Cellulosic Hunger Games

By Kolby Hoagland | June 13, 2014

At this week’s International Fuel Ethanol Workshop in Indianapolis, I had the honor of moderating a panel in the Cellulosic and Advanced Ethanol track that offered updates from the three soon-to-be completed and operating cellulosic ethanol plants. The panel pulled representatives from Abengoa, POET-DSM, and DuPont to highlight accomplishments and near attainment of commercial operation. Many of you, along with me, have read numerous articles about the plants and their technologies, but each company’s accomplishments were solidified and made real by the photos in their presentations and announcements of milestones reached. Abengoa and POET-DSM plants will be making cellulosic ethanol in the coming months while DuPont is not far behind.

A prominent theme that emerged from the panel was a mutual wish of success for the other presenter’s respective cellulosic ethanol plants. There is no doubt that Abengoa, POET-DSM, and DuPont are competitors as they aim to license out their cellulosic technologies and prove the supremacy of their respective proprietary technologies. However, given the infancy of the cellulosic ethanol industry, the three companies are tied together in either future success or failure. Each presenter acknowledged that if a plant fails, it is not good for the other. Christopher Standlee from Abengoa, Steve Hartig from POET-DSM, and Ken Hill from DuPont all acknowledged that they are hoping for the general success of the others’ plants, and I think that is very wise for them to assess.

The competitive yet mutually supportive relationship that the three speakers conveyed made me realize the current state of the cellulosic industry in the U.S. is strikingly similar to the story line of a popular movie franchise, The Hunger Games. In the Jennifer Lawrence staring blockbusters, young adults in a diversified world are pitted against each other in a death match until only one young adult is left. In the beginning, alliances are formed among the contestants to gain an upper hand and eliminate other alliances. As the end of the death match approaches, those within alliances begin to fight and eliminate each other. In the fight for shares of the transportation fuel portfolio, cellulosic ethanol has three strong and emerging representatives who are united to prove that cellulosic ethanol belongs at the fuel pump. Despite their intrinsic competition, the three companies pushing the advancement of cellulosic ethanol wisely support the success of the other. Big oil has greatly benefitted by infighting in the biofuels sector and cellulosic ethanol hopefully takes that lesson and does not begin fighting each other too early. What is not yet known is whose technology will be the most cost effective and desired by the market for licensing. In other words and relating this idea to the analogy, who is the Jennifer Lawrence of the cellulosic ethanol industry? We do not yet know. Regardless, the amicable nature that all three speakers had with each other and their respective push toward commercial cellulosic production was very well received, and I deem as very wise at this stage.