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… and it’s a Go for Poet’s Cellulosic Project

Yesterday Poet Energy announced that it has a conditional DOE commitment for a $105 million loan guarantee for the cellulosic ethanol plant it plans to construct in Emmetsburg, Iowa. That’s two days after I posted (below) that the company was waiting on just such an outcome. Thanks for reading my blog, Steven Chu!

Poet has been working with DOE to secure more funding for this plant, which will be co-located with an existing corn ethanol plant owed by the company. In 2007 it received a grant from DOE that was supposed to help out through the first years of design and construction. It appears that the details for that plant haven’t changed – it will produce 25 million gal a year from corn cobs, leaves, husks and some stalks.  It is scheduled for completion in 2013.

Following these projects requires a fairly strong memory. When I first wrote about the project in 2009, it was to see what had happened since the 2007 grants were issued. Poet’s project was looking like a pretty sure bet. But clearly the loan guarantee was a necessity – Poet was originally going to have the plant running this year, but was waiting on more financing.

What’s interesting is what the company has been doing in the meantime. A few numbers give you a sense of the scale of a cellulosic ethanol plant. Poet built a 22-acre holding area – called an integrated stackyard – just to store the biomass delivered by farmers.  The collection has begun – 85 farmers brought 56,000 tons of biomass to the site last year. That’s less than one-fifth of what the plant will use up in one year.

Farmers will glean about 20-25% of the waste biomass from their fields to feed the mill. Each acre would provide 1 ton of biomass. To provide the yearly allotment for the plant would require 300,000 acres of harvested corn farmland.  Poet has been working with soil scientists to study the impact of the gleanings on soil quality – and so far have found it to be “consistent with good soil management.”

Intermediates Start-ups Star in Green Chemistry

Genomatica and BioAmber have been named as two winners of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards. This is a good week for the renewable intermediate chemicals industry. (You can see the full list of awardees here.)

Start-ups have been moving on to the winners podium beginning in 2009 with Virent, a catalyst-focused bio-fuels firm. Green chemicals and fuels firm LS9 popped onto the list in 2010. But having two tech start-ups in 2011 suggests that these new companies are taking on a larger share of the attention paid to green chemistry by policy makers.

Historically, winners of the Challenge Award have been larger concerns like Proctor & Gamble, Eastman Chemical, Dow Chemical, and Cargill. In contrast to those diversified companies, renewables start-ups must see their green chemistry succeed in the market or they will go out of business.

Knowing this, C&EN tracks with interest statements from start-ups about plans for scaled-up facilities, strong corporate partnerships, and estimates of cost-competitiveness with petroleum-derived chemicals. It can’t be all about the technology. Likewise, the discussion about the award to Genomatica on the EPA’s website encompasses the technology itself, the many environmental benefits, and the possible low-cost manufacture of the company’s bio-BDO. I’ll peel off just the green bennies from the discussion in this quote from the award:

“Initial lifecycle analyses show that Genomatica’s Bio-BDO will require about 60 percent less energy than acetylene-based BDO. Also, the biobased BDO pathway consumes carbon dioxide (CO2), resulting in a reduction of 70 percent in CO2 emissions. Fermentation requires no organic solvent, and the water used is recycled. Furthermore, the Bio-BDO fermentation process operates near ambient pressure and temperature, thus providing a safer working environment.”

For BioAmber, a company in the midst of scale-up plans for bio-based succinic acid, the award focuses on how the firm’s product can enter the marketplace. “BioAmber’s economic advantage has given a number of chemical markets the confidence both to use succinic acid as a substitute for existing petrochemicals and to develop new applications for succinic acid. Succinic acid can replace some chemicals directly, including adipic acid for polyurethane applications and highly corrosive acetate salts for deicing applications. BioAmber has also made it economically feasible to (1) transform biobased succinic acid into renewable 1,4 butanediol and other four-carbon chemicals; (2) produce succinate esters for use as nontoxic solvents and substitutes for phthalate-based plasticizers in PVC (poly(vinyl chloride)) and other polymers; and (3) produce biodegradable, renewable performance plastics.”

But In the Meantime, More CO2

While the  U.S. reviews its nuclear energy policy, countries that turn away from nuclear will have to deal with an uptick in CO2 emissions.

Japanese  Prime Minister Naoto Kan said earlier this month that the country will promote renewable energy rather than bring more nuclear reactors online. And Germany has placed a moratorium on nuclear power generation. Today’s Wall Street Journal has a useful summary of an International Energy Agency report that has quantified the increase in CO2 emissions that will result in Germany.

The story explains that “the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants will take out about 50 terawatt hours of low-carbon electricity a year” and says that the country will likely replace it with fossil fuel-derived power that will produce 25 million metric tons a year of CO2 emissions. Germany is subject to the EU’s emissions trading scheme, so it will have to offset those emissions. One way to do so, says the report, is for the country to substitute electricity from natural gas plants for those that use coal (or trade for permits with another country that does so).

But it’ll take a lot of swapping, the Journal finds. “An extra 90 terawatt hours of gas-fired power would be needed, replacing 40 terawatt hours of power from coal plants to offset the entire 25 million tons of CO2.”

Of course countries that want to replace nuclear power – either a little or a lot – will be looking to renewables. It’s not clear yet whether – and how much – governments will spend on incentives to increase the renewables infrastructure if nuclear is less a part of the portfolio. In January, for example, Germany started to cut back on feed-in tariffs for solar power.

New York Times: Solyndra to close plant

Solyndra's CIGS solar inside glass tubes cast shadows on a rooftop. Credit: Solyndra

The New York Times reports that tubular thin-film solar maker Solyndra is shutting its first fabrication plant, now that it’s second plant is on-line. Solyndra was a high flyer in the cleantech space, raising oodles of private funding and a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

The Times reports the closure of the older plant means the loss of 40 permanent and 150 temporary jobs. Additionally, it takes a big bite out of the company’s planned capacity, more than halving it from 610 MW to 285-300 MW by 2013.

In the summer, Solyndra revealed some details about its cost structure when it filed for a possible IPO (the firm decided not to go public). At the time, many analysts pointed out that the firm, which makes modules from glass tubes containing a layer of  thin-film CIGs cells, would have a hard time competing with low cost polysilicon-based solar modules from China.

UConn Researchers Find New Biodiesel Feedstock*

Hemp plant, courtesy of University of Connecticut

*not legal in U.S.

No, it’s not that kind of cannabis, it’s the other kind. You know, the kind you make rope from — Cannabis sativa

, known as industrial hemp.

Still grown in Europe and Asia for its fiber, industrial hemp could be a non-food feedstock for biodiesel production, says Richard Parnas, a professor of chemical, materials, and biomolecular engineering at the University of Connecticut who led a recent study.

The plant, which the UConn press folks point out “grows like a weed” outshines some other biodiesel inputs like soy, in that it can grow in infertile soils without inputs such as water and fertilizer. It is also not a food crop, which gets growers out of the food versus fuel dilemma.

According to Parnas, hemp growers around the world could harvest hemp seeds, which are usually discarded, and make enough high quality biodiesel to run their entire operation.

Parnas and colleagues in UConn’s chemistry and plant sciences departments has received a $1.8 million grant from the Department of Energy to build a feedstock-flexible biodiesel test production site to help commercialize patented technology developed at the University. No word yet on whether it will be located in Canada.

The Walmart-ization of Thin Film Solar?

Walmart is a name synonymous with affordable, or perhaps even cheap. The same cannot be said today for thin-film CIGS solar modules. CIGS stands for copper indium gallium selenide, the ingredients of what promises to be the only thin film technology that can compete with crystalline silicon on solar efficiency.

In an interesting development, Walmart said yesterday that it would work with SolarCity to put CIGS (and thin-film cadmium telluride) on roofs of dozens of stores in California and Arizona. That means a very mainstream company will be getting renewable energy from a non-mainstream source of solar power. The announcement is also an opportunity to check in to see how CIGS is doing in general.

Continue reading →

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]) Continue reading →

Solutions Sought For Obtaining Rare Earths

Cleantech Chemistry readers should check out my colleague Mitch Jacoby’s fascinating look at the market for rare earth metals and oxides. The rare earths, he points out, are not necessarily rare, but they are difficult to economically mine and process.

And yet they are extraordinarily important in the making of technologies in the computer, electronics, transportation, energy, and defense industries. Many cleantech advances like windmills, hybrid cars, and compact fluorescent lights depend on the rare earths.

Though not technically “rare,” the rare earths are getting harder to source in countries outside of China, as China has the lion’s share of deposits and has a lock the on economic production of pure materials. In addition, China has been lowering export quotas to keep more of the rare earths at home.

Recently, W.R. Grace said it would add a rare earth surcharge to fluid catalytic cracking catalysts and additives for the petroleum refining industry, which shows that rare earths are also used in some older industries.

Some Carbon Credit Projects Looking Shaky

Late last week, the UN body that issues carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol said that it would take a closer look at the worthiness of several projects that have been cashing in by destroying the potent greenhouse gas HFC 23.

Back in 2008 I wrote about a Chinese project that Arkema is part of that is similar to the projects under review. To my knowledge, however, the Arkema effort has not been singled out.

Basically, HFC 23 is a waste gas made during the production of a refrigerant, HCFC 22. With the help of investors and technology experts in the developing world, factories in places like China, India, and South Korea can destroy this waste gas in exchange for carbon credits, which are worth real money, and are traded on a European exchange.

While no one disagrees that without some sort of financial reward, the waste gas would be released into the atmosphere (because the developing nations do not regulate HFC23 emissions), critics allege that companies are manufacturing the HCFC 22 in the maximum quantities allowed – more than the marketplace needs – in order to earn the valuable carbon credits.

Continue reading →

Mushroom-as-polymer Powers Packaging Business

Ecovative Design's filimentous fungi packaging material

The era of renewable packaging is upon us, but a few details remain to be worked out. For example, Frito-Lay has been making noise (while irritating snackers) with its very loud – but compostable – plant-based polylactic acid bag for Sun Chips. Meanwhile, a quieter innovation is growing near the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York.

Ecovative Design grows its EcoCradle packaging material by adding filamentous fungi to buckwheat hulls inside a plastic form. The result is a composite material that the company markets as a competitor to expanded polystyrene. If you’re having trouble picturing this, take a moment to view the video linked at the end of this post.

Continue reading →