Ethanol Sweet Spots – Part II

Yesterday, DF featured an article on “Must Know Ethanol Trends” that came out of Christianson & Associate’s, PPL (C&A) Biofuels Benchmarking 2012-13 Annual Report. In addition to identifying important trends for the industry, the report also identified some “sweet spots” for the industry.

John-ChristiansonJohn Christianson, partner with C&A, said running a good business is the first thing and being as efficient as possible is important and having good sound prudent risk management is always going to be at the forefront of your business. But going forward, he said there are technology and market issues that will be a factor, or a sweet spot, for the ethanol industry.

“From a technology perspective, we’re seeing plants go further and digging further into the yield component,” said Christianson. “They are looking at difference technologies that will allow them to remove different components of the kernel of corn and allow them to create multiple products on the back-end. As we see this industry evolve, we’re going to see them evolve into a biorefinery industry.”

He cautioned that in order for a plant to make investments, you need a technology that is going to provide a return on investment. Last year was not the year for plants to make investments but Christianson said plants will need to make technology investments if they want to continue to be a long-term viable company.

Any ethanol plant interested in becoming a participant in C&A’s Benchmarking program, or interested in purchasing the The Biofuels Benchmarking 2012-13 Annual Report can contact the Benchmarking team.

Listen to John Christianson discuss ethanol sweet spots in detail here: Ethanol Sweet Spots

Must Know Ethanol Trends – Part I

The Biofuels Benchmarking 2012-13 Annual Report is out and in addition to identifying past, current and future biofuel trends, the report identifies some emerging trends for the ethanol industry. During an interview with John Christianson, partner with Christianson & Associates, PPLP (C&A), I asked him what trends they have been seeing and he noted five in particular of importance.

Biofuels Benchmarking Report coverChristianson noted that spinning corn oil off the back of the plant has had a big impact on the industry and to date, nearly 75 percent of all ethanol plants are using a corn oil extraction technology. He also noted that 2012 was a very difficult year for the ethanol industry, very tight margins, and with the high feedstock costs, it really squeezed margins for the year. He said that when looking at the Benchmarking report the industry was hovering over break-even and the laggards were losing money and the leader plants were making money.

“In the first two quarters of 2013 we’re seeing a really nice trend where we’re getting upward into the areas where we have some positive grind margins,” said Christianson. “This is due to ethanol net-back prices staying strong in 2013 first two quarters and our feedstock costs dropping off and having better margins.” He anticipates this will continue into 2014.

The last year also saw ethanol yields drop a bit due to the drought-ridden 2012 harvest; however, Christianson said based on forecasts for the 2013 harvest, yield should go back up once the ethanol plants start grinding 2013 harvest corn and the industry should go back on the trend of increasing yield each year.

Other trends include the sophistication of the ethanol industry on their grind margin management, improved risk management practices and improved environmental sustainability. “So enhanced risk management and enhanced production efficiencies going forward are going to allow plants to squeeze out as much profitability as possible,” said Christianson.

Listen to John Christianson discuss current ethanol trends in detail here: Must Know Ethanol Trends

European Researchers Look to Turn Algae to Biofuel

swanseaUniversity researchers in Europe are looking at ways to turn algae into biofuels, including biodiesel. This article from the BBC says Swansea University is teaming up with scientists in seven other European countries to find the best way of turning it into fuel.

“The big driver behind the research for algae is the consideration about what we’re doing to our environment,” [EnAlgae project coordinator Dr Shaun Richardson] said.

“It’s the need to reduce CO2 levels and to find a more sustainable way of producing fuel, energy and products.

“We are growing it, we harvest it, take the water out of it and then you can convert it into a range of energy sources or products.

“Algae, especially micro algae, is ideally suited to turning into an oil which can then be turned into either aviation fuel for aeroplanes or a bio-diesel to power our cars.”

Swansea University opened its laboratories at the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Research (CSAR) to the public on Tuesday to see the latest work being carried out.

School officials point to a test flight four years ago of a plane flying on an algae-based biofuel.

Sugar-Based Catalyst Could Help Brew Biodiesel

wfuvatechOne of the knocks about trying to turn fatty wastes into biodiesel is the use of sulfuric acid to aid in the esterification process to remove the free fatty acids (FFAs) that appear in high quantities in low quality oils. But researchers at Wake Forest and Virginia Tech universities have found a sugar-based alternative to sulfuric acid to improve the esterification process.

It is inexpensive, environmentally friendly and easy to filter out from produced biodiesel. “Unlike liquid sulfuric acid which has to be neutralized over a long period of time, our catalyst is a solid and can be separated relatively easily,” says Brian Hanson, a chemist at Virginia Tech who worked on the project.

From a commercial standpoint, this new catalyst could reduce costs by as much as 15 percent for a small-scale biodiesel production facility, according to a feasibility study conducted by Wake Forest University Schools of Business. While more research needs to be done to test the viability of the catalyst on a larger scale outside of the lab, it could one day help to make sewer waste and used oil waste affordable sources of fuel.

“Where this will make a lot of commercial sense in the near term will be in the developing world or on an island,” says Dan Fogel, an executive professor of strategy at the Wake Forest Schools of Business. “In these kinds of places, energy costs can be as much as 50 cents a kilowatt hour. Here in Winston-Salem you pay around 11 or 12 cents per kilowatt hour.”

“Right now, you and I actually pay companies to come and dispose of sewer and used oil waste,” says Abdou Lachgar, a professor of chemistry at Wake Forest University and the project’s lead researcher. “What we want to do is to take the fat out of that waste and convert it to energy.”

The researchers believe that existing biodiesel plants can be retrofitted to use the new catalyst.

Cellulosic Byproduct Increases Ethanol Yield

jin_yongsu1-bScientists from the University of Illinois have reported that they have engineered yeast to consume acetic acid, a previously unwanted byproduct of the process of converting plant leaves, stems and other tissues into biofuels. This innovation increases ethanol yield from lignocellulosic sources (aka second generation feedstocks) by nearly 10 percent. According to researchers, the new advance will streamline the fermentation process and will simplify plant breeding and pretreatment of the cellulose. The results were published in Nature Communications.

Lignocellulose is the fibrous material that makes up the structural tissues of plants. It is one of the most abundant raw materials on the planet and, because it is rich in carbon it is an attractive source of renewable biomass for biofuels production.

The researchers explain that the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is good at fermenting simple sugars (such as those found in corn kernels and sugarcane) to produce ethanol. But coaxing the yeast to feast on plant stems and leaves is not so easy. Doing it on an industrial scale requires a number of costly steps, one of which involves breaking down hemicellulose, a key component of lignocellulose.

“If we decompose hemicellulose, we obtain xylose and acetic acid,” said University of Illinois food science and human nutrition professor Yong-Su Jin, who led the research with principal investigator Jamie Cate, of the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Jin and Cate are affiliates of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), which funded the research. Jin is an affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the U of I.

“Xylose is a sugar; we can engineer yeast to ferment xylose,” Jin said. “However, acetic acid is a toxic compound that kills yeast. That is one of the biggest problems in cellulosic ethanol production.” Continue reading

NREL Calculates Emissions, Cost of Wind & Solar

According to new research from the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), found that carbon emissions induced by more frequent cycling are negligible (<0.2%) when compared with the carbon reductions achieved through wind and solar power generation. Cycling occurs when a utility, to accommodate higher amounts of wind and solar power on the electric grid, must ramp down and ramp up or stop and start conventional generators more frequently to provide reliable power.

In addition, the study found sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions reductions from wind and solar are 5 percent less than expected because of cycling of fossil-fueled generators. Emissions Emission Impacts of Cycling1of nitrogen oxides (NOX) are reduced 2 percent more than expected. The study also finds that high levels of wind and solar power would reduce fossil fuel costs by approximately $7 billion per year across the West, while incurring cycling costs of $35 million to $157 million per year. For the average fossil-fueled plant, this results in an increase in operations and maintenance costs of $0.47 to $1.28 per megawatt-hour (MWh) of generation.

“Grid operators have always cycled power plants to accommodate fluctuations in electricity demand as well as abrupt outages at conventional power plants, and grid operators use the same tool to accommodate high levels of wind and solar generation,” said Debra Lew, NREL project manager for the study. “Increased cycling to accommodate high levels of wind and solar generation increases operating costs by 2% to 5% for the average fossil-fueled plant. However, our simulations show that from a system perspective, avoided fuel costs are far greater than the increased cycling costs for fossil-fueled plants.”

Phase 2 of the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study (WWSIS-2) is a follow up to the WWSIS released in May 2010, which examined the viability, benefits, and challenges of integrating high concentrations of wind and solar power into the western electricity grid. WWSIS found it to be technically feasible if certain operational changes could be made, but the first study raised questions about the impact of cycling on wear-and-tear costs and emissions.

To calculate wear-and-tear costs and emissions impacts for the new study, NREL designed five hypothetical scenarios to examine generating up to 33 percent wind and solar energy on the U.S. portion of the Western Interconnection power system for the year 2020. This is equivalent to a quarter of the power in the Western Interconnection (including Canada and Mexico) coming from wind and solar energy on an annual basis. The study models cycling impacts representing a range of wind and solar concentrations between none and 33 percent, and is not an endorsement of any particular level.

The study assumes a future average natural gas price of $4.60/MMBtu, significant cooperation between balancing authorities, and optimal usage of transmission capacity (i.e., not reserving transmission for contractual obligations). Continue reading

U of Cincy Team Captures Grease for Biodiesel

cincy1A student team from the University of Cincinnati is being recognized for their idea to capture waste grease and turn it into biodiesel. The school’s Team Effuelent, led by students Ron Gillespie, Ethan Jacobs, and Qingshi Tu won the $40,000 prize in the Odebrecht Award for Sustainability Development Competition with their concept of “Using Trap Grease As the Raw Material for Biodiesel Feedstock Production.”

The team’s innovative Waste Grease Extraction process extracts substances such as fats, oils, and greases from the municipal wastewater stream and converts them into a low-cost biodiesel feedstock using processes compatible to the current biodiesel industry.

Not only does the WGE process generate a marketable product of value, it also results in lowered landfill costs for wastewater treatment plants and positively contributes to the environmental, economic, and energy sustainability of the United States.

Mingming Lu, associate professor in CEAS’ Department of Biomedical, Chemical, and Environmental Engineering, originally developed the novel process and serves as the team’s advisor. The students were awarded $20,000, Professor Lu receives $10,000, and another $10,000 goes to the University of Cincinnati.

Team Effuelent is now working on building a prototype system for the Waste Grease Extraction process.

Environmental Impacts of Biofuel Feedstocks Studied

corn_stover03 Photo: USDOE-NRELA two-year study has examined the environmental impacts of feedstocks used for biofuels. Minnesota Daily reports researchers from the University of Minnesota found that there are some fundamental differences between how the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture, look at biofuel production.

All three agencies differed in crop location, which Hill said is an important clarification for researchers, policymakers and biofuel investors. If the researchers had not figured out there was this difference, other scientists might only use one agency’s predictions and their conclusions would be misled.

“Our group is looking at the environmental impacts of biofuels,” [bioproducts and biosystems engineering assistant professor Jason] Hill said. “We need to understand the future of what that’s going to look at.”

“It helps us tease out the benefits and negatives,” BBE graduate student Brian Krohn said. “Some of those … lead to a U.S. landscape that’s better for the environment, and some of that leads to landscapes that have a very high negative impact.”

The biggest concern in the study is the use of corn stover for biofuels. While it is possible to take just enough of the material off the fields to get a good amount of feedstock and leave enough for soil health, the researchers did worry too much would be removed.

“If corn stover becomes a significant player in ethanol,” BBE PhD student Tom Nickerson said, “Minnesota will have a pretty big role in producing ethanol for America.”

Balance is the key, with the researchers concluding that no pathway is perfect.

Defunding Biodiesel, Ethanol Center Draws Rep’s Ire

SONY DSCThe North Carolina legislature’s lack of approving funds for a center that promotes the development of biodiesel and ethanol in the state draws the ire of one of its own members. In an opinion piece for the Herald Sun of Durham, N.C., State Representative G.K. Butterfield says the Biofuels Center of North Carolina in Oxford will soon close for good without the funding, and he says that is short-sighted for a job incubator that has created more than 21,000 clean energy jobs in the state.

[T]he misguided leadership in the General Assembly has voted against job creation by defunding the Biofuels Center in the state’s FY2014 budget… We simply cannot afford to reject job creation and the building of new industries in our state by standing idly by and allowing the General Assembly to shut the door on expanding employment opportunities and innovation…

With the help of the Biofuels Center, our state has become a leader in renewable fuel production. The Biofuels Center has invested $10.1 million in 71 projects throughout North Carolina dedicated to working with farmers to develop new biofuel crops and working with companies to build new manufacturing capacity to produce those fuels, especially in rural communities like many of those I represent in eastern North Carolina. Our state has five major biodiesel producers and leads the nation in biodiesel stations. When superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, Triangle Biofuels in Wilson provided significant amounts of biodiesel to the Northeast to respond to critical fuel shortages.

Butterfield points out that the Biofuels Center has been operating on a $4 million annual budget, less than two one hundredths of a percent of the entire state budget, while leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment and creating hundreds of jobs in new energy markets. He concludes that “North Carolinians deserve better.”

Analysis: Biodiesel Still Profitable Despite Price Drop

Biodiesel producers remain profitable despite a recent drop in prices for the green fuel. An analysis from Scott Irwin and Darrel Good with the University of Illinois shows that several factors, including an uncertain future of federal tax credits and a drop in soybean oil prices.

There are likely two explanations for the current spike [in profits]. First, diesel blenders once again are motivated to incentivize an increase in the production of biodiesel during 2013 to take advantage of the blenders tax credit that was reinstated for this year only. It is uncertain whether it will be extended for 2014. Second, the biodiesel mandate under the RFS was expanded by the EPA from 1 billion gallons in 2012 to 1.28 billion gallons in 2013 and there may be a need for additional production above the mandate in 2013 in order to meet parts of the advanced and renewable mandates.
fig3

Figure 3 … helps to explain why biodiesel production profits have only dropped slightly since mid-July in the face of falling biodiesel prices. The sharp drop in soybean oil prices has more than offset the decline in biodiesel prices, thus propping up margins.

The analysis goes on to say that the biodiesel market is playing a big role in Renewable Identification Number (RIN) prices, as blenders have bid up the price of biodiesel since the beginning of this year compared to soybean oil prices.

How Thirsty is Energy Production?

Critics of renewable energy have dozens of reasons why alternative energy such as wind and solar just won’t work such as what happens when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. But according to a new report prepared by Synapse Energy Economics, “dirty” energy sources including coal-fired electric power, nuclear power and natural gas recovered by fracking, face an even bigger challenge. What are you going to do if the water runs dry?

The report, commissioned by the Civil Society Institute, finds: “Currently, 97 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from thermoelectric or hydroelectric generators, which rely on vast quantities of water to produce electricity … Water is increasingly becoming a limiting factor on U.S. energy production and a key obstacle to maintaining both electricity output and public health and safety. The constraints range from insufficient water supplies to meet power plants’ cooling and pollution control needs—a challenge likely to be exacerbated by fracking-rigclimate change, population growth, and competition from other sectors—to the high costs of energy-related water contamination and thermal pollution.”

Synapse Associate Melissa Whited noted, “Our electric system was built on traditional, water-intensive thermoelectric and hydroelectric generators. The water requirements of this energy system are enormous and leave it vulnerable to droughts and heat waves… Going forward, our water resources will be further squeezed by population growth coupled with the impacts of climate change. The massive water use of coal, nuclear, and natural gas generators will be increasingly challenged, particularly when alternatives that require little water, such as wind and solar, are readily available.”

Other key finding of the report include:

  • Thermoelectric plants withdraw 41 percent of the nation’s fresh water—more than any other sector.
  • The amount of water available to serve diverse needs is a growing concern across the country, from the arid western states to the seemingly water-rich Southeast. Thermoelectric generation compounds the stress already faced by numerous watersheds and adds additional risk for the future. If current trends continue, water supplies will simply be unable to keep up with our growing demands.
  • On an average day, water withdrawals across the nation amount to an estimated 85 billion gallons for coal plants, 45 billion gallons for nuclear plants, and 7 billion gallons for natural gas plants. Additional water is required to extract, process, transport, and store fuel, and this water is often degraded in the process.
  • Coal mining consumes between 70 million and 260 million gallons of water per day.
  • Natural gas fracking requires between two and six million gallons of water per well for injection purposes.

“Continued reliance on water-intensive electric generation technologies puts consumers and regional economies at risk of interruptions in electricity supply or on the hook for costly infrastructure investments,” said CSI Senior Energy Analyst Grant Smith. “To ensure a reliable, cost-effective supply of energy, these water-related risks must be fully accounted for in energy planning and regulation. Once the environmental costs of conventional fuels are recognized, it becomes clear that energy efficiency and renewable energy are bargains by comparison. These clean alternatives cause little if any harmful environmental impacts. On a full-cost accounting basis, clean energy would win out as the least-cost solution and solution that harbors the least risk, as our energy system would no longer threaten (or be vulnerable to) the quantity and quality of our water.”

Students Raise the Green Flag for Algae

5217a9d137b67.preview-300Students and professors at Utah State University are raising the green flag for algae with a record breaking small engine dragster. Earlier this month at the Bonneville Salt Flats, the Aggie A-Salt Streamliner clocked in at 73.977 miles per hour – beating the current record in their division of 72.102. The team hopes to set additional records with their algal-biofueled dragster during the World of Speed taking place in Utah’s west desert this week.

“The big benefit, once the price is brought down to where it’s competitive with regular diesel fuel, is that it would be a totally renewable fuel,” said USU Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Lance Seefeldt in an article in the Cache Valley Daily. “It would come from CO2 and sunlight. Then when you burn it, it turns back into CO2 again.”

The team of students is racing with algae biodiesel fuel that they are researching, producing and testing themselves. Graduate student Rhesa Ledbetter said that a benefit of using algae is that other resources are not being burned up.

“Producing fuel from things like corn and soybeans, things that we actually use as food products, that’s a major concern. We are taking something that’s food and using it as another resource. It can also start driving up costs,” said Ledbetter. “So if we can use something like algae that’s naturally present, I think people are much more open-minded.”

5217a979e8f83.preview-300A year ago, the dragster set a land speed record while running on yeast biodiesel fuel. Seefeldt says the big difference is that yeast biodiesel fuel comes from cheese waste while algae captures carbon dioxide out of the air and uses energy from sunlight to turn it into usable fuel.

The multi-department project began six years ago and has been featured in such places as the National Biodiesel Board’s annual conference where attendees were fascinated to learn about both the research and the racing.

“This is super exciting because many of the other schools working on this don’t have what we have in our hands,” said Research Assistant Mike Morgan who is also the driver of the dragster. “It’s the opportunity to raise the flag for everybody else and show that it’s doable.”

Coffee Cup Could Become the Next Biodiesel Tank

yangliu1That hot cup of Joe in the morning could become more than just a jolt to get your body going; it could be the next tankful of biodiesel to get your vehicle going. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati are figuring out how to turn old coffee grounds into biodiesel, and Yang Liu, from the school’s College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS), will present his findings at the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) 246th National Meeting & Exposition this week in Indianapolis.

Liu and fellow researchers Qingshi Tu, a UC doctoral student in environmental engineering, and Mingming Lu, a UC associate professor of environmental engineering, used a three-pronged approach to converting waste coffee grounds into energy sources including biodiesel and activated carbon by:

Extracting oil from the waste.
Drying the waste coffee grounds after oil removal to filter impurities in biodiesel production.
Burning what was left as an alternative energy source for electricity, similar to using biomass.

The researchers launched the project in 2010, gathering waste coffee grounds in a five-gallon bucket from a Starbucks store on UC’s campus. After collection, they removed the oil from the waste coffee grounds and converted triglycerides (oil) into biodiesel and the byproduct, glycerin. The coffee grounds were then dried and used to purify the biodiesel they derived from the waste coffee grounds.

The researchers found that the oil content in the waste coffee grounds was between about 8 and 20 percent, while making a biodiesel that meets the ASTM International D6751 standard.

U. Tenn. Develops Biodiesel Contamination Detector

zilingxue1Researchers at the University of Tennessee have developed a biodiesel contamination detector. A news release from the school says the device, which can detect trace amounts of contamination, is the work of chemistry professor Ziling (Ben) Xue and doctoral student Jonathan Fong.

“The ability to detect biodiesel at various concentrations in diesel is an important goal in several industries,” said Xue. “There is particular concern over biodiesel contamination in jet fuel, because at higher levels it can impact the thermal stability and freezing point of jet fuel leading to deposits in the fuel system or gelling of the fuel. These issues can result in jet engine operability problems and possible engine flameout.”

Xue and Fong tested several dyes and found that the dye Nile blue chloride, dissolved in alcohol, can be made into a thin film with high sensitivity toward biodiesel contamination in jet fuel. They tested small strips of the sensor and found it could successfully detect amounts of biodiesel contaminant in diesel as low as 0.5 parts per million—ten times below the allowable limit of 5 ppm in the US—in less than thirty minutes.

The researchers point out the need for a quick and easy, direct way to detect biodiesel contamination because of the increasing safety needs in the vehicles biodiesel goes into. The new sensor can be used in a field-ready, portable reader.

Global Solar PV Module Installations to Increase

According to a new report, “Solar PV Modules – Market Size, Annual Production, Average Price, Competitive Landscape and Key Country Analysis to 2020,” solar module installations saw a significant increase from approximately 1.4 GW in 2006 to 29 GW in 2011, but the industry has started to move away from the initial spur.

Solar PV Modules CoverGlobalData’s latest report finds that the growth of the solar PV module installation market in 2012 was much lower when compared to the previous year, with only 30.25 GigaWatts (GW) installed. In 2013, installations are forecast to fall slightly to 25.4 GW, due to reduced government support in several countries, such as Spain, Italy and Germany. From 2014 onward, annual additions are expected to remain stable until 2020.

Germany was the largest consumer of solar modules in 2012, with annual installations of 7.6 GW, followed by China with 5 GW. China continued to be the largest manufacturer of solar modules in the world, boasting 66% of the total global module production in 2012.

Harsha Nagatham, GlobalData’s Analyst covering Alternative Energy, said, “With domestically available polysilicon, a favourable regulatory environment and an easily available inexpensive labor force, companies such as Yingli Green Energy, Trina Solar, LDK Solar and Jinko Solar have been leading solar module manufacturing with annual production capacities of over 1,000 MW each.”

According to the report, solar PV module prices have also dropped drastically since 2006, when the average price was $3.8/W. In 2012, the price of a module was $0.91/W, and it is expected to fall further over the coming years, reaching $0.25/W in 2020.

Nagatham concluded, “Solar PV is the third-largest deployed renewable technology in terms of installed capacity after hydro and wind. Emerging countries in the regions of Asia-Pacific, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are expected to be the major markets in the future due to an increasing focus on green energy to help fuel economic growth.”