↓ Expand ↓

Cleantech Chemistry

» About This Blog

Archive → December, 2011

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.

Taking Odds on Possible BPA Ban by FDA

The Food and Drug Administration will have to decide by March 31 whether to ban the use of BPA in food and beverage packaging, due to a settlement between the FDA and the watchdog group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).


Which way will the FDA go? Will it ban BPA? Why or why not? How will the government weigh the science, the economics, industry pressure, non-profit pressure, the lack of well studied alternatives? Even if you are unsure, what odds are you giving the ban? We can assume that food and packaging industries are working on alternatives – and probably already have some, though they may be more expensive or less convenient than BPA.

C&EN’s coverage of the BPA controversy has been like the epoxy coating on a soup can – pretty darned comprehensive. I was going to post a list of stories, but the search page returned 100 of them. So for timeliness and brevity I direct you to Steve Ritter’s two part cover story. Go back and refresh your memory on Debating BPA’s Toxicity and Exposure Routes Confound BPA Debate.

Or, here’s the shortest possible summary of the status right now:

NRDC’s says that a ban is warranted because it is a “chemical that causes brain damage in developing babies, infants and young children.”

The American Chemistry Council, the main trade group for U.S. chemical manufacturers, recently agreed that the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups should be banned (though they did so after manufacturers had already stopped using it in those applications). ACC continues to say that BPA is  safe in food and beverage containers.

Add your insights to the comments section.

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.

GM, BMW, Toyota: More Work to do on Batteries

A few days after GM magnanimously offered to give loaner cars to any Volt driver who might experience post-crash burning battery problems, BMW and Toyota announced that they would work together to develop lithium ion batteries for hybrids and all-electric cars.

This is what BMW’s Klaus Draeger had to say about why it was neccesary for the two auto giants to join forces:

Battery technology is crucial for the future of hybrid technology  – but also for the future of individual mobility. Whoever has  the best batteries in terms of function, cost, and quality in their  vehicles will win more customers. We want to set benchmarks in the  future with both: hybrid and electric cars.

It clearly makes sense for experienced and innovative companies to  pool their expertise and power with such future-orientated  technologies. Toyota and the BMW Group are perfect partners: Toyota is  the most sustainable and experienced producer in the high-volume  segment. And Japan, of course, is the country that has made hybrid  cars well known around the globe.

BMW will help out Toyota by supplying it with what it calls clean diesel engines that the Japanese firm can use to improve the cars it would like to sell in Europe, where diesel engines are preferred. Draeger characterized the battery partnership as involving basic research. Generally speaking, things like range and charging times are the main targets for research but…

BMW's all electric i3 concept car. Credit: BMW

GM’s experience with the Volt suggests that safety issues are still in play. Lithium ion batteries can reach high (flammable) temperatures if the separator material between the anode and cathode is breached, causing a short in the battery. That is why the problem with the Volt seems to happen in cars after impact  (crashed on purpose for safety testing) – presumably something compromised the separator in the battery.

Lithium ion car batteries come in different designs. Interestingly, no similar problems have yet been reported for the all-electric Nissan Leaf. Still, they commonly feature many individual battery cells that are grouped together and surrounded by an active management system that is supposed to prevent runaway reactions that would lead to fire. I suspect that these systems are still a p0int of design weakness. Even if they work pretty well, it seems a more competitive design for a lithium ion car battery would be one that does not require an additional surrounding system to prevent disaster.  (Some would call this “inherently safer design”)

To read more about the safety testing that revealed the Volt’s possible fire issues, check out the coverage in the New York Times.