ABW: Industry races to develop advanced biofuels

By Bryan Sims
Web exclusive posted Sept. 30, 2008 at 12:00 p.m. CST

An ardent effort is underway across North America in what seemingly appears to be a race for the development of commercially viable advanced biofuels. This sense of progress was felt by attendees at the 2008 Advanced Biofuels Workshop and Trade Show being held in Minneapolis on Sept. 28-30; a poignant harbinger of just how far the biofuels industries has evolved over the last decade.

Tom Bryan, vice president of communications for BBI International, opened the general session by highlighting the importance of the U.S. federal government supporting the growth of advanced biofuels production as prescribed by the 36-billion-gallon national renewable fuels standard (RFS), which includes a 21-billion gallon carve-out.

Although the path to meeting the RFS mandate will be challenging, Bryan reiterated that the acceleration of advanced biofuels production will build upon and optimize the success of existing starch and oil-based ethanol and biodiesel industries. "The existence of these biofuels is and will be a critical cornerstone for the development and commercialization of second-generation and advanced biofuels," he said. "The race is on to produce these advanced biofuels."

For 2009, the RFS mandates 10.5 billion gallons of conventional biofuel and 600 million gallons of advanced biofuel, which includes 500 million gallons of biomass-based diesel and 100 million gallons of undifferentiated advanced biofuel. The industry doesn't anticipate having difficulty meeting the increased conventional biofuel standard, particularly with another 3 billion gallons of capacity under construction. However, the advanced biofuel category presents a new issue for the industry. Advanced biofuels in the legislation are defined as anything other than corn-starch-based ethanol that achieves a 50 percent greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction when compared with fossil fuels.

Stu Porter, manager of business development and projects for BBI International, highlighted the biomass-derived diesel production mandate of 500 million gallons by next year. He noted the emergence of hydrogenation-derived renewable diesel (HDRD) reactions for producing renewable diesel. The HDRD pathway differs from conventional biodiesel production in that it uses hydrogen and a catalyst (such as platinum, palladium, rhodium or ruthenium) from virtually the same feedstocks used to produce biodiesel.

According to Porter, the only drawback HDRD renewable diesel has is that there are no present specifications for HDRD as a pure fuel or a blend component in ASTM standards whereas biodiesel specifications are clearly outlined in ASTM for B5, B20, B100, and B5 Bioheat home heating oil. Otherwise, HDRD requires no special tank storage, can be pipelined to a blending site and it may be pipelined to retail distribution centers. HDRD plants are also typically larger to achieve economies of scale.

Jeremy Goodfellow, vice president of energy for Sanimax, expounded on the company's unique bio-pyrolysis approach that processes various animal fats and yellow grease at its 20 MMgy biodiesel plant in De Forest, Wis. Since the technology has been used in the oil industry for nearly 30 years, financing a more widespread commercialization using a bio-pyrolysis method will require some government and partnership support, Goodfellow said.

Despite these advancements in cellulosic ethanol and other biomass-derived biofuels, feedstock logistic issues are a primary concern for advanced biofuel developers; an impediment that has vexed this emerging industry. Speakers at the conference addressed possible solutions that could potentially circumvent this hurdle, at least in the short-term.

Jim Hettenhaus, president and chief executive officer for CEA Inc., addressed how corn farmers could profit from harvesting corn stover and supplying the material to future commercial-scale cellulosic plants. The idea is laudable and the idea is rapidly being adopted by Midwestern farmers since the majority of existing corn-based ethanol plants are located near corn-growing farmland.

Hettenhaus addressed a "one pass harvest and haul" method whereby a farmer could concurrently harvest both the corn stalk and ear at a price for cellulosic ethanol producers. However, this would require moderate to high capital expenditure for the unique harvester, custom baling and other miscellaneous expenses such as outsourcing contracts and fuel costs. Hettenhaus emphasized that one must closely evaluate the cost structure associated with the harvestation (on a dry ton basis), collection, storage and shipment of corn stover, in order to meet a sustainable feedstock supply chain before undertaking such an operation.

"Corn stover collection isn't easy, but it can be profitable if done right," Hettenhaus said. "Of course, cost is the prevailing issue when talking about the logistics of this material and whether it's feasible from that angle when taken into serious consideration."