U.S. target fails to spur synthetic diesel
Technologies for producing synthetic diesel from waste have failed to step up to rapidly rising U.S. biofuel targets, leaving the long-term future of those targets further in doubt.
The targets are already under pressure, because they require refiners to use more ethanol than filling stations are able to sell using existing gasoline blends.
As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) two weeks ago advised that the targets would be trimmed next year.
The commercial failure to make synthetic diesel, which is chemically equivalent to petroleum-based diesel, is bad news for the next generation of biofuels, called cellulosic fuels, and suggests a policy that is too ambitious.
Cellulosic biofuel is made from biomass waste, and depending on the process can produce either ethanol or diesel, for blending into conventional, petroleum-based gasoline or diesel.
The backbone of the policy is the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, which set increasing annual mandates for biofuel consumption, to drive a shift from imported oil and so boost energy security and cut carbon emissions.
The act was meant to shift to cellulosic biofuels from corn ethanol over time, to compete less with food crops.
But actual production of cellulosic biofuels has lagged far behind targets due to high costs.
The EISA mandated a nine-fold increase in all biofuel volume in 2022 compared with 2006, to 36 billion gallons.
Conventional corn ethanol would peak at 15 billion gallons in 2015, and maintain that level thereafter.
The cellulosic portion was supposed to gain steadily from 1 billion gallons this year, on top of the corn ethanol requirement, to 16 billion gallons in 2022.
In its "primary control" scenario, the agency estimated that in 2022, cellulosic biofuel production would split between 11.08 billion gallons of diesel (ethanol-equivalent volume) and 4.92 billion gallons of ethanol.
That was in its 2010 publication, "Regulation of Fuels and Fuel Additives: Changes to Renewable Fuel Standard Program; Final Rule".
It assumed that the so-called Fischer-Tropsch process would account for at least 30 percent of cellulosic diesel.
But actual output has been disappointing - zero commercial production of any cellulosic biofuel (ethanol or diesel) in 2010 and 2011, and just a few thousand gallons last year, and none from Fischer-Tropsch.
That has forced the EPA to waive most of the cellulosic biofuel mandate each year since its introduction.