Synterra Energy Takes Commericalization Step Forward

Synterra Energy has taken a step forward in bringing advanced biofuels to commercial scale with the merger of Pacific Renewable Fuels and Chemicals and Red Lion Bio-Energy. Synterra will now own key intellectual property and assets designed for waste biomass conversion. This announcement signals the company’s move to commercial scale production of renewable fuels, chemicals and power from waste biomass from in integrated biorefinery.

“The Red Lion thermochemical conversion system and the Pacific Renewable Fuels and Chemicals catalytic synthesis process are industry leading technologies in their own right,” said Robert Schuetzle, CEO of Synterra Energy, Inc. “The integration of our two technologies creates a seamless proprietary biomass conversion system under a single commercial provider. The resultant innovative process integration is a design that provides process efficiencies, lowers unit capital cost, reduces the risk of securing adequate feedstock supplies, and mitigates technology risk of mixing and matching multiple platforms from separate process vendors.”

Synterra was awarded a $25 million DOE grant back in 2009 to demonstrate the commercial readiness of its integrated biorefinery technologies (IBR). Shortly thereafter, the 30-barrel per day demonstration project was initiated as the third scale up of its technologies. The company says it is able to produce biofuels, bioenergy and biochemicals with less impact on the environment and higher energy efficiencies as compared to other technologies. For example, the company says its synthetic diesel is a high-quality, zero-sulfur drop-in renewable fuel that has 89 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum derived diesel fuel.

“Synterra Energy and its legacy organizations, Pacific Renewable Fuels and Chemicals and Red Lion Bio-Energy, have recruited top technical and business veterans from the alternative energy, petrochemical, multi modal transportation and logistics, catalyst, and environmental industries with extensive experience in research, development, demonstration and commercialization of new technologies,” added Alex Johnson, the company’s Chairman. “With this talented team of professionals, Synterra’s integrated approach to process design and experience in modularization of distributed plants, we have a compelling formula for further commercial success.”

SDSU Studies Production of Biochar, Bio-Oil from Biomass

South Dakota State University (SDSU) is researching the future, one is which rural landscapes would no longer be dotted with grain elevators but rather with pyrolysis plants that would convert energy crops to fuel or “bio-oil”. This bio-oil would be passed along to other refiniries to produce products such as drop-in fuels or biochemicals while the plants would recycle the syngas produced during the process into an emerging product – biochar. Biochar can be integrated into the soil to help rebuild soil nutrition and sequester carbon.

The USDA has given SDSU a $1 million grant, $200,000 for the next five years, to help scientists design a feedstock production system for optimum energy production of bio-oil while also exploring the possible benefits of biochar.

“We’re looking at this from a whole system approach, and we’re looking at various components in this whole system,” said SDSU professor Tom Schumacher, the project director “Historically, the distributive nature of crop production gave rise to a network of grain elevators to separate and coordinate the flow of grain to the processing industry. A network of rail lines added new infrastructure to improve efficiency. For lignocellulosic feedstocks, a corollary to the grain elevator would be a collection point that would be within 10 to 30 miles of production fields.”

The purpose of the collection points is to receive, sort, pre-process or process feedstocks using pyrolysis. Pyrolysis uses high temperatures in the absence of oxygen to break down organic materials. This technology produces both a bio-oil as well as syngas that can be used to fuel the plant, and biochar. The biochar would be tested in fields around the plant to see how it performs in repairing soil health and as a carbon capture technology.

More specifically, the SDSU study will use a technique called microwave pyrolysis that heats the feedstock by exciting the individual molecules, making it very accurate and easy to control. They will then study how the biochar performs when varying the pyrolysis processing parameters. The feedstocks that will be tested include corn stover, switchgrass and wood biomass.

“There’s a lot that’s unknown about specific types of biochar,” said Schumacher. “There is no single characteristic that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of biochars. Biochar’s pH and other characteristics can vary widely depending on what feedstock and process was used to produce it. That could make biochar beneficial to the environment, neutral, or possibly even harmful, depending on its characteristics.”

The Real Impact of U.S. Biofuels on ILUC

A new study has looked at the “real” impacts of U.S. biofuels production both domestically and internationally and has concluded it is “negligible or nonexistent.” The research was coauthored by Dr. Seungdo Kim and Dr. Bruce E. Dale and was published in the July issue of Biomass and Bioenergy Journal under the title, “Indirect land use change for biofuels: Testing predictions and improving analytical methodologies.”

“It is the first evidence-based evaluation of ILUC utilizing actual historic data, employing a ‘bottom-up’, data-driven, statistical approach based on individual world regions’ land use patterns and commodity grain imports,” stated Dr. Roger Conway, senior partner at Rosslyn Advisors LLC and former director of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Energy Policy and New Uses.

The authors say that very few previous studies have attempted to find empirical evidence for or against indirect land use change from historical data, rather most studies rely on global economic simulations.

Dale said, “Unlike most other ILUC work this study relied on very few assumptions and did not attempt to quantify nor to predict ILUC effects. We searched for direct historical evidence for ILUC in relevant world areas rather than attempting to project or predict what course ILUC might take. Projecting forward can force scientists to make untestable assumptions.”

This study was unique in that is used data from 1990, when the U.S. biofuels industry was very small, as its baseline. It then measured crop changes against that as U.S. ethanol production has significantly grown during the past decade. Continue reading

Paul Beckwith Takes the Reigns at Butamax

Butamax announced today the changing of the guards with Paul Beckwith taking over the reigns as CEO. Beckwith will be leading the company into its next phase of commercial development in biobutanol. He succeeds Tim Potter, who served as CEO for Butamax during the company’s start-up phase that began in 2009. Butmax is a partnership between DuPont and BP and is international in scope.

During the past few months, Butamax says it has progressed in its commercialization and is preparing to launch biobutanol as a renewable transportation fuel. With Beckwith’s expertise in bringing new products to market, he was chosen to lead the team. He has 27 years of experience in the fuel sector and led the market introduction of multiple major new fuels products in the United States and Europe, together with development of BP’s long-term global fuels product strategy. Prior to this promotion, Beckwith was a member of the Butamax leadership team and in this role led development of the company’s strategy.

“I want to thank Tim for his many contributions over the last two years in establishing Butamax as a leader in biofuels and wish him every happiness,” said Butamax Board Chairman Jan Koninckx. “Tim’s leadership during the formation and early development of the company has resulted in the generation of great passion and enthusiasm for biobutanol and Butamax. He has positioned the company for the next stage in the company’s commercialization and hands over to Paul Beckwith, who, with unrivalled experience of bringing new fuels products to market, is ideally suited to lead Butamax as we enter the commercial launch phase.”

Elsevier Biofuel Launched to Guide Innovation

A new tool is now available for biofuel managers and research development professionals to help solve innovation challenges. Elsevier Biofuels is an unique online search and discovery tool that gives companies access to the highest level of scientific, industrial and commercial information that can be utilized by companies to assist them in solving problems or make key decisions.

“BioEnergy RD&D (Research, Development and Demonstration) is a complex interdisciplinary challenge,” said Marcus Gay, biofuels information consultant, Elsevier Biofuels. “As a former BioEnergy R&D manager I am acutely aware of the technical, economic and commercial challenges faced by professionals in the industry. Elsevier’s Biofuel Information Discovery Tool pulls together scientific and commercial information enabling researchers to have this critical binocular vision during every stage of the development process.”

Using keywords, users can drill down to needed data and information. They can also tap into the Elsevier Biofuel Tree Thesaurus where more than 900 journals, 800 books, and 5.8 million patent documents are available. The platform also allows users to compare high-quality data specific to the biofuels industry including: solve problems with existing scientific knowledge; research new, promising advanced technologies; compare applicable approved pathways and methodologies; and minimize waste in resources.

“Having tested the beta version of Elsevier Biofuels discovery tool thoroughly, it became immediately apparent how limiting the information returned from internet only search is, by comparison,” said Dr. Skye Thomas-Hall, Senior Scientist, Cellana LLC. “The combination of high quality journal, book and patent information in one location, is a huge advantage that increased my efficiency by at least 15-20%.”

Buses in São Paulo to Use Sugarcane Diesel

Sugarcane is not just for ethanol. Amryis Brasil S.A., the Brazilian arm of Amyris, has announced that it will be supplying 160 city buses in São Paulo with its Diesel de Cana, or renewable diesel produced from sugarcane. Beginning this August and expiring at the end of 2012, buses operated by the Viação Santa Brígida will run on a blend of 10 percent Diesel de Cana, with the remaining fuel blend comprised of biodiesel and petroleum diesel supplied by Petrobrás Distribuidora.

“Following the successful launch of our first industrial scale production facility and the positive results of the fleet testing in Brazil, we are thrilled to be a commercial supplier of renewable fuel for buses in Brazil’s largest city. Over the next year, as we expand our fuel supply agreements with bus fleets in São Paulo, we expect to achieve $10-12 million in annual diesel sales,” said John Melo, CEO of Amyris.

São Paulo currently has more than 15,000 buses that burn nearly 450 million liters of diesel per year. The move to Diesel de Cana signals the city’s commitment to reducing its fossil fuel use by 10 percent each year through 2018.

Melo continued, “Brazil’s growing demand for low-sulfur diesel creates a significant opportunity to highlight the superior performance and benefits of our renewable diesel while allowing the country to reduce diesel fuel imports, which comprised nearly 20 percent of Brazil’s diesel needs in 2010.”

The fuel has been tested by SPTrans, Mercedes-Benz, Petrobrás Distribuidora, and Viação Santa Brígida and the results show that when a 10 percent blend of Diesel de Cana is added to a B5 S50 blend, the fuel can lower smoke up to an additional 40 percent. Commercial vehicle manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz have issued warranties for the B10 Diesel de Cana blend.

Lufthansa to Begin Commerical BioJet Fuel Flights

On Friday, July 15th, Lufthansa flew using a biofuel blend produced by Neste Oil. The NExBTL renewable aviation fuel was such a resounding success that now Airbus A321 Lufthansa-operated flights flying between Hamburg and Frankfurt will use this fuel, in both directions four times a day. One engine will run on a 50-50 NExBTL/fossil fuel blend while the other engine will be powered with fossil fuels only. This announcement makes Lufthansa the first airline in the world to incorporate biojet fuel into its operations for commercial flights.

“We are naturally very proud to be global pioneers with Neste Oil in using renewable fuel on regularly scheduled flights,” said Christoph Franz, the Chairman of the Executive Board and CEO of the Lufthansa Group.

These commercial biofuel flights are now able to take place because just last month ASTM International approved the use of renewable aviation fuel.

“Lufthansa has been our customer for a long time, and we are now very pleased to be leading together the adoption of renewable fuels in aviation,” added Neste Oil’s President & CEO, Matti Lievonen. “Neste Oil’s NExBTL technology is very well-suited to producing aviation fuel. All our NExBTL plants are capable of yielding fuel that meets the aviation industry’s toughest quality standards. This is an area in which Neste Oil will look for growth in the future.”

Neste Oil’s biojet fuel is made from a blend of vegetable oils and waste fats including camelina, jatropha and waste animal fats. The fuel is compatible in all current aircraft engines with no engine modifications required.

Eco-Car Fueled by Cellulosic Ethanol Sets Record

Cellulosic ethanol has achieved a victory. The Dynamo, a concept car created by a student team called the Roadrunners, and fueled by ethanol made from straw, won the Urban Concepts class of the 2011 Shell eco-marathon in Europe. In tandem to the win, the car set a new miles per gallon record of 1,197 (509 km/1) when adjusted for energy equivalence with gasoline. The cellulosic ethanol was provide by Inbicon and was produced at their the Inbicon Biomass Refinery in Kalundborg, Denmark.

“The Roadrunners team from the Technical University of Denmark designed, built, tuned, tested, and drove the Dynamo to victory over all 35 European teams competing. And they also beat North America and Asia’s winning mileage,” said Christian Morgen, Inbicon manager of international marketing. “Since they use only a liter at a time, I don’t believe there’s any danger of depriving Danish retail customers of our eco-friendly fuel.”

The winning team was overseen by Jesper Schramm, a DTU associate professor. Six out of the last seven years his team has taken the trophy for energy efficiency in one of two main categories. A car is designated as an urban concept car, if with minor modifications, it could actually operate on city streets. This year is team used a 50cc 4-stroke Yamaha moped engine because the higher compression rate is able to take advantage of the higher octane level of ethanol fuel. To hone-in on an aerodynamic car, the team used wind-tunnel testing. Amazingly, the Dynamo ran 28% farther than its closest competitor.

More than 3,000 students and 187 teams from 27 countries took part in the eco-marathon held at the EuroSpeedway in Lausitz, Germany. Professor Schramm hopes that the experience and knowledge that has come from this project will launch their careers in a multitude of industries including automotive design and engineering.

Inbicon has coined its fuel “The New Ethanol” and has been producing it for use since 2009. Using Kalundborg as a guide, Inbicon plans on rolling out its biomass-based cellulosic ethanol worldwide.

Photos: Dynamo races to eco-victory at German speedway & Winning Roadrunners team, Technical Institute of Denmark. *Photo Credits Kasper Duncan Gram

Diversifying The Ethanol Industry With Biodiesel

An ethanol plant that stops looking for ways to diversify its business and improve its profits is an ethanol plant that will drown faster in bad weather. A new option for the ethanol industry to diversify is to add a biodiesel plant to the end of its corn oil extraction technology. This idea lends itself one step closer to a true biorefinery.

So what is the value proposition of doing this? Profits, as Mark Fashian, president of Ethanol Analytical Solutions (EAS) and Biodiesel Analytical Solutions (BAS) explained to me during a Skype interview following the Fuel Ethanol Workshop recently held in Indianapolis, Indiana. For example, Fashian said a 100 million gallon per year ethanol plant will sell 100 million RINS. By adding a 3 million gallon biodiesel plant you’ll make your plant more valuable because each of these gallons is worth 1.5 RINS, or an additional 4.5 million in total.

With demand for biodiesel increasing and the need for more gallons (the biodiesel industry is still ramping up after the one year loss of the $1 per gallon tax credit in 2009), Fashian said this is the perfect storm for the ethanol industry.

You can listen to my full interview with Mark Fashian here: Diversifying the Ethanol Industry with Biodiesel

He also noted that one drawback to using corn oil for biodiesel is that it has a high acidic content, around 27.5 percent, and because of this it is hard to convert. Most plants use a two-step process to achieve this.

“It’s a lot of redo a batch, do a batch again because we didn’t get it just right, and that’s not what the ethanol industry is looking for,” said Fashian. “They’re looking for the silver bullet where you can take that corn oil right from the extractor and put it right in to another process to make biodiesel without having to mess with a second or third run to get the biodiesel to make ASTM grade. And that’s exactly what the McGyan process does. It’s patented for the corn oil process and with their everlasting catalyst you just pump the sample in with either ethanol or methanol and out the other end comes beautiful biodiesel.”

If a plant doesn’t have extraction technology, when all expenses are factored in, the return on investment (ROI) is less than one year, and this includes the lab. I should note that Fashian is also a director of Mcgyan and both EAS/BAS represent the technology. So their team would not only work with the ethanol plant on the biodiesel installation, but also help them update the lab for all the extra tests required for biodiesel and the proper equipment to achieve specs. For those plants who already have extraction technology, the ROI is less than 2 years.

It takes between 12-18 months to get the Mcgyan technology up and running and its already designed to be a perfect fit for an ethanol plant. Oh, and if you decide to sell your corn oil on the market rather than produce biodiesel, you can still produce biodiesel with other feedstocks.

DFCast: Biofuels Take Flight

In the past few months, biofuels have taken to the skies with a multitude of successful flights conducted by both the military and the commercial airline industry. This news has been even more welcome with the achievements taking place during the aftermath of the Rand report predicting that aviation biofuels would not play a role in the next few decades. But where biofuels really took flight was during the Paris airshow, which kicked off with the transatlantic flight from North America to Paris using a 50/50 biofuel blend derived from camelina.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack attended the Paris Air Show and told the audience that “extraordinary progress has been made in the last 12 months.” He continued by saying, “I think we’re nearing a tipping point” in terms of building momentum toward use of biofuel on commercial flights. I think [biofuel powering airline flights is] not long-term. In the short term you’ll see the benefits.”

To further spur the development of biojet fuels, the European Commission launched the Biofuels Flightpath, a roadmap to achieve the goal of using 2 million tonnes of aviation biofuels per year by 2020. Prior to this announcement, back in the U.S., Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest released a comprehensive report to speed up the commercialization and use of aviation biofuels in the Northwest. In addition, ASTM officially approved renewable jet fuel standards.

The region has been a leader in the U.S. in the movement to more sustainable airport practices as well as in the movement to adopt renewable fuels. Lawrence J. Krauter, CEO of the Spokane International Airport, one of dozens of entities participating in the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest initiative, noted, “The course is clear that aviation biofuels are key to the future of sustainable air travel. We can no longer base our future on imported petroleum, especially if the United States wants to remain an aviation leader. The SAFN study proves domestic biofuels are feasible and offers an economic opportunity for us to remain competitive as an industry and move toward a sustainable, domestic fuel supply.”

Learn more about the flight of biofuels here: Domestic Fuel Cast

You can also subscribe to the DomesticFuel Cast here.

REG Files for IPO

The largest biodiesel company in the U.S., Renewable Energy Group, has filed its registration statement for an initial public offering. The number of shares to be offered and the price range for the offering have not yet been determined. UBS Securities LLC and Piper Jaffray & Co will be acting as joint book-running managers for the IPO. In addition, Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Incorporated and Canaccord Genuity, Inc. will be acting as co-managers.

Although not yet effective, a registration statement relating to these securities has been filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Prior to the time the registration statement becomes effective, these securities may not be sold, nor may offers to buy be accepted. REG says the offering is only being made by means of a prospectus.

A copy of the prospectus relating to these securities may be obtained, when available, from: UBS Securities LLC, Attention: Prospectus Department, 299 Park Ave, New York, NY 10171, (888) 827-7275 or by contacting Piper Jaffray & Co., Attention: Prospectus Department, 800, Nicollet Mall, Suite 800, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402, (800) 747-3924 or via email at prospectus@pjc.com.

Louisiana Moves Forward On Sugar-to-Ethanol Plant

Louisiana is one step closer to being the first state in the U.S. to boast a sugar-to-ethanol plant. The Louisiana Public Facilities Authority Board of Trustees has approved bonds worth up to $70 million to help build the plant in Lacassine. The plant is a project of Louisiana Green Fuels (LGF) and is 80 percent owned by Andino Energy and 20 percent owned by Lake Charles-area sugarcane farmers. The refinery will be built by a manufacturer based in India where the plant would be pre-built and shipped to Lake Charles in late summer and be in place before the next year’s cane harvest begins this October.

“Because of increasing oil prices and concerns over the environment, interest in the alternative fuel industry is growing,” said Thomas A. Antoon, chairman of the LPFA Board, in a press statement. “This new sugar-to-ethanol plant will move our state into the forefront of the growing alternative fuel production industry and should have a favorable economic impact on southwestern Louisiana.”

The sugar-to-ethanol plant will be sited near the Lake Charles Cane-Lacassine Syrup Mill that has been in operation since 2006. The ethanol plant will use syrup produced at this plant along with can molasses sourced from other sugar mills in the state to produce the fuel. LGF anticipates the ethanol will be sold to the city of Houston as well as the state, that both have ethanol mandates in place.

The bond approval is considered a preliminary approval for additional bonds and LGF says these bonds lend credibility to the company’s effort to court private investors. To date, Andino Energy along with a cooperative of Lake Charles farmers have spent nearly $40 million to buy land and secure contracts for sugarcane and sweet sorghum farmers. According to Alex Santacoloma, co-owner of Andino Energy, this is the reason the bonds are needed to help build the ethanol plant.

Grain Production Not Keeping Up With Demand

According to Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt, grain crops are being “gobbled up” faster than farmers can grow them. This could lead to trouble down the road if production doesn’t catch up. Hurt says there have been two major demands surges on commodities in the past five years. One is the rising use of corn for ethanol production being driven by biofuel mandates and high oil prices. The second is increased soybean purchases by China being driven by the country’s growing income and food demand.

“These greater levels of usage have placed a strain on the agricultural production system, resulting in low inventories that leave little room for any production shortfalls,” Hurt said. “Producers certainly have responded to try to meet those demands, but what we’ve seen is that demand has really outpaced the ability of the world to supply.”

Hurt said wheat stocks are in better shape than corn and soybeans that are near “bare minimums” in the U.S. In the past, he said there was enough for 46-60 days or more but anticipates that this won’t be the case after this fall’s harvest.

“With corn, it looks like we could be down to about a 24-day supply at the end of this marketing year,” said Hurt. “That, of course, means any further threats to the 2011 crop yields would send markets into deeper shortages and higher prices.” Continue reading

Scouting for Biofuels Crops in Indian Creek Watershed

The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory is looking for the best biofuels crops to grow in the northeast Illinois Indian Creek Watershed.

CTIC TourDuring a recent field tour of the watershed sponsored by the Conservation Technology Information Center, Argonne agronomist Cristina Negri said they are looking at alternative crops that can efficiently use nitrogen to grow on marginal land in the area. According to Negri, the purpose of the Biomass Production and Nitrogen Recovery project is to “find a way to bring biofuels into the big conservation equation.”

Negri participated in the CTIC tour to learn more about the production practices being used by farmers in the watershed and also gave a presentation on the Argonne project: Cristina Negri Presentation

CTIC Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour Photos

Texas Looks to Algae As Next Cash Crop

According to Texas AgriLife Research scientists in Corpus Christi, microalgae may be the next cash crop. There are an estimated 200,000 to 800,000 species of microscopic freshwater and marine microalgae, yet only 35,000 species have been described. Researchers around the globe are trying to discover the best algae species for producing biofuels.

“It’s a huge, untapped source of fuel, food, feed, pharmaceuticals and even pollution-busters,” said Dr. Carlos Fernandez, a crop physiologist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi. He is studying the physiological responses of microalgae to the environment.

Fernandez said researchers are only beginning to scratch the surface of discovering algae’s secrets. Yet he believes farmers will one day soon be growing microalgae on marginal land that won’t compete with fertile farmland or for fresh water. One of the secret’s that needs to be unlocked is how to most effectively grow algae. Therefore, Fernandez constructed a microalgae physiology laboratory to study how algae is affected by temperature, salinity, nutrients, light levels, and carbon dioxide.

“We have four bioreactors in which we grow microalgae to determine the basic physiological responses that affect its growth,” explained Fernandez. “We will then integrate these responses into a simulator model, a tool we can use in the management of larger, outdoor systems.”

The study is also looking to find algae that can produce large amounts of lipids or fats, that are converted to biofuels such as biodiesel or biojet fuel. In addition, the research team, that includes members from Texas AgriLife Mariculture labs in Flour Bluff, are looking at a residue that remains after the lipids are extracted as a source of animal feed. Finally, they will also evaluate algae as a source of fertilizer for soil.

Fermandez said Corpus Christi is the perfect place to conduct the research for several reasons including access to seawater to grow the microalgae, large acres of marginal land and lower evaporation rates than in arid areas so water requirements are reduced. In addition, he noted that local power plants and oil refineries are good CO2 sources and there is a good network of higher education institutions in the region.