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Ineos Bio – First Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in U.S.

The prize for the first company to get a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant up and running in the U.S. goes to Ineos Bio. Ineos Bio is a Swiss firm, a subsidiary of the chemical company Ineos.

The facility is located in Vero Beach, Fla. and has a capacity of 8 million gal of ethanol per year. It also produces 6 MW of renewable biomass power. Vero Beach is on the Eastern coast of the state (a bit more than halfway down), near Port St. Lucie.

Ineos Bio has started up this cellulosic ethanol plant in Fla. Credit: Ineos Bio

Ineos Bio has started up this cellulosic ethanol plant in Fla. Credit: Ineos Bio

Folks following cellulosic ethanol might have thought the U.S. would be the first in the world to get a cellulosic ethanol plant, but that distinction goes to Italy, where Beta Renewables owns a 20 million gal per year facility running on wheat straw and giant reed (Arundo donax

).

The feedstock for the Vero Beach facility is “vegetative and wood waste.”  I’m hoping to learn a bit more about what’s going in there. Because Ineos Bio’s front end process involves gasification, it is likely not terribly picky about the biomass – apparently it has converted vegetative and yard waste, and citrus, oak, pine, and pallet wood waste.

Projecting when the cellulosic ethanol industry will really take off has historically been a fools’ errand. But clearly, having two facilities in existence is infinitely more than zero, which is what we had in 2012. You can review my feeble attempt to forecast the 2013 crop of ethanol makers and check out the list of other facilities set to come online soon.

Solar Trade Tariffs Are A Drag

Remember that old school-yard comeback? “I’m rubber and you’re glue…”? It looks like the unfair trade  claims that the U.S. and Europe lobbed at China’s solar industry have bounced back and stuck.

Last October, the U.S. Commerce Dept. made good on a months-long threat to impose a 24-36% tariff on solar panels imported from China. And last week, China completed the tit for tat by putting a tariff on U.S.-made polysilicon, the main raw material used for solar cells. [h/t Washington Post]

Suntech solar panels

The U.S. slapped a tariff on Chinese-made solar panels. Suntech’s was the highest. Credit: Suntech

Originally, the U.S. accused China of unfair trade practices – saying the government heavily subsidized the industry and manufacturers were selling modules at less than the cost of production, a practice known as dumping. The EU took similar action early this summer.

China pretty quickly started to point out that the U.S. has given large grants to polysilicon producers, which has helped them quickly build huge new, more efficient production facilities. Those facilities export a lot of polysilicon to China. C&EN has covered this part of the industry pretty closely – both Hemlock Semiconductor (majority owned by Dow Corning) and Wacker Chemie had big expansion plans, some of which are now on hold.

So let’s review. Tariffs don’t tend to take an unfair situation and make it fair. What they do reliably produce is uncertainty and higher prices – at a time when what the world needs now is not love, sweet love, but cheap, renewable energy (well, and love, too).

The general idea is that the solar panel tariff will protect U.S.-based manufacturers of solar panels, but frankly, we lost that war a long time ago. At the time the original complaint was lodged, China already had a 2/3 global market share. Will any of the solar companies that folded because they couldn’t compete on price now re-open their doors?

It has truly been an awful downward spiral for developed-world solar makers. Trying to stay in business while panel prices plummeted was like trying to catch a falling knife. But in the time that was happening, guess what industry was booming in the U.S.? Solar power! That is, the projects built to create electricity from the sun. Cheap panels plus renewables mandates and tax incentives magically created several utility scale solar farms. [Take that, shale gas!]

And while the U.S. doesn’t compete very well with China on commodity crystalline silicon solar panels, we do lead the market in new and efficient types of inverters, which convert DC current from the panel to the AC current that runs your TV. More demand for cheap solar panels has meant a boom time for makers of inverter equipment.

U.S. companies that innovate can still make a buck in solar these days. But it is a mature, consolidated industry and not every player is going to stay afloat, regardless of where they do their manufacturing.

 

Choppin’ Broccoli

In the quest for chemicals and fuels made from biomass, there are a few important black boxes that make it difficult to compare different companies’ business models and likelihood of success. One of them is the process by which a particular facility obtains sugars from its biomass feedstock.

In many cases, the first step is expensive, but low-tech – chopping up the stuff. This is the part that reminds me of Choppin’ Broccoli, the Saturday Night Live song as performed by Dana Carvey. Since cellulosic ethanol is sort of an offshoot of corn ethanol, it’s helpful to imagine how different it is to process a corn cob or stalk or an entire sugar cane, compared to grinding up a starchy corn kernel. Getting sugar from cellulose is difficult enough, getting the cellulose away from the clutches of a plant’s lignin first requires heavy machinery to chop it into little pieces.

So say you have tidy chipped up pieces of biomass. What do you do then? Like the SNL song, it ain’t pretty. Generally it requires some combination of thermochemical assaults to get the sugar out. Steam, alkali-acid washes, and pricey enzymes… In an otherwise green business, the pretreatment steps use energy and possibly chemicals that you wouldn’t want to spill.

Since pretreatment of biomass has a lot to do with both costs and the yield of sugars from feedstock, it is a busy area of research. An article by Chris Hanson in the appropriately named Biomass Magazine delves into some intriguing ideas. To release the useful cellulose from lignin, researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the U.S. DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute are investigating ionic liquids. Instead of using a traditional, two-stage alkali-acid pretreatment, a dose of butadiene sulfone got the job done in one step, according to U. of Illinois scientist Hao Feng. Another major benefit is that the butadiene sulfone can be recovered and recycled.

In California, the JBEI has been experimenting with imidazolium chloride. It has succesfully obtained sugar yields of 95% from mixed feedstocks and recycled 95% of the ionic liquid.

And a company called Leaf Energy has been studying a glycerol pretreatment method. Compared to acid pretreatments, the company says their method gets more sugars faster by dissolving lignin with a relatively inexpensive reagent with low temperature and standard pressure.

The goal with improving pretreatment steps is to bring down the cost of sugar from cellulose so that it is not more expensive than sugar from corn or sugar cane. Maybe if major cellulosic ethanol producers take up these technologies, we’ll have a better window into how they get the sugar out.

 

Biobased Chemicals: Some growing pains

Gevo, a maker of bio-based isobutanol, is now actually making isobutanol. It says something that a publicly-traded company has been not making its commercial product for some months. The problem was a bug in the production system – technically a microbe – a microbe other than the one (a yeast) that was supposed to be making isobutanol.

I spoke with Gevo’s CEO Pat Gruber yesterday at the BIO show in Montreal. He was rather forthright about what happened. First, they were running the plant at full scale with their own yeast and had their separation process running. They were producing truckloads of isobutanol. The facility had previously been an ethanol fermentation plant. With the new operating conditions, a dormant microbe sprang to life, contaminating the process. The product was still being made but the company decided to shut down the plant and decontaminate it.

“We had to identify the sources of the contaminant, change the pipes, sanitize the equipment, train the staff and modify the operating conditions to favor our yeast,” Gruber recounted. He emphasized that these plants are not sterile like a pharma plant would be. Instead, vectors of contamination are controlled so they stay at very low levels.

When I wrote about biobased chemicals last summer, analysts held out Gevo as an example of a success story. It was shortly after the story ran that Gevo stopped its process at its Luverne, Minn. plant due to problems with contamination. The episode shows the kind of growing pains that the industry and its followers are learning to anticipate and accept.

Other companies might face different kinds of growing pains – for Gevo there was what is called technical risk. Other firms are making chemicals such as biosuccinic acid. They also face a market risk because for most applications their product is not a drop in raw material, so downstream customers must adopt it.

This year is the tenth anniversary of the World Congress for Industrial Technology. Historically, it seems to take about a decade for a new chemical concept to reach commercialization, and then some more time to penetrate new markets. This makes 2013 a very interesting year for the biobased chemical industry.

Optimists at the BIO Show

I’m in Montreal today for the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology – put on by the Biotechnology Industry Association. The soaking rain that threatened to drown my arrival on Sunday has given way to warmer weather with just a few threatening clouds. Similarly, the mood at the show is one of patient optimism.

This year is the show’s tenth anniversary and it is reported to be the largest one yet with 1200 attendees. There are actually seven tracks of breakout sessions which makes it rather difficult for this reporter to follow along.

The major change that I’ve noticed compared to my first show four years ago is in the content of the presentations. It used to be all about the super microbe – speakers would show off elaborate slides with metabolic pathways – they all looked like very complicated subway maps. Since then the industry has learned that microbes can build a lot, but they can’t build your business for you.

This year the subject matter is all about scale up and applications. The language is more MBA than MicroBio. Supply chains, value chains, financing, customers, joint ventures, IPOs. Of course by now any start-up with a microbe has learned by now if their business plan is worth money or not – and only those that answer yes are still here.

I’ve been told to expect some major announcements this morning so follow along with my tweets @MelodyMV if you want the dish. Yesterday Myriant said it got its bio succinic acid plant up and running in Lake Providence, LA. It will be ramping up tp 30 million lbs per year.

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The Gut(microbe)less Gribble – Biofuel Hero?

Behold the Gribble – a true gutless wonder. The Gribble (pictured here) is a marine wood-boring creature of around 2 millimeters in size. Scientists at the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have been spending quality time with the Gribble because of its exceptional innards.

The Gribble lives in the sea and eats wood. Image: Laura Michie, University of Portsmouth

The Gribble lives in the sea and eats wood. Image: Laura Michie, University of Portsmouth

The tiny animal eats wood that finds its way into the sea. The wood can come from mangrove swamps or wash into estuaries from land. Gribbles, also called ship borers, have also been known to chow on wooden sailing vessels (including, rather famously, those of the Columbus voyages). “I’m sure they’ve taken down a few pirate ships, too” says Simon J McQueen-Mason a BBSRC researcher and materials biology professor at the University of York.

Most critters that eat wood or other lignocellulose plant material rely on symbiotic relationships with a diverse population of gut microbes – called the microbiome – to break down the tough-to-digest meal. When news reports suggest that pandas may hold the key to biofuels breakthroughs because they can live on tough bamboo, it’s really the microbes, and the enzymes made by the microbes, that are of interest.

(You can read a C&EN cover story about pandas, microbiomes and biofuels )

But the Gribble has no microbiome. And it doesn’t have the squishy, absorptive digestive system that most animals have. In fact, it digests its meals of wood in a sterile, hard-sided chamber in its hind gut. McQueen-Mason likens the environment to “a steel container you might use in an industrial lab.”

Instead of microbial helpers, the gribble has a separate organ where it produces the key enzyme itself. Termites do not do this (they have microbes). The gribble “must use quite aggressive chemistry; the enzyme is so harsh that it would kill any microbes” that might otherwise occupy the space, McQueen-Mason says.

The research team found the mystery organ and looked at the genes expressed there. Many of them encoded instructions for making what is called GH7 cellulase. This is a family of enzymes that are normally found in wood-degrading fungi. “These cellulases are abundant but were never reported in an animal before,” McQueen-Mason notes. “We were able to express the genes in a lab fungus and describe the properties.”

They also used X-ray crystallography to discover the structure of the enzyme and show how it binds cellulose chains and breaks them into small sugar molecules.

The GH7 cellulase, an enzyme made by the Gribble, breaks down cellulose into simpler sugars.

The GH7 cellulase, an enzyme made by the Gribble, breaks down cellulose into simpler sugars.

The Gribble’s enzyme appears to be very rugged and long-lasting, which is a good quality for an enzyme that might be used in an industrial setting to make biofuels from wood or straw, McQueen-Mason points out. It works very well in highly saline conditions and may also function well in ionic liquids. The use of salt water and ionic liquids for biofuels processing may cut down on the use of expensive, precious fresh water. And like a true catalyst, the enzyme may be reusable.
You can see a video of the Gribble  – which I highly recommend – it’s kind of cute.

For more on the enzyme, check out the journal paper: ‘Structural characterization of the first marine animal Family 7 cellobiohydrolase suggests a mechanism of cellulase salt tolerance’ www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1301502110.

IEA Looks To Fossil Fuel Industry to Control Climate Change

Today, the International Energy Agency put out a report saying that CO2 emissions in 2012 grew by 1.4%, or 31.6 gigatonnes. This increase means that the chances of constraining emissions to cap global warming at 2 degrees C are narrowing.

When I first started covering the cleantech/renewables space for C&EN back in 2008, there was a common belief among technologists and some policy makers that within a few short years, a price would be put on carbon with policies (such as cap and trade or a carbon tax) that would act like jet fuel, powering demand for renewable fuels and related industries.

But as IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven points out, ““Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities.” The good news in the report is that the growth in renewable energy production in the U.S. and Europe has helped those regions decrease carbon emissions. However, it was the switch to shale gas from coal that had the biggest impact on U.S. emissions. In contrast, growing energy demand from China and other developing nations has more than made up for those changes.

(You can read C&EN’s recent coverage of the EU Carbon Trading scheme here: http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i7/EU-Carbon-Emissions-Trading-Scheme.html)

IEA is pushing four policies that are all outside of the renewables space. The organization’s plan would shave 8% off the carbon emissions compared to no further constraints by:

1. Making buildings, industry, and transportation more energy efficient, to get 50% of the cut.
2. Limiting construction of the least efficient types of coal-fired power plants, for 20% or more of the cut.
3. Halving methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations (18% savings)
4. A partial phase-out of fossil fuel consumption subsidies (12%)

It’s Actually Happening: Military biofuels grants

Never has such a small government payout generated such a busy PR reaction. Late last weeek – and very quietly – the Defense Department awarded three biofuels firms $16 million to craft plans for biorefineries that would produce fuels meeting military specifications.

Jim Lane at Biofuels Digest has been tracking this development closely and he points out that “A coalition of Advanced Biofuels Association, the Air Line Pilots Association, Airlines for America, the American Council on Renewable Energy, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Security Project, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the National Farmers Union and Operation Free was swift to applaud the DoD.”

Great Green Fleet

U.S. Navy’s Great Green Fleet. In July 2012 it ran on a 50/50 biofuel and petroleum blend.

There are two main reasons why these tiny grants (each requires matching funds from the contracting companies) are fairly big news. One is that military spending on biofuels is a very touchy subject in Congress and there were some doubts about whether the program would move forward in this time of austerity and sequestration.

Secondly, U.S. airlines (and those around the world) are extremely keen to see the development of drop-in biobased jet fuel. To have the military join them on the demand side may make the difference between getting the stuff and not getting the stuff.

You can read C&EN’s exploration of bio-based jet fuel efforts. My colleague Andrea Widener wrote about House members’ attempts to block military spending on biofuels.

It is important to note that the funding comes out of the Defense Production Act Title II program and was not, in the end, successfully blocked. The program also would contain funds for a phase II portion of the program though money would have to be appropriated from the FY2013 budget.

In lieu of a press release (the DoD did not issue one), here are further program details that I received from a DoD spokesman.

There were three awards totaling $16.0M in government funds, which will be matched by $17.4M in private sector funds for Phase I of the project.

The first awardee is Emerald Biofuels LLC, which is located in Golf, IL – a northern suburb of Chicago. For this project, Emerald has agreed to match $5.4M in government funding with $6.4M of their own. Second, we have Natures BioReserve LLC of South Sioux City, Nebraska which will match $6.0M in government funding with $6.2M of company funds. The third awardee is Fulcrum Brighton Biofuels of Pleasanton, CA which will receive $4.7M in government funding and match that with $4.7M of their own funds.

Phase I of the project involves validation of production technology, verification of technical maturity, site selection, plant design, permitting, and detailed cost estimation, all of which will require 12-15 months to complete. Following Phase I, interagency technical experts will evaluate the projects to determine if they will move on to Phase II, which is for biorefinery construction

If all Phase I projects successfully complete the second phase of this project, awardees project that this would represent more than 150M gallons per year of drop-in, military-compatible fuels with initial production capacity by 2016 at an average cost of less than $4 per gallon.

For now, the U.S. military is sailing in relatively safe waters when it sticks with research and testing projects. But it would need a political mine sweeper ahead of any plans to build its own biorefineries or make large purchase contracts for pricey biofuels such as the $26/gal algae fuel used to power the Navy’s recent exercises off the coast of Hawaii.

Speaking of the Navy, one way to track the progress of biofuels in the military is to keep an eye on the Navy’s Great Green Fleet.