Doubts About Meeting Cellulosic Ethanol Goals

Experts are expressing doubts the U.S. will meet targets for cellulosic ethanol production required under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, but the need remains to make it happen as soon as possible.

The legislation calls for the production of 4.3 billion gallons by 2015, but during a House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing this week, Dr. Howard Gruenspecht with the Energy Information Administration said, “It seems unlikely to us that you would get to those kind of levels by 2015, 2016.”

Gruenspecht says there are cellulosic ethanol plants opening up. “They will learn things from the initial plants and it will take some time for the standard to be developed,” he said. “It’s more complex than a corn ethanol plant.” He also noted that the industry needs additional funding for continued development.

Cellulosic ethanol company representatives were in Washington DC this week for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)‘s annual fly-in and one of their top issues in meeting with members of Congress and the administration was getting additional federal investment for advance biofuels. However, during a telephone press conference on Tuesday, BIO executive vice president Brent Erickson also admitted that the ambitious goals of the EISA for cellulosic ethanol will probably not be reached. “I think given the current economic turndown, the progress toward commercialization has slowed, and it is probably unlikely,” said Erickson in response to a reporter’s direct question as to whether the 2010 target for 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol will be met.

Still, the companies who are trying to make it happen remain optimistic about the future. “Given the long-term fundamentals for liquid fuels, the need is there,” said John Howe with Verenium. “This is not a discretionary activity. We have no choice but to pursue biofuels from cellulosics. We just need to do it the right way.”

Representatives from eight different advanced biofuels companies – Verenium, Aurora Biofuels, Abengoa Bioenergy, Gevo, DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol, Amyris, Mendel Biotechnology, Coskata, and Novozymes – all participated in this week’s fly-in and press conference.

6 thoughts on “Doubts About Meeting Cellulosic Ethanol Goals

  1. A new electrolytic membrane process designed by Electrosep Inc in Corvallis, Oregon (USA) can probably ACCELERATE the development and production of cellulosic bioethanol and biobutanol in the United States by 3 or 4 years. The new EL MEMBRANE PROCESS uses a DuPont Nafion® perfluorosulfonic membrane to recover the alkaline catalyst that is used in the digesters in cellulosic biofuels production during the pretreatment stage. The pretreatment stage is where the lignin and the hemicellulose components of the cellulosic biomass are separated from the cellulose prior to saccharification or sugar production. The sugars are normally produced from the cellulose and the hemicellulose via enzymatic hydrolysis. The sugars are then sent to fermentation and distillation processes that render the final biofuel product at the other end of the biorefinery. The company has also designed an EL MILD PRETREATMENT PROCESS that reduces the production of acetic acid, hydroxy-methoxy-furfural, and other inhibitors that hinder the reactions in the saccharification and fermentation stages downstream. Preliminary tests show that the new EL process is capable of breaking the recalcitrant structure of the fibers even when temperatures and pressure conditions are kept low. The preliminary data shows production of about 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of cellulosic biomass with an estimated production cost of about $ 1.10 per gallon after taking into account the credit value from coproducts such as the lignin and hydrogen generated during the operation. The new EL process can be used with raw materials such as such as corn stover, softwood, hardwood, wheat straw, sugarcane bagasse, and others. The company is presently performing pilot tests at a number of sites to gather data and to finalize the design and development of a sustainable and economically viable process to be used at biorefineries. Any comments or questions regarding the new EL process can be sent to admin@electrosepinc.com and it is our hope that we all try to cooperate in bringing cellulosic biofuels into production as soon as possible in order to reap the benefits of becoming less dependent on foreign oil.

  2. Of course the mandates aren’t being met. This is a no-brainer. Though low demand for ethanol may be a factor at present, Congress must fix the flawed supply-side restrictions for woody biomass in the Renewable Fuels Standard’s “Renewable Biomass” definion.

  3. Alkaline catalysts are not enough to pretreatment cellulosic biomass alone. Likewise, alkaline catalysts such as ammonia leave behind cleaved lignin material on the microfibril that make fermentation rates decrease. The waste water used in washing biomass as well as the metals needed for biorefinery construction and the loss of other co-products due to chemical catalysts makes this pretty unlikely. Likewise, there is no way results with stover and hardwoods would yield the same results with softwoods. The alcohol groups with the lignin structure are far different. Very likely, most of the industry will move to SEA processing because that’s where the profits are.

    In terms of the supply-side of woody biomass, over 80% of all timber is one private lands and since most federal forests harbor conifers (bad for fermentation), the best supply-side of woody biomass lies within private holdings.

  4. Until we get this technology advanced and in place, we need to use cellulose for burning in plasma torch furnaces, and in pellet stoves etc. We have a great need for heating. Electricity can be produced also, as needed. Natural gas and coal can also be co-fired with cellulosic waste. Fatty algae may be a cheaper way to make liquid fuel. There are many competing biomass sources, and technologies. We need to use our trash and methane sources also.

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