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By Robert Rapier on Mar 2, 2010 with 47 responses

Range Responds

I just became aware that BiofuelsDigest wrote a story on my recent blog on Range Fuels, and got some comments back from Range Fuels’ CEO David Aldous:

Battle of the Falling Timbers

Aldous said pretty much what I would expect the CEO of Range Fuels to say. He defended his company, and complained that the funding includes money for future phases. That may be, but it is true that Range recently went back to the DOE for more money. If they are already funded for future phases, then why not show us what you can do before asking for more money now?

The truth is that the early public statements from those involved with Range – prior to them getting taxpayer funding – don’t remotely reconcile with what they are now prepared to deliver. The costs have escalated, the capacity has been ramped down, and production went from “cellulosic ethanol” to “cellulosic biofuels” to “mixed alcohols” to “methanol.” Those are the facts, and I think Aldous is trying to put the best possible spin on a bad situation that he inherited.

In fact, left unsaid in my original blog is that things have obviously gone horribly wrong from the days of Range’s early claims. Reading between the lines, I think the capacity downgrades are an indication that the gasifier didn’t scale up as expected. Gasifiers are tricky, and one that works fine at one scale and with one feedstock may not work at all at a different scale. I also think Range found out that producing ethanol from syngas is much more difficult than they expected, and they couldn’t get a catalyst to do what they had hoped.

One interesting comment from Aldous was that their methanol would be a qualifying fuel because they will put it into biodiesel. Imagine that. Biodiesel is already struggling to compete, and now we are going to pay a subsidy on the methanol that is used to produce biodiesel, and then we will probably end up reinstituting the subsidy on the finished biodiesel.

That is going to be some expensive biodiesel (from a taxpayer perspective). Methanol presently trades at about $1.10 a gallon, so if we subsidize that as a cellulosic biofuel we would presumable pay a subsidy of $1.01 per gallon on top of the market price. In a nutshell, the real cost of that methanol going into biodiesel would be double what it should be. It all begs the question, of course, of why you wouldn’t just use the methanol directly as fuel.

There was a comment left following the story that allows me to finally tell a funny story that happened at the Pacific Rim Summit last November (here are my slides from my presentation). Alan Propp wrote the following:

Dear Editor,

My comment is this: you describe Mr. Rapier at the outset of your article with these terms, “Noted and widely respected energy writer…” I have met Mr. Rapier, and my description of him would have been, “Controversial, highly opinionated and frequently misinformed energy writer…”

His lack of knowledge or understanding of the Range Fuels project is indicative of his blog and other writings.

Sincerely,

Alan Propp, Ph.D., P.E.
Merrick & Company

That comment is priceless on several levels. First, while Propp is smearing me he conveniently doesn’t mention that his company is the engineering firm for the Range Fuels plant. His company has made a lot of money on all the hype, and his fingerprints are all over the project. Think he might have an axe to grind?

But here is the really priceless part. At the Pacific Rim Summit, I was having a bite with a colleague at an evening conference event. Joining us was David Bransby, a professor from Auburn (and advisor to Range Fuels) who gave a presentation that I really enjoyed. His wife was also present, as well as some members of the Hawaii Science and Technology Council. We were having some interesting discussions around logistics, energy density, and the problems of scaling up biomass-based solutions.

Up walks Alan Propp, Ph.D., and he immediately began to berate me. Shortly thereafter, one person got up and left the table (telling me later that Propp’s behavior was the reason he left the table), and two more later asked “What was that guy’s problem?

We were talking about the difficulties with scaling up biobutanol (which I have blogged on here) and Propp said “You are wrong. They now have a new process which can get butanol titers above 10%.” I looked at him with a puzzled look, and said “That’s impossible. Butanol phases out of water at 7.7% concentration. You can’t have a 10% solution.”

Propp was undeterred. He said that a certain company had given a presentation that day, and if I had attended it “I might have learned a thing or two.” (I would have attended but had a conflict). I was really puzzled, and couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. I decided I would investigate later, but I knew one thing: He was wrong about butanol titers above 10%. That’s like saying “Our water freezes at 40 degrees.”

The conversation turned to energy balances, and Propp’s position was “Energy balances don’t matter.” We were discussing a municipal solid waste project for converting trash into fuel. I said that if the energy inputs into the project were higher than your outputs, then in most cases you don’t do the project (unless you are using non-fungible fuel like coal as an input to produce a liquid fuel output). Propp said (paraphrasing) “If the biomass is free, then usage of those BTUs is what matters.”

I knew that we were looking at this problem in two very different ways. I was looking at it from the long-term viability of an energy project. Propp was locked into the idea that because the BTUs are free, then any usage of them is an improvement over the status quo. I couldn’t get it through his head that if the usage involved consuming more BTUs than you could extract from the free biomass, you don’t do the project. So we had a very fundamental disagreement. For an energy project, I won’t consume more than 1 BTU of fungible fuel to produce 1 BTU of fuel unless there are some really special circumstances (e.g., if the project is really a waste disposal project and energy would have been consumed regardless).

The evening went on like that. Propp was extremely arrogant and condescending. Had I known then of his involvement in some of these biofuel projects, I would have had a better grasp on why he behaved as he did. But then I went back to my hotel and looked up the company he had been talking about. It turns out that the good Dr. Propp was actually confused and had been talking about iso-butanol, a fundamentally different compound than normal butanol (which is almost always shortened to just “butanol”).

From a biological perspective, it is true that i-butanol is less toxic to microbes than n-butanol, but the phasing concentration for i-butanol is also higher. What is needed to crack open the economics of producing butanol biologically (which used to be the case before the much cheaper petro-route came along) would be to get butanol concentrations above the phasing level, so it could be skimmed off instead of having to distill it all. From that perspective, the lower toxicity of i-butanol is offset by the higher phasing concentration.

Further, in the chemical industry the chemical properties of n-butanol are generally preferred over i-butanol. Therefore, butanol production is shifted to the greatest possible extent to n-butanol, and i-butanol almost always trades at a discount to n-butanol. There is still a market for i-butanol, but it is unclear if i-butanol would be an attractive renewable fuel. The published test results I have seen were all of n-butanol.

So I chuckled at the thought that Alan Propp, Ph.D., didn’t know the difference between i-butanol and n-butanol, yet berated me for not knowing about new technology that produced “butanol titers above 10%.” I sent him a note later that night and said “I think you meant iso-butanol.” He responded back “Yes, that’s correct.” (In fairness to Merrick, Propp did have a colleague with him – Steven Wagner, VP from Merrick – who I found to be much more reasonable and more interested in simply have a conversation about technology).

The next day, I saw Propp and his demeanor had changed entirely. Gone was the arrogance from the night before. (I presumed he was feeling pretty sheepish). He had promised to show up for my presentation later that day and put some tough questions to me, and I said “By all means, show up and give me your best.” He was a no-show.

So it is with an extreme sense of irony that I read Propp’s comment above. It is a classic case of projection. Of course the sort of pseudo-knowledge displayed by Propp that night is a big reason that Range is in the position it is in. The initial promoters failed to distinguish between cellulosic ethanol and biomass gasification, and therefore made certain representations that many of us knew were incorrect.

Second, they didn’t understand the chemistry of alcohol production well enough to know that the production of pure ethanol via this route is problematic, and that a mixed alcohol is what they would produce. Pure ethanol would only be produced at a very high cost. As reality began to settle in, we have seen the statements from Range evolve a very long way from the initial claims of what they would do.

So despite comments from Aldous and Propp, the verdict on Range is the same. What they are proposing to deliver is a far cry from the technology (and cost) that they initially went out and hyped. The public statements are there for anyone to read, and don’t need any particular interpretation from me to see that things have not gone according to plan. So whether I understand Range’s grand plans isn’t the issue. I understand what they have said publicly.

  1. By Moiety on March 2, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    The stuff on butanol (BuOH) is interesting. With regards to n-BuOH and iso-BuOH there are few differences. The two biggest differences: solubility in water approx 8 for n-BuOH and 9.5 g/L for iso-BuOH; the heat of vaporization for n is about 30% lower. These would push the energy balance in favor of n-BuOH at first glance if one were to use a distillation+decantation scheme for purification.

    With regard to skimming of the n-BuOH of the top there are two issues with this. Firstly lets assume for arguments sake that we can get 15% in the mixture. The phase split (approx: depends on temperature) will leave the top phase containing about 80% of BuOH but in terms of recovery you only get 38 mass% of the BuOH into this phase (lower water phase is bigger). Going to 25% BuOH we can double the recovery but still… that is a pretty large recycle/increase in fermenter volume.
    The second this is what these volume changes do to cell density/growth. I have very little to input here.

    If I ever get time I will write something about BuOH (with numbers).

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  2. By Benny BND Cole on March 2, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    As a lifelong financial reporter, let me tell you this; When money gets involved, truth takes a back seat, and the closer you get to the truth, the more ad hominen will become the attacks.

    All you can do is slog ahead, try to keep an even keel.

    I am surprised to learn that methanol sells for $1 a gallon. My layman's understanding is that methanol has about half the bang per gallon as gasoline—still, that sounds cheap.

    Methanol can be made from natural gas, and we have epic supplies of natural gas.

    We can run our cars on methanol, and it is a safer fuel than gasoline.

    Hard to see a doomsday scenario that makes sense in light of these realities.

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  3. By Wendell Mercantile on March 2, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Methanol can be made from natural gas, and we have epic supplies of natural gas.

    Benny~

    It can also be made fairly easily from coal, something we also have epic supplies of — and of course from syngas as Range Fuels is belatedly learning.

    We can run our cars on methanol, and it is a safer fuel than gasoline.

    Yes, we can. And had it not been for the untoward influence of Big Ag and the Corn Belt politicians, we would likely now be blending methanol with gasoline and you could be buying M85 instead of E85.

    In the early 1990s California was on the leading edge of introducing M85 fuel stations and Ford, GM, and Chrysler even built several flex-fuel cars for California to try and jump start the program.

    Unfortunately, M85 never got the political support, subsidies, and mandates that went to ethanol, even though in terms of EROEI it makes more sense than ethanol.

    The only real downside of methanol is that it has an even lower energy density than ethanol ~ 56,800 BTU/gal for methanol v. 76,100 BTU/gal for ethanol.

    (Gasoline has about 114,000 BTU/gal, but can vary depending on seasonal blend and petroleum feedstock.)

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  4. By Andytk on March 2, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    The toxicity of methanol is also overblown.

    So long as you don't actually drink it (when was the last time you drank gasoline?) its fine.

    When I was a kid I had a few model aeroplanes which ran on the stuff in compression ignition engines (glow fuel engines). Never did us any harm and was less volatile (& hazardous) than gasoline. Takes a fair bit to accidentally ignite it.

    Andy

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  5. By Anonymous on March 2, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Where does Range say that the product, (as opposed to the catalyst employed to make the product) is methanol and not mixed alcohols?

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  6. By Robert Rapier on March 2, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    Anon, from their update to the EPA:

    In addition, since they plan to start up the plant using a methanol catalyst they are not expected to produce qualifying renewable fuel in 2010.

    The only reason to do that is if your ethanol catalyst isn't working like you thought it would. They plan to transition from the methanol catalyst; my guess is that they are counting on working out the kinks in their ethanol catalyst.

    The comment about not producing qualifying fuel in 2010 is an indication that they don't expect to produce any ethanol in 2010 (at least that is the message they gave the EPA).

    RR

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  7. By PeteS on March 2, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    Frankly I'm gobsmacked that a company funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars seemed to have had a basic misunderstanding of the chemistry involved in the process they were pursuing. Can this be right? How much do competent experienced chemists earn and why couldn't they afford one? RR, your description of the gaffes involved does not make them sound like "unknown unknowns".

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  8. By Benny BND Cole on March 2, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Wendall-
    Thanks for poiting out that methanol can be made from coal.

    Jeez, the doom scenarios just look silly at this point.

    CNG and LPG cars, PHEVs, methanol.

    I had fogotten about the M85 cars in California.

    Way back in the 1950s, Buick built a car that had tanks in the big tailfins, one for methanol and one for gasoline. Not sure why.

    True, methanol doen't have the BTUs of gasoline. But then, a higher mpg car with a sligthly larger gas tank, and you get the range back.

    True, the day of the 12 mpg V-8 may be over, and they were fun. But 30 mpg and a methanol four-cylinder is not doom–burns more cleanly too.

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  9. By rufus on March 2, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    I imagine the biggest "knock" on methanol on a large scale would be the volatility of the price of nat gas. Nat gas is known in the trading pits as the "widowmaker."

    Admittedly, that could change, but then you're left with the fact that you're just trading dependence on a fossil fuel that is "peaking" with one that will peak, eventually.

    Ethanol seems the logical choice, I think.

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  10. By Paul on March 2, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Rufus, I disagree with you there. Any feedstock that you can ferment to ethanol, you can gasify and synthesise to methanol. And there are other feedstocks, like wood, gas and coal and MSW that can easily be made into methanol, but not ethanol.
    That is Range Fuel's problem in a nutshell – it is far easier to make methanol than ethanol by gasification. But if they had started out saying they were going to do methanol, they wouldn't have got all this free money. Mind you, they probably would have had their plant built, and operating, long ago, and maybe even been profitable, but that hardly seems to be an objective of theirs – it's easier to keep raising money than making it.

    So if it's always easier to make methanol, and we can do it from many more feedstocks, including coal, of which the US more than anyone else, how can ethanol be a better way to go?

    Interestingly, it is cheaper to convert NG into methanol, than it is to convert it to LNG.

    Methanol as a motor fuel has been used in Indy racing for decades, and is the safest high powered fuel for drag racing.

    A good article, from 1973 about methanol as motor fuel is here;
    http://www.woodgas.com/Science1.pdf

    As with ethanol, methanol can handle very high compression ratios, and in a turbo charged engine, the vaporisation of methanol acts like an intercooler, increasing power density (that's why dragsters love it). Also it can run leaner than gasoline and does not require $1000 catalytic converters as it produces 1/10 of the CO and NOx of a gasoline engine.

    Methanol also has the unusual feature that it can be split, or reformed, into CO and 2H2, at atmospheric pressure and about 300C (doing this to ethanol, NG or gasoline needs 700C).
    When you do this, you add heat to split it, and the resulting gas has 17% more energy content. For an IC engine, the 300C heat can come from the exhaust, so we have an effective heat recovery system.

    Combine this with the higher efficiency from inlet air cooling and higher compression, and you can get 40-50% more energy per unit fuel.

    So, even if it meant we had to enlarge the fuel tanks in vehicles, that is pretty simple to do, in exchange for having such a variety of (non oil) feedstocks to use.

    You can check out the historical price of methanol at http://www.methanex.com/products/documents/MxAvgPrice_Feb252010.pdf
    There was a time in 2002 when it was $0.36/gal, equivalent to gasoline at $0.80/gal. I don't know what wholesale gasoline was in 02, but I'll bet it was way more than that.

    And keep in mind, that, unlike ethanol, there is no subsidy to support the price of it – it is a stand alone, profitable industry – just not one centred in the corn states, and therein lies the problem…

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  11. By rufus on March 2, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    But, then, a couple of years ago, Paul, nat gas was almost 3 Times the price is is now. That's what I was referring to: The volatility of the price of nat gas.

    Also, Gasification, as we are seeing, is more expensive than fermentation/distillation.

    We'll see where we're at in a couple of years; but it looks like the cellulosic boys will be in the lead.

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  12. By Wendell Mercantile on March 2, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    But, then, a couple of years ago, Paul, nat gas was almost 3 Times the price is is now.

    Rufus~

    That was before a lot of hydro-frac'd NG from shale deposits started to come into the market.

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  13. By Wendell Mercantile on March 2, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    Ethanol seems the logical choice, I think.

    Only someone from the Corn Belt or in bed with Big Ethanol or Big Ag would say that. It's unlikely anyone who looked at the two fuels analytically would reach that conclusion.

    Of course that's the problem, isn't it? Politics has never been about clear-headed, analytical thinking.

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  14. By Wendell Mercantile on March 2, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    So if it's always easier to make methanol, and we can do it from many more feedstocks, including coal, of which the US more than anyone else, how can ethanol be a better way to go?

    Exellent question Paul, and of course the answer is "politics" and the subsidies, mandates, tax credits, and protective tariffs for ethanol that Corn Belt politicians can get passed into law.

    It's obvious methanol lacks sufficient lobbyists and political clout.

    So, even if it meant we had to enlarge the fuel tanks in vehicles, that is pretty simple to do, in exchange for having such a variety of (non oil) feedstocks to use.

    Excellent point again Paul.

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  15. By Robert Rapier on March 2, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    So if it's always easier to make methanol, and we can do it from many more feedstocks, including coal, of which the US more than anyone else, how can ethanol be a better way to go?

    I will weigh in here as well. I have always felt like methanol was a much more logical choice for our fuel infrastructure, because it can be made cheaply, easily, and from a wide variety of feedstocks. But as others have noted, it never had a farm lobby backing it.

    I wish Range had put their political clout into getting methanol accepted as liquid fuel, and then they went out and built a methanol plant. I always maintained that's what they were doing anything, but they might produce some ethanol and higher alcohol by-products to sell.

    RR

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  16. By rufus on March 2, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    Okay, when you can gasify trees, etc for methanol for $1.27/gal (that's what you need to compete with Ethanol's current price of $1.70/gal) let me know.

    $1.70/x = 76,100/56,800

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  17. By Miles on March 2, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    I just read a post by Dennis Forbes
    that intrigues me because it shows the same behavior amongst software developers. Begin quote:

    Page 493 (as labelled by page) of the article “The Paradoxical Success of Aspect-Oriented Programming” includes a fantastic quote and graphic from an IEEE editorial by James Bezdek in IEEE Transactions on Fuzzy Systems.

    [I quote indirectly given that the original source isn’t publicly available]

    Every new technology begins with naive euphoria — its inventor(s) are usually submersed in the ideas themselves; it is their immediate colleagues that experience most of the wild enthusiasm. Most technologies are overpromised, more often than not simply to generate funds to continue the work, for funding is an integral part of scientific development; without it, only the most imaginative and revolutionary ideas make it beyond the embryonic stage. Hype is a natural handmaiden to overpromise, and most technologies build rapidly to a peak of hype. Following this, there is almost always an overreaction to ideas that are not fully developed, and this inevitably leads to a crash of sorts, followed by a period of wallowing in the depths of cynicism. Many new technologies evolve to this point, and then fade away. The ones that survive do so because someone finds a good use (= true user benefit) for the basic ideas.

    End quote.

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  18. By Paul on March 2, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    Here is a link to a paper from (i think) the late fifties, about methanol from coal.

    http://www.anl.gov/PCS/acsfuel/preprint%20archive/Files/18_3_CHICAGO_08-73_0100.pdf

    In it, they talk about using existing components (coal gasifiers) and achieve an energy yield of 70%, which translates to roughly 330 gallons per ton of coal. At todays prices, that would turn a $15 ton of PRB coal into $300 of fuel!

    They also draw a distinction, calling their product "methyl fuel", meaning it contains minor amounts of higher alcohols, and some water. The other paper I reference, (t. Reed, 1973) said that if you can accept these "contaminants", the process yield is improved by 50%.

    So, here we are decades later, with Range Fuels re-inventing this wheel, at great (public) expense. They should have started out with buying methanol, and getting their meth to eth process sorted from there.

    Better still, would have been co-operate with Methanex, the world's largest methanol producer, on a joint project. After all, perfecting a process to turn meth to eth creates a new market for their product, and possibly a new (old) way to make it. if you can't turn bought meth to eth, then there's no point making it in the first place. And if you can, then you can always build the wood to meth plant once you know you need it.

    Range Fuels is not entirely to blame – they simply followed the (public) money, and the only place it led to is ethanol. But clearly that doesn't mean making ethanol this way will lead them to money.

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  19. By Robert Rapier on March 2, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    Okay, when you can gasify trees, etc for methanol for $1.27/gal (that's what you need to compete with Ethanol's current price of $1.70/gal) let me know.

    Presumably, though, you would allow for market distorting subsidies/mandates to be a part of that equation. It certainly is on the ethanol side.

    RR

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  20. By Paul on March 3, 2010 at 12:11 am

    "when you can gasify trees, etc for methanol for $1.27/gal (that's what you need to compete with Ethanol's current price of $1.70/gal) let me know."

    Rufus, that is an excellent question, and I would love to hear Range Fuels answer to that – they should have know this answer before they started. Quite simply, if they can't, they might as well give it away, or just buy bulk methanol, and go from there. Just like corn ethanol, it becomes an indirect way to turn NG into a transport fuel.

    Having said that, make the VEETC credit apply to methanol like it does to ethanol, (at 75% to compensate for lower energy density) and we would have a really interesting competition between the two fuels. After all, we don't want the government trying to pick winners, we want the winners to win by proving themselves the best.

    And on the subject of price fluctuations, Two years ago oil was 5x the price it was a year later, and now it is 2.5x the price it was a year ago, but those sort of fluctuations haven't stopped people using it.

    Corn is not much better. In 2008 it was 2.5x the price it was a year earlier, and it was double what it is now. Wait for a drought/cold season/wet harvest in the midwest and see what that does to the corn prices. But those fluctuations haven;t stopped the ethanol industry either, (and nor should they).

    Fluctuating feedstock price is a fact of life for any fuel business (or any other commodity business), but at least with methanol, you have the widest variety of feedstock, so you can choose the one that is cheapest at any given time.

    Underground gasification of coal and then use the syngas to make methanol is suddenly looking good.

    last point of interest from those coal to methanol papers – if you use lignite instead of good coal, the ash contains about 0.4g of uranium per ton – equivalent to a commercial uranium deposit!

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  21. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 12:40 am

    Well, the fact is you can grow corn, and produce ethanol, Profitably, for $1.70 gallon (actually, a little closer to $1.45 for many plants, I imagine; but we'll leave it at $1.70.)

    If we have to do mandates, and subsidies, and what-not to get Exxon to use it that's a whole 'nother story.

    The fact is, we can produce ethanol profitably for $1.70 gal (sans subsidies.)

    The Octane is about the same for the two fuels, but the btu content of methanol is only 75% that of ethanol. To make up the difference they would have to be able to profitably produce methanol for about $1.27/gal.

    And, they would have to be able to produce it from "Renewable" sources. Otherwise, they'd just be depleting another Finite, fossil fuel. We really don't want to do that, do we?

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  22. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 12:43 am

    There are Two things you really need to consider when looking into coal gasification: 1) Capital Costs are Huge, and 2) Very Labor Intensive.

    Oh, and that environmental thingie ain't no walk in the park, either.

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  23. By Paul on March 3, 2010 at 12:52 am

    Of course, all this talk about coal to methanol is nothing new to China…(from BusinessGreen.com, Nov 09)

    "China has officially approved the use of methanol as a motor fuel as part of the nation's efforts to boost energy security and reduce crude oil imports." Coal provinces have actually been using M85 and M100 for years, with minor modifications to engines.

    "Additionally, a new line of "dual-fuel" cars – that can run on either pure methanol or gasoline – is being planned by Zhejiang Geely Holdings Group."

    and, "It also costs around US$260 per ton to produce, compared to the US$150 per ton for methanol made from natural gas."

    Those prices translate to $0.76 and $0.45/gal respectively. China now produces more methanol (13bn gal/yr) than the rest of the world combined, and has passed a law against using food for fuel ethanol, so we know which way they are heading.

    I mention Geely motors because that is the car company that Warren Buffett has invested in. And Buffett said this in a 2008 interview "I would say that ethanol is a relatively inefficient way of creating gasoline" and "My son was head of the Nebraska Ethanol Commission. He is a farmer. But I'm not running for anything, fortunately, and, you know, I can call them as I see them"

    So, knowing what he knows, if he is placing his bets not on ethanol but on a car company that makes methanol flex fuel vehicles, it's pretty clear where he thinks the money is, and it ain't Range Fuels.

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  24. By Paul on March 3, 2010 at 1:13 am

    Rufus,
    Agreed that coal is not renewable, but we can substitute other feedstock into the process too. Coal gasification is no more expensive/labour intensive than wood, and that is what Range fuels starts with.

    So the real question becomes, "for a cellulosic feedstock, what is the best way to turn this into liquid fuel?

    Now "best" can be judged be EROEI, or (my favourite) Petroluem Input Ratio, (PIR), or profitability. But I would be prepared to bet that the winner, on any of those categories, would be methanol.

    You can get 100gal MeOH for a ton of wood waste, which is only a 38% EROEI. BUT, this is using the wood itself to provide all the energy inputs into the process, so there is no external energy input.

    With corn ethanol, where you get about 100gal/ton, it is not possible to do this using the residuals (DDG's) – there just is not enough energy, and you need external energy, which currently is NG, so this process is not entirely "renewable" at present.

    It seems generally accepted that a ton of corn produces another half ton of stover. So we can produce 100 gal of ethanol from the corn, or produce 150gal methanol from the corn and stover, with zero external energy input (after harvesting), no water input, no wastewater disposal, etc.

    Better yet, sell the corn as grain (for $150/ton), and make methanol from the stover (and any other woody biomass).

    If it were not for the gov backing ethanol exclusively, that is what we might be doing today, or have started decades ago.

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  25. By Terry on March 3, 2010 at 3:02 am

    Since half of Range's plant is essentially a biomass gasifier, how hard would it be to convert the second half of their plant to make just some Fischer-Tropsch fuel that can be used in say jet engines? Do they need to rebuild it or do they just need to change the catalyst?

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  26. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 6:35 am

    Paul, the DDGS have way more than enough energy to power the corn ethanol process.

    You get a little more than 17 lbs of DDGS for every bushel of corn. A pound of DDGS has about 8,400 btus.

    17.5 X 8,400 = 147,000 btus for a bushel of corn (3 gallons of ethanol.) That's 49,000 btus of DDGS for every gallon of ethanol produced. It only takes, on average, about 30,000 btus of energy to make a gallon of ethanol.

    We don't use the DDGS for this because the pound of DDGS is Much more valuable as Cattle Feed than it is as process energy.

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  27. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 7:20 am

    The above figures, of course, are for a modern "Dry Mill" plant. The older "Wet Mill" plants owned by ADM, for example, produced a lot more co-products, but used considerably more energy.

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  28. By Wendell Mercantile on March 3, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Oh, and that environmental thingie ain't no walk in the park, either.

    Rufus~

    And there's no environmental "thingie" with industrial corn monoculture?

    * Atrazine runoff
    * Glyphosate runoff
    * Soil depletion and erosion
    * Fertilizer runoff and nutrient pollution of the Mississippi River
    * The Gulf of Mexico "dead zone"
    * Pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide seepage into groundwater

    To name a few. Not exactly a "walk in the park" either.

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  29. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 9:45 am

    5% of the dead zone is attributed to One City, Chicago.

    Oh, and it was a lot smaller last year than the years before.

    It's hard to compare Heavy Metals and "nutrients."

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  30. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 9:48 am

    BTW, ALL rivers have "dead zones." The Mississippi River has been washing "nutrients" down into the Gulf as long as there has been a Mississippi River. That's what rivers do.

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  31. By Kinuachdrach on March 3, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Benny wrote: "Methanol can be made from natural gas, and we have epic supplies of natural gas."

    True, Benny. Yet President Carter forbade the use of natural gas for electric generation because we were 'running out'. This at a time when the existence of gas-bearing shales was well known, and hydraulic fracturing was known technology.

    Paul wrote: "After all, we don't want the government trying to pick winners, we want the winners to win by proving themselves the best."

    Indeed! Especially when government (fallible human beings who happen to be politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists) have such a well-established track record of failure when it comes to picking winners.

    A little humility among the Political Class would go a long way towards solving our energy supply challenges.

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  32. By Wendell Mercantile on March 3, 2010 at 10:38 am

    It's hard to compare Heavy Metals and "nutrients."

    Not really. Heavy metals are naturally occurring elements in the Earth's crust. Heavy metals are always with us — the issue is concentration.

    The nutrients that run off are almost always synthesized from natural gas and are usually washed off corn fields by rains before the plants can absorb them, or applied in excess under one of the following rules of thumb some farmers use for applying fertilizer:

    "If a little is good, more must be better."

    "Better too much than too little."

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  33. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Today's prices:

    RBOB (84 octane, unleaded) – $2.24

    Ethanol – $1.68

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  34. By Wendell Mercantile on March 3, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    RBOB (84 octane, unleaded) – $2.24

    Ethanol – $1.68
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Based on energy content, the Btu cost of each is almost identical. That's the way it should be.

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  35. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Yep,

    you could take the blenders' credit away, and "Today" ethanol would be a break-even deal.

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  36. By Benny BND Cole on March 3, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Rufus-
    We may in fact deplete natural gas in 100 years if we use. The option is not to use it.
    Seems if it is priced right, we should use natural gas. BTW, methanol prices might actually go down with scale.

    Before, you have stated you support ethanol as it US fuel. I agree with that sentiment.

    Methanol is US fuel also.

    What gives?

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  37. By Wendell Mercantile on March 3, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Methanol is US fuel also. What gives?

    Big Corn, Big Ethanol, Corn Belt politicians, and Rufus have no enthusiasm for methanol because it is not made from corn.

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  38. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Look, it may be the greatest thing since "shake and bake" chicken. I don't know all that much about it. I know it has 25% less btus than ethanol, and it's more corrosive than ethanol, and it's poisonous; but, other than that I'm pretty clueless.

    If it's a good deal I hope someone gets busy with it. It would be a lot better than imported oil.

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  39. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Wendell, you can keep saying that, but that doesn't make it true. I'm for making fuel out of whatever is available on my end of the county. Period.

    You don't understand. I don't own a single corn stalk. I don't get a nickle from any living human being, government, or company (other than the insurance company from which I receive renewal commissions.)

    I am not against oil. I'm Deadly against "Imported" Oil. I'm "Double-Deadly" Against Oil from the Middle-East.

    As for nat gas: I'm not ag'in it; but I'm not convinced there's as much gas available as you think there is. And, even if there is, I'm not convinced that we should rejigger our entire transportation system to promote the use of another finite fossil fuel for transportation when other options might be as good, or better.

    It's starting to look very much like we might have sub $2.00 ethanol from kudzu in a year, or two. If so, you're going to have a hard time getting me on the nat gas bandwagon.

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  40. By Wendell Mercantile on March 3, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    …and it's poisonous; but, other than that I'm pretty clueless.

    Yes, clueless. More people die each year of ethanol poisoning than from methanol.

    I live in a college town and each year during pledge week there are usually one or two deaths from over consumption of ethanol, or else someone takes a dive off a frat house balcony after drinking too much.

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  41. By Robert Rapier on March 3, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Yes, clueless. More people die each year of ethanol poisoning than from methanol.

    The other thing is that the ethanol that is sold as fuel is denatured. It is just as poisonous as methanol.

    Of course Rufus has been told all of this before. And when he brought up concerns about it getting into the water supply, I pointed out how quickly it is degraded by microbes. So Rufus may be tipping his biases a bit too strongly here.

    RR

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  42. By rufus on March 3, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Ahh, not really. When I included the "poisonous" part in there I was mostly thinking about the PR effect.

    I'm ambivalent about methanol, actually. As I said, I'm not ag'in it; I just don't really think it'll "take off." For, Whatever reasons. If it does, that's fine with me.

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  43. By Robert Rapier on March 3, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Today we can tack on another $80 million. That puts Range's announced funding thus far at $400 million. Not clear to me is if the $80 million bond money is totally separate:

    Broomfield, CO – March 3, 2010 – Range Fuels, Inc., a company focused on commercially producing low-carbon biofuels and clean renewable power, today announced that it had received a loan note guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and closed its related $80 million bond issuance. The proceeds from the $80 million bond will be used to partially finance the first two phases of construction of Range Fuels’ first commercial cellulosic biofuels plant using renewable and sustainable supplies of non-food biomass near Soperton, Georgia. The first phase is scheduled to be mechanically complete this month, with production scheduled to commence in the second quarter of this year.

    RR

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  44. By Paul on March 3, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    So we know that they are at $320m for a 4gpy plant, though, depending on which press release we believe, it will eventually be 10, or 20mgy.

    The capital cost per annual gallon for a corn plant is about $1.50-$2.00.
    For Range Fuels, these numbers translate to $80 (4mgy), $32, $16 (20mgy).
    so even if we believe their most optimistic ever claim, the capital cost is about 10x that of a corn plant.

    Why would anyone want to invest in a full scale plant of that cost?

    I think Range should have had to demonstrate, somehow, that for future plants would be be far less expansive, otherwise, cellulosic is just not worth the cost.

    But given their record, even if they did "demonstrate" this, I wouldn't believe them.

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  45. By rufus on March 4, 2010 at 4:25 am

    All "cellulosic" isn't gasification, Paul. Broin has been building ethanol plants for about 30 years, and Jeff Broin is indicating that his (Poet's) cellulosic facility will come in a lot cheaper than that.

    The informing metric, in any case, is "total cost per gallon, manufactured." Range has been Silent on that number (always a bad sign.)

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  46. By Paul on March 5, 2010 at 1:26 am

    Rufus, I stand corrected, gasification ethanol, is, of course, quite different from cellulosic – I am guilty of using Range's terminology!

    Quite agreed about the cost per gallon made. So with Range, when they have been given mountains of free money, how do you account for this in the cost? should they be trying to earn a "return" on the grant money?

    We'll see how Poet does, the only advantage they have over corn is "free" feedstock, and if they can be competitive (with no more subsidy than any other ethanol), power to them, they deserve to do well.

    With Range what gets me most is their refusal to admit that any of their earlier claims were wrong. The new CEO was brought in to clean up the mess, but even he can't bring himself to admit the previous wrongdoings – doubtless the lawyers have said that will expose them to litigation.

    But as RR said, there has to be some accountability when using public money – we just don;t have enough of it to waste.

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  47. By Anonymous on March 6, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    Don't screw with Robert Rapier. He's smarter than you – deal with it!

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