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An Early Harvest of Biofuels News

Here it is, the second day of September, and I’ve got a small pile of releases here about goings-on in the biofuels industry. Venture Capital maven and biofuels booster Vinod Khosla’s Khosla Ventures is backing the first three companies in this roundup.

Renewable Crude by KiOR, Credit: KiOR

First I need to go back in time a little bit (to Aug. 17) and commend Range Fuels on getting its commerical cellulosic biofuels plant up and running near Soperton, GA. Range Fuels uses thermochemical processes (heat, pressure and steam) to convert woody biomass to synthesis gas (often called syngas). The gas is passed over a catalyst to produce mixed alcohols. The current product of the Soperton plant is methanol, which will be used to produce biodiesel. The plant will also have ethanol output beginning in the third quarter, according to the company.

Its been a long road for Range. (Though the commerical-scale biofuel road will be even longer for most other firms, as commercial facilities are as rare as ice in the Sahara [or you can insert your own lame metaphor]) Originally, the firm was to be on stream in 2008. By April 2009 they’d pushed the date back to the second quarter of 2010. The plant was ‘sposed to be making ethanol at the get-go – 40 million gal per year at full steam, with the ability to scale up to 100 million gal. The company plans to begin its first expansion – to 60 million gal – next summer. The slow and small start of commerical-scale ethanol facilities has been a thorn in the side of the EPA’s efforts to set targets in the nation-wide renewable fuels standard.

And yesterday, Mascoma said it has acquired SunOpta Bioprocess Inc. (SBI) in a vertical-integration move for its cellulosic ethanol activities. SBI has expertise in fiber preparation and pretreatment of cellulose. Mascoma’s focus is on a yeast/bacteria process that breaks down digestible cellulose into sugar. (The consolidated process competes with the normal bio-routine which uses biologically derived enzymes to break down the cellulose and yeasts to ferment it.) SBI’s parent company SunOpta says it will get about $51 million worth of Mascoma shares in the transaction.

Speaking of cellulosic feedstocks, the state of Miss. added a $75 million loan sweetener to its development package for KiOR, a renewable oil start up. The firm says it will build 5 plants in all where woody biomass will be converted into a type of crude oil that can be further processed into various transportation fuels. The first three plants are expected to come online by 2015, and employ 1,000 Mississippians.

In a non-Khosla bit of news, waste-to-fuels firm Enerkem began construction of an $86 million plant that will consume non-biodegradable municiple waste from the city of Edmonton, Alberta. The facility will produce enough ethanol to fuel over 400,000 cars per year running on a 5% ethanol blend, according to the company. Its 25-year pact with the city will bring 100,000 tons of solid waste to the plant annually. The idea is that feeding the plant would be cheaper than landfilling the garbage.

Alberta’s Premier Ed Stelmach, who was present for the groundbreaking ceremony, reminded the audience of the province’s $15 per ton carbon levy that is paid by the largest CO2 emitters. The money goes in to a fund to support R&D research for renewable energy. Alberta, as you’ll recall, is the home of oil sands, natural gas, and coal. Producing energy is a way of life up there.

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