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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.


Giant Gobs of Algae Coming From Solazyme

Starting soon, oil-producing algae will be replicating at B-horror-movie quantities. Imagine a lab coat-wearing scientist running into the street shouting “300,000 metric tons!” while scores of screaming people run by, pursued by a giant wave of green slime.

But be not worried, the algae in question will be safely confined to fermentation tanks thanks their overlords at Solazyme. And many of those tanks will be in Brazil (so the people would be screaming in Portuguese, I guess.)

Earlier this week, Solazyme says that it has agreed with its sugar-producing partner Bunge to increase the production capacity for algal oils from an original 100,000 metric ton amount to 300,000 metric tons. It seems from the press release that Bunge will have a hand in marketing the tailored oils to the edible oil market in Brazil.

If you happen to live in the U.S. and have a craving for oil derived from algae, you’ll be pleased to learn that another large blob will be coming to Clinton, Iowa, starting in early 2014. Solazyme and its little green workers plan to ooze into the idle Archer Daniels Midland plant formerly occupied by Metabolix’s bioplastics operation. The plant will start out making 20,000 metric tons, but aims to grow to 100,000 metric tons.


Algae Ponds: the lovers and the haters

This week’s issue of C&EN includes some news from algae-based biofuels firm Sapphire Energy. The company is reporting its first harvests of algae biomass from a large, outdoor algae farm in New Mexico.

Sapphire’s outdoor raceway ponds in New Mexico. Source: Sapphire Energy

Sapphire has grown and gathered 21 million gallons of algae biomass totaling 81 tons. Eventually, the plan is to make a kind of crude oil from the algae. They grow the stuff in very large outdoor ponds. According to the press release, “the cultivation area consists of some of the largest algae ponds ever built with groupings of 1.1 acre and 2.2 acre ponds which are 1/8 of a mile long.”

You’d think that the promoters of algae for biofuels would be clinking glasses filled with spirulina-enhanced juice at the news. But you’d be wrong.

In fact, a trade group of algae firms calling itself the National Algae Association says the kind of ponds used by Sapphire – known as raceway ponds (you can see why looking at this image) – will not scale up commercially. Instead the NAA supports the development of photobioreactors (PBRs for short). Similarly, algae researcher Jonathan Trent, writing in a New Scientist magazine piece that also appears in Slate is arguing in favor of photobioreactors. Specifically, Trent says PBRs should be deployed offshore. I’ll quote from his article where he summarizes the raceway/PBR tradeoffs:

There remains the question of how and where to grow the algae. A few species are cultivated commercially on a small scale, in shallow channels called raceways or in enclosures called photobioreactors (PBRs). Raceways are relatively inexpensive, but need flat land, have lower yields than PBRs and problems with contamination and water loss from evaporation. PBRs have no problems with contamination or evaporation, but algae need light, and where there is light, there is heat: A sealed PBR will cook, rather than grow, algae. And mixing, circulating, and cleaning problems send costs sky high.

Trent doesn’t mention what industry analysts complain about the most. When it comes to algae, though PBRs might be the best bet, they require too much capital expenditure for the equipment.

Meanwhile, Solazyme, which started life as an algal fuels firm but now is manufacturing oils for use in skin cream and other high value applications, grows its algae in a third way – its algae live in bioreactors, but in the dark. They eat sugar and make oil. Is there a best way to commercialize algae for fuels and chemicals? Is there any way? It seems that it is still too early to tell.

Biofuels from Seaweed

The concept of making biofuels from seaweed has been floating around as an idea for a while now, but this week there were a few real news items about it. Well, I consider it real news when it makes the cover of Science


Seaweed in your tank? Credit:
Melody Bomgardner

Following the theme that any ready source of carbon, not already used for something, is a prime target for biofuel prospectors, scientists are working to create microorganisms that can break down seaweeed alginates into sugar, and then make ethanol from it.

The microbe is our friend E. coli

, and researchers at Bio Architecture Lab, a biofuel and renewable chemicals company in Berkeley, Calif. have added genes that allow E. coli to first break down alginates into smaller bits, digest those more sugar-like bits, and then spit out ethanol.  Unlike in the processes usually used for cellulosic ethanol, the Science article writers claim their bacteria can chomp seaweed without chemical or heat pre-treatment.

If seaweed as cover model isn’t convincing, a second seaweeed-flavored item announced this week is a new collaboration between enzyme maker Novozymes and an Indian seaweed company called Sea6 Energy. “The research alliance will use enzymes to convert seaweed-based carbohydrates to sugar, which can then be fermented to produce ethanol for fuel, fine chemicals, proteins for food, and fertilizers for plants,” says the press release. (I read that to mean the non-sugar portion would be made into food and fertilizer – if sugar can be made into protein I’m going to have to change my diet).

Here’s the benefits that the seaweed pushers are claiming: seaweed has a high sugar content (presumably after those enzymes get to working), they don’t require irrigation (ha! no kidding) or fertilizer, and of course, duh, they don’t take up cropland. Seaweed – also called macroalgae by some – can be raised and harvested without those fancy bioreactors used by algae-to-fuel operators.

Seaweed can, however, be a purpose-grown crop. In fact, Sea6 already has a supply chain set up for that, as do firms like the chemical company FMC that harvest and process seaweed for the food markets. Alginate and carrageenen are already big business helping to make your low-fat Ranch dressing taste creamy (see Call in the Food Fixers for more on seaweed in your food).

But what works for the high-margin food additives business may not be profitable for the lower-margin fuel industry. Still, it’s an idea that’s spreading.

Advanced Biofuels: pipedream or solid investment?

I read with much amusement this week two dueling editorials about advanced biofuels; one from the Wall Street Journal and the other - a reaction piece – from Biofuels Digest. One was pr0 and one against, I’ll let you strain your brain figuring out which was which.

Editorial boards have plenty of information to pick from to illustrate a variety of contentions – from advanced biofuels are a “march of folly” paid for with “an invisible tax paid at the gas pump” to biofuel as wise investment not just for government, but for companies like Shell and BP. Evidence for the former view: Range Fuels, which absorbed both grants and loans before succombing to the perils of scale-up engineering last week. Evidence for the latter would include Mascoma‘s joint venture with Valero Energy to build a 20 million gal per year cellulosic ethanol plant in Michigan. Valero will foot a good portion of the estimated $232 million bill to construct the facility.

The crux of the problem, as Cleantech Chemistry and many others have observed (including the National Academies) is that the type of advanced biofuels (i.e. fuel not made from food-like feedstocks such as corn sugar) called cellulosic ethanol has not achieved scale to date. (There are other, more lifecycle concerns, as well). Biofuel Digest editors point out that the larger proportion of advanced biofuels scaling up now are of a different sort- like biodiesel for example. In short, they point out there are multiple roads to get to the same place.

The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, does not politicize its arguments – it rightly notes that Range Fuel’s support came from programs created by the Bush administration. Meanwhile, Biofuels Digest points out that the CapEx on the Mascoma plant pencils out to $11 per gal of ethanol for the first phase. The plant may produce up to 80 million gal per year, however, and all the usual promises of cheaper production through scale are supposed to apply.

US Cleantech firms in white-knuckle mode

There has been one positive piece of news this week for the cleantech sector – Solazyme is part of a $12 million grant to supply the U.S. Navy with 450,000 gal of biofuel. Solazyme’s algal oil will be used along with used cooking grease to power a fuel plant run by Dynamic Fuels, a joint venture between Tyson Foods and Syntroleum. They’ll be making both renewable jet fuel and marine fuel. Press releases about the deal emphasize that it is the single largest biofuel purchase in government history.

Thank goodness cleantech has the government as a customer. Private industry customers haven’t panned out so well lately for battery firms like A123 Systems and Ener1, as reported this week in the Wall Street Journal. Major investments in battery manufacturing – supported in large part from Recovery Act funds – have been met with disappointing demand from electric-car makers. A123 Systems has scaled back its scale-up plans because its big customer, Fisker Automotive, has slowed its own plants due to technical problems. Meanwhile Ener1′s customer Think Global has filed for bankruptcy protection.

When C&EN wrote about the battery scale-up, a major concern at the time was that there would be more battery capacity than cars to put them in, and that seems to be the case for now.

Back to biotech, according to a Reuters report from Pike Research analyst Mackinnon Lawrence, the biofuels industry is very concerned that budget cutting in Congress will pull the rug out from programs that are helping companies bootstrap their way to cost parity with petroleum. Part of the problem is that industry’s promises to have commercial-scale production on line by this year  have not panned out. Cellulosic ethanol is the biggest disappointment, and so now attention is likely to switch to drop-in biofuels like renewable gasoline and renewable diesel. Or, even better, jet fuel.

Cleantech Stocks Get Thumbs Up

Given the stock turmoil today and yesterday, recent earnings reports from IPO’d cleantech firms may be flying under the radar for most people. And to call them “earnings” reports is a bit generous, too; they are really “losses” reports, but that is to be expected for early-stage technology firms.

Solazyme's Algenist skin products - Analysts are buying it, and other cleantech stories

Still, its worth noting what analysts are saying about companies like Amyris, Gevo, KiOR, and Solazyme and what the firms reported for the second quarter. While I was mulling a post on just this subject, Jim Lane, over at Biofuels Digest got his post up yesterday covering the first three companies. So I’m giving a hat tip to him and suggesting that you go over there and read his summary.

But if the heat and the stock swings have you too worn out to do that, the short take is that though Amyris and Gevo posted results that were not as strong as expected, analysts following the firms are still enthusiastic about the stocks. KiOR will release it’s second quarter results next Thursday. The important pieces that analysts are looking for is whether the companies have a realistic plan for increasing scale (whether they use their own, or other company’s capital to do so). They also want to get a sense of where revenues will come from in the short term, for example, from product sales or off-take agreements from reliable customers.

Yesterday, Solazyme reported revenues of $7.4 million, which beat the expectations of analyst Laurence Alexander of Jefferies & Co. He had predicted $6.0 million. Most of the revenues came from R&D funding but the company has begun generating sales of its skin care line, called Algenist, made from an algae-derived tailored oil. Alexander says that the Algenist launch will turn out to be larger than expected, meaning more revenues, and thus, less operating losses, into the future.  In addition, he notes that the company will deliver 283,000 liters of fuel to the U.S. Navy and the contract calls for up to 550,000 liters. He’s put a Buy rating on the stock.

Cleantech Chemistry recently posted an interview with Cameron Byers, Solazyme’s senior vice president & general manager of fuels and chemicals about how the company plans to make money.

Algae and Water Energy

Could the energy cost of moving water sink the burgeoning algae industry?

C&EN recently checked in with a number of leading algae-growing firms to learn more about their current plans for profiting from the prolific green slime. Though eventually many hope to make money in the large market for biofuels, most firms say that other products like chemicals and high-protein fish food will go first.

Water World. Cellana's marine algae ponds are in Hawaii. Credit: Cellana

Building large-scale algae-growing systems is still too expensive to make fuels profitable. The key to bringing down costs is in the engineering of the infrastructure. A recent study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at the energy costs of moving water into and around algae-growing systems (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (13), pp 5861–5868).Researchers Cynthia Murphy and David Allen presented a startling conclusion:

Energy output in the form of algal biodiesel and the total energy content of algal biomass are compared to energy inputs required for water management. The analysis indicates that, for current technologies, energy required for water management alone is approximately seven times greater than energy output in the form of biodiesel and more than double that contained within the entire algal biomass.

Seven times greater? Ouch. Like any model, this one began with a host of assumptions. Importantly, the model did not assume that algae farmers would be using fresh water, but did assume algae would be grown in open ponds (except for the inoculation vessels). In fact, the main problem is not the water itself, but the need to move it around from place to place.

First water from various sources (saline, fresh, reclaimed from the facility) needs to be obtained and pumped into the inoculation area and the algae pond. More water would be added to compensate for algae removed, evaporation and other “leaks” from the system. Evaporation would concentrate salts in the pond, and may require compensating amounts of fresh water for “blow down.” Cleaning after each growing season would require removing the water and replacing it.

In addition, energy would be required to remove water from the harvested algae, and then to return that reclaimed water to the system. The researchers also included in the model the embodied energy of the plastics used to contain the algae in ponds (and the lifespan of the plastics).

There is no way, of course, to compare the assumptions in the model to any particular firm’s proprietary growing system. But I did pose the question of water energy to the companies I spoke with that use open ponds.

Cellana’s CEO Martin Sabarsky said, “Water is a big issue. It’s an issue for biofuels generally. You have to deal with it on the backend too. We’ve developed and are continuing to optimize cost effective technology to handle water issues at the back end including dewatering. “

And Sapphire President Cynthia Warner commented, “It is true that to optimize the process and get costs down, you have to minimize water movement, maximize efficiency. Using sophisticated equipment is key.”