Cellulosic BioFuel Is Here
Kior, Inc. also will be making biofuel from cellulose, but it is a different breed of biofuel. By the time this article is in print, the company's new 11 million gallons per year plant in Mississippi should be producing what they call renewable crude, a drop-in hydrocarbon molecule that KiOR further processes to produce fungible gasoline and diesel components that drop-in to the existing petroleum transportation fuel infrastructure. While ethanol, regardless of its source, requires blender pumps and faces blending limits, gasoline and diesel from renewable crude has a host of potential homes and no limits. Kior isn't the first to make a drop-in biofuel commercially, though they will be the largest. What they won't be is the last.
"An overwhelming number of our 51 members are making drop-in molecules that don't require blender’s pumps," said McAdams. "These are hydrocarbon molecules that behave exactly as if they came from a barrel of oil. They are fungible biofuels that can be mutually exchanged in gasoline, diesel or jet fuel."
The efficacy of drop-in biofuels was recently demonstrated by the U.S. Navy off the coast of Hawaii. McAdams, representing the industry, was on board the USS Nimitz as a squadron of Navy jets took off, burning 50/50 biofuel based jet fuel.
"When they landed, the pilots were debriefed," recalled McAdams. "They told us the planes flew great, and they wouldn't be using the fuel if they didn't believe in it."
If the end product is equivalent to petroleum-based products, so, is the process for making it equivalent? Kior uses a proprietary process called Biomass Fluid Catalytic Cracking to convert biomass directly into a combination of renewable crude, water, light gasses and coke. Once separated, the renewable crude is refined into the desired product—gasoline, diesel, jet fuel or other. The gasses are burned to generate electricity.
The process is "feedstock flexible" and can utilize a wide range of biomass materials. However, the location of the Mississippi plant is intended to utilize woody biomass, in this case, Southern Yellow Pine. The USDA Forest Service estimates enough surplus pine exists, beyond what is harvested each day for other uses, to supply 35 Kior-style plants using 1,500 dry tons per day. Best of all, pine is unlike other energy sources, such as corn, sugar, soy oil and even crude oil, which have fluctuated wildly in price over the past 12 years. Instead, its price has risen only slightly in that time period, giving Kior a feedstock in wide cultivation and available at a long-term stable price.