that is now 50 percent complete, according to Manuel Sanchez Ortega, the chief executive. It is slated to open in the third quarter of next year and is supposed to make 25 million gallons of ethanol a year from agricultural waste, wood waste and nonfood crops.
And a variety of smaller companies are a step behind.
The holy grail is to find a way to profitably make renewable fuels from otherwise wasted biomass, as opposed to valuable food crops.
“If we can do it with biomass, then there is no more discussion of food versus fuel; it’s over," Ortega said.