Cellulosic BioFuel Is Here
Cellulosic biofuel is in production in one major plant, and more are on their way. The progress may be just in the nick of time. As commodity prices have risen, the old food versus fuel debate has morphed into fuel versus food and feed.
When corn prices rose a few years ago, some in the corn ethanol industry demanded a grain reserve to protect ethanol producers. These days the industry is simply trying to hold on to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) as fears of rising food prices provide fodder for a powerful triad of consumers, livestock feeders and anti-biofuel forces.
The world’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, recently commissioned in Crescentino, Italy. The plant uses Beta Renewables’ PROESA technology and was built by Chemtex. Chemtex is developing a similar plant to produce cellulosic ethanol in North Carolina with a goal of completion in 2014. At the same time, the corn ethanol industry is in economic retreat as ethanol plants cut back and even close in the face of the recessionary impact on gasoline demand and negative margins due to high commodity prices. By contrast, cellulosic biofuel is a bright spot, one of several in the next generation of biofuels.
"Between now and 2017 we will see a number of companies deploy and build cellulosic biofuel plants," said Mike McAdams, president, Advanced Biofuels Association (ABF). "There is every type of technology coming at this thing with a lot of major companies with significant investments in research and development. Some have begun engineering and permitting, others are building, and some are already operating."
PRODUCING ETHANOL CHEAPER
One of the companies that is making the investment is Chemtex Global S.A. with its collaborative partner Novozymes North America. "Cellulosic technology is real, and it is here today," said Dennis Leong, executive vice president, marketing and business development, Chemtex Global S.A. "It is commercially attractive and commercially viable. We believe we can produce ethanol at a lower cost per gallon than with corn or sugar cane."
With one plant up and running in Italy and a second scheduled for North Carolina, Leong is confident of his claims. The company has been producing ethanol from cellulose at a pilot plant for four years. Both plants are designed to use biomass treated with enzymes from industry partner Novozyme. The enzymes turn the cellulose into sugar before it is fermented and ethanol is produced.
"We can use tree crops, and we may in the short term, but we'll be transitioning to dedicated energy crops grown on low quality land not suitable for crop production," said Leong. "We are trying to make something from nothing on land that is just lying there."