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By Robert Rapier on Feb 14, 2011 with 25 responses

Butanol Q&A With Cobalt Technologies CEO Rick Wilson

In the previous story — Butanol 101 — I provided readers some background on the production of butanol, including my own background on working with butanol. This story is about one company’s efforts to commercialize bio-butanol.

The interview originated from a press release I was sent a couple of months ago detailing an agreement between Cobalt Technologies (formerly Cobalt Biofuels; and I will get into this name change below) and the U.S. Navy on developing next generation biofuels:

Cobalt Technologies and U.S. Navy to Jointly Develop Military Jet Fuel

Mountain View, CA – November 03, 2010 – Today, Cobalt Technologies, the leader in commercializing biobutanol as a renewable chemical and fuel, announced the signature of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the U.S. Navy to develop technology for the conversion of biobutanol into full performance jet and diesel fuels.

Under the CRADA, n-biobutanol produced by Cobalt will be converted to bio-jet and biodiesel fuels using technology developed at the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) in China Lake, CA. The result will be a complete substitute for military and civilian jet fuel, meeting all applicable specifications. In addition, Cobalt will have an option to obtain an exclusive license to commercialize process improvements, made under the CRADA, for the production of all military and civilian transportation fuels.

I may get half a dozen press releases like this a day — most of which I don’t act upon — but given my background I have a particular interest in butanol. As is the case with many press releases, Cobalt personnel were made available for interviews. I indicated that I would be interested in speaking to someone at Cobalt, but my questions would not be the standard questions they tend to get. I would focus on areas that I know to be challenging for biobutanol, and they would be technical in nature. The agreed to handle my questions, but it took a bit of time and some back and forth before I got the answers.

So below are my questions (denoted “RR”) and the unedited answers I received via e-mail from Rick Wilson (denote “RW”), CEO of Cobalt Technologies. If I have additional commentary on Dr. Wilson’s answer, I will indicate it as “RR: Comment:…

Butanol Q&A With Cobalt Technologies CEO Rick Wilson

RR: Can you take me through your process? How does it differ from the ABE process that became uncompetitive once the petrochemical route was discovered?

RW: We start by using waste biomass, such as tree bark, forest waste, bagasse from sugar cane production, palm waste, and extract the sugars “a proprietary cook”.   The fact that we can use inexpensive waste feedstocks, which reduces the cost of production by $2/gallon, is the first key difference with the ABE process which uses expensive food-based feedstocks like corn and sugar. We ferment the cellulosic sugars to n-butanol.  Standard ABE fermentations require 72 hours to complete, but we get the same job done in 4 hours, which shrinks all the equipment thereby reducing investment costs. Then we separate to n-butanol.  Because we can make n-butanol at such a low cost, we can convert it to butyraldehyde which is used to make 2EH, and we can dehydrate it to 1-butene used in a variety of materials.

RR: 2-EH is 2-ethyl hexanol, which is also produced by many butanol manufacturers.

RR: Is it true that you are making i-butanol only?

RW: We make n-butanol, and a very small amount of acetone. N-butanol is a chemical used to make paints and plastics which is our focus market.  We are looking for a partner to work with us to develop a microrganism that makes mostly acetone, which we can convert to propylene for polypropylene, acrylonitrile and other plastic products.

RR: Gevo is a company that plans to produce i-butanol.

RR: Now that I know we are talking about n-butanol, I have a couple of followups. Butanol can be distilled from water, and the lower the titer the more energy intensive the separation. If you can get beyond the concentration at which it phases out of water (7.7% butanol) then you get two phases, one water rich and one butanol rich. So my question is whether you are able to reach phasing concentrations. If not, how high can you go?

RW: No, we do not reach phasing concentrations directly, currently we have to boil off till we get to 7%. However now know to phase out below that concentration (a bit of solvent chemistry learned through our work with the Navy on jet fuel), but have not tested that in our pilot yet.

RR: While there are solvents that can preferentially extract butanol from water, the butanol ultimately has to be distilled from the solvent. So there is no free lunch here. There may be certain solvents that can reduce the energy requirements somewhat, but distillation is still going to be required.

RR: The route from butanol back to butyraldehyde doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. In the chemical industry, we make butyraldehyde and then hydrogenate it to butanol, because butanol is a higher-value product. If it weren’t, we would just stop and sell the butyraldehyde (and we do a little bit, but most of it is turned into butanol). So why wouldn’t you just sell the butanol?

RW: Correct. First we sell to the butanol market. It is 1.2 BGPY. However the butyraldehyde market is equally as large, so with a little chemistry we double our market potential across oxo alcohols, economically only because we can make butanol at such a low cost that the butyraldehyde route makes sense (you would never do this via petroleum butanol).

RR: Even so, butanol commands a higher price in the marketplace because the conventional way of making it requires extra steps beyond butyraldehyde. So if someone could really make cheap butanol, they should sell it as butanol even if they took market share from other butanol producers, which could then leave those producers to pursue the less lucrative butyraldehyde market. Cobalt will have to make a lot of butanol before they need to worry about turning any into butyraldehyde.

RR: What is known about using i-butanol (or n-butanol) as fuel? Who has tested it?

RW: BP Butamax and Gevo make i-butanol for fuels from sugar and corn, and BP has done extensive engine testing and its a great story. However we do not see the economics of using sugar or corn ever supporting using any kind of butanol as a gasoline or diesel fuel additive without subsidies, although it is a great molecule for that purpose.  We have an arrangement with the Navy to develop jet fuel from n-butanol derived from waste cellulosics, but the economics only work if you can locate the plants close to the demand, which we can.

RR: I think that’s a very important point, and the distinction is often lost on people. Butanol is a great molecule for a gasoline engine, but it may not ultimately be an economical one.

RR: Are there any hurdles that need to be jumped before butanol is used as transportation fuel?

RW: For jet fuel we need to get certification for use through ASTM “American Society of Test Methods” and the jet engine manufactures. Cobalt is working to get our jet fuel approved currently participating on the ASTM task force to do exactly that.

RR:What percentage mixes do you envision would work in an engine? I presume it would be a gasoline/butanol mixture and not pure butanol?

RW: We are not focused on gasoline.  We believe our jet fuel will be 100% replacement, i.e. meeting jet spec D 1655, perhaps the only route to achieving the existing petroleum spec.

RR: Recently the EPA came out and said that there was presently no route for Range Fuels to get cellulosic credits for their methanol process. That is expected to be rectified, but are there still regulatory issues to be worked out before butanol can qualify for tax credits?

RW: We are not focused on gasoline or diesel.  We are developing our jet fuel so that it does not need to have subsidies to be economic.

RR: If you look at their news archives, sometime near the end of 2009 news releases stopped referring to Cobalt Biofuels and began to identify the company as Cobalt Technologies. My guess is that the reason for this is that butanol sells for too much to be considered as a motor fuel. According to my former manager at Celanese — and I checked with him just before I wrote this story — butanol is currently selling for about $7 per gallon. Add the fact that the energy content is less than gasoline, and it is simply too far beyond a price that could be competitive with gasoline. After all, the conventional method of producing butanol starts with raw materials not far removed from gasoline (propylene and natural gas) and then goes through a number of processing steps to turn those into butanol. So, butanol tends to sell for a lot more than gasoline does. Thus, I believe that Cobalt decided that there were more lucrative markets than the motor fuel market, hence the de-emphasis on “biofuels.”

RR: What is the tolerance of your microbes to the alcohols (i.e., what sort of titers do you achieve?)

RW: We have overcome the butanol tolerance issue over the range of sugar concentrations used in our process. Our rate of production with hemicellulose C5 sugars is 3.7 g/liter/hour.

RR: What is your cost of production today?

RW: $1.90/gallon, and we expect to get costs down to $1.50/gallon by next year. N-butanol from petroleum costs $4.00/gallon to produce.

RR: I think butanol from petroleum currently costs more than $4/gallon to produce at today’s oil prices. And if Cobalt could really produce butanol for under $2/gallon, they could dominate the entire butanol market, which as Dr. Wilson says is over a billion gallons per year. But count me among those skeptical that they have the technology today to produce butanol for under $2 per gallon. If they can, they can sign up customers right now for $6 per gallon — $1 less than market price — and sell hundreds of millions of gallons per year.  My guess is that they have models that they are using to project that once they build a full scale plant (and maybe resolve some technical issues) that will be their production price. But these models are often based on assumptions for cheap or even negative cost feedstocks — and that may not be a good assumption in the long run.

RR: What sort of piloting have you done? At what scale and for how long?

RW: We have been piloting our technology 24X7 since June 2009 on a wide range of cellulosic feedstocks, one ton per day feedstock equivalent.  We are building a demo unit with 500,000 GPY representing a 100X scaleup.

RR: 500,000 gal/yr is 33 barrels per day, so that would put current production at a third of a barrel a day. At that level of production, I don’t believe that one can estimate a cost of production for a commercial facility (maybe 10,000 times the size of their lab unit) with a high level of certainty.

RR: What are some major challenges you still need to overcome?

RW: The technology already performs at commercial targets. The only challenge is to raise enough money needed to run the company until we can build a plant that pays the bills.

RR: Can you point me to some granted patents or any peer-reviewed literature that covers the process?

RW: Please see attached, one of our key patent filings.

RR: The attached patent was an international patent application, WO 2009/126795 A2: Immobilized Product Tolerant Microorganisms.

With that, I would like to thank Dr. Wilson for taking the time to answer my questions. Without really delving into their models, it is hard for me to estimate the likelihood of producing butanol for under $2/gallon — but they have a lot of scaling up before they can challenge competitors in the butanol market. If they can produce for $2/gallon, they could be a billion dollar company.

I use my former employer Celanese as a sort of sanity check here; butanol was only one of many chemicals they made, and their market cap has been a few billion dollars for several years (currently $6.8 billion). Butanol probably only made up 10-20% of Celanese’s overall business, so that helps give me some order of magnitude idea of the value of a company that could potentially compete in the butanol market. (Celanese spun off the oxo chemicals business line in 2007 into a new company, OXEA, but a market cap for the company isn’t available as it is part of a larger private equity company).

My comments aren’t meant to convey doubt as to Cobalt’s chance of success, but I do think it is important to keep in perspective exactly where they are in the process of commercialization.

  1. By MDP on February 17, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    I still take some issue with the strategic plan being considered by Cobalt and USDoD.

    Whether the technology is proven and certified is one set of issues, and if the technology is shown to be valid both technically and economically, that will provide another avenue of sourcing bio-jet fuels for commercial aviation.

    However, I continue to dislike the idea that this technology platform could be deployed to forward-operating positions to reduce the risks associated with moving fuel along long supply chains via convoys of tanker trucks. The placement of a facility capable of producing 20 MGY of jet fuel (just a wild guess at the scale needed to service a year’s operations) is just as expensive and risky from a security standpoint. Then your ENTIRE fuel supply is contingent on one well-placed, well-planned attack. And what happens to the facility after operations cease? Dismantle and move to your next war zone? (How many wars are we planning on being in over the next 30 years, anyway?)

    Less politically charged, but still controversial is the idea that all existing biomass in a given combat arena (or in a geography close to said arena) will have to be removed from the landscape. This is assuming there is no existing waste biomass nearby that the facility could source. So, without an existing dedicated source of waste biomass, you’re stuck with just clearing large land areas of all existing biomass. And once it’s all removed, do you then have to begin producing biomass crops to continue to feed the plant? What about those supply chain risks? Or, do you dismantle the plant and move it closer to the next large source of biomass nearby? And how environmentally damaging is all this biomass utilization in areas that were not intended to have the biomass removed?

    Just a lot of questions I have about Cobalt and DoD trying to make this partnership and technology fit their agendas. N-butanol in strategic locations utilizing waste biomass is fine for commercial aviation; I am generally opposed to the idea of using this technology platform in the ways imagined by USDoD.

    Any thoughts?

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  2. By carbonbridge on February 17, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    MDP said:

    I still take some issue with the strategic plan being considered by Cobalt and USDoD.

    What about those supply chain risks? Or, do you dismantle the plant and move it closer to the next large source of biomass nearby?

    Just a lot of questions I have about Cobalt and DoD trying to make this partnership and technology fit their agendas. N-butanol in strategic locations utilizing waste biomass is fine for commercial aviation; I am generally opposed to the idea of using this technology platform in the ways imagined by USDoD.  Any thoughts?


     

    MDP:  You bring to light some VERY legitimate questions in how to strategically integrate new biofuels (or even traditional liquid petroleum fuels) into active zones of concentrated military activity. 

    Most of us realize that a gallon of diesel fuel produced on a different continent costs U.S. taxpayers upwards of $100 per gallon by the time it is delivered to troops engaged in specific war zones.  These types of cost comparisons have been made occassionally over the past several decades by certain editors who attempt in vain to point out the obvious here, “like going to war to protect crude oil supplies – when the refined petroleum distillate products of crude cost so much to get back into these exact same zones of interest and military activity’.  I’m sure that the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine logistics personel who have escorted tanker ships through the Persian Gulf are more familiar with this problem and its associated costs than are the rest of us.

    I made the following point recently on another RR Butanol thread…

    “Need I mention Floating Plantships producing direct volumes [of GTL higher mixed alcohols] for Military combustion in areas of theatre operations?”  [Feb 12th, 2011]  ie: Reintroducing Butanol

    http://www.consumerenergyrepor…..g-butanol/

    We could go into complete new essay(s) in discussion of a Floating GTL Plantship concept which was identified and various blueprints drawn up for its construction beginning back in the mid 1980′s.  Such a floating GTL alcohol fuel-producing refinery would be anchored offshore and its abundant and low-cost hydrocarbon feedstock would be waste methane flare gas gathered (via snorkel pipes) from 3-4-5 offshore oil wells.  This methane flare gas would be converted onboard this floating refinery to output either as C1 methanol or as a synthetic blend of C1-C10 higher mixed alcohols in such quantities that this production platform would need a tanker ship to offload liquid (biodegradable) new fuel volumes every five days.  Such tankers would beach and offload fuel cargo at the shoreline for the Military or other customers and return back to the anchored GTL Plantship to pick up the next load of biofuel. 

    When specific military activities were quelled, this Floating Plantship refinery would lift anchor and steam or be towed by a Destroyer to another offshore location.  Blueprints for this ship were drawn up and have been modified over the years – yet the first copy of this offshore refinery vessel has never been constructed anywhere in the world to the best of my knowledge.

    When I first began investigating this ‘floating refinery’ concept about 1995 and meeting with some of the original scientists and chemical engineers behind this idea – many of us had concluded that enough waste flare gas existed to supply maybe 350 of these GTL Plantship refinery boats around the world.  A specific Dept. of Transportation study (commissioned under then Sec’y Elizabeth Dole) had concluded that there was enough waste methane flare gas associated with oil producing platforms located (only) offshore of Santa Barbara to supply 60 of these Floating GTL Plantship refineries.  This same volume of offshore California flaregas being converted into simple C1 MeOH (Indy 500 Race Car fuel for 37 years) through 60 of these offshore refinery vessels in the late 1980′s would have produced enough C1 methanol volume to equate and totally offset (at 25¢ per gallon or less) the same volumes of crude oil being imported into the USA each year via OPEC oil exporters.

    This same interpretive study was scissored and disappeared from the basement of Ron Regan’s White House and never made it to Congress although a copy of it was obtained and patched to certain EPA liquid fuel personnel working in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Then a few copies of this document were tediously re-assembled and worked their way into a few hands.  This snippet of true history continues much deeper but not here, not today, not in this format.

    Years later the same original scientists behind this GTL Plantship design (both boat builders and GTL chemical engineers) began to look at producing a much stronger BTU and higher octane mixed alcohol on this exact same type of Floating Plantship instead of outputting simple C1 methanol, still the largest volume chemical being sold on earth today.  And then in a re-review of this same offshore refinery concept being FIRST utilized by the Military Establishment, the estimates of waste methane flare gas quantities available in late 2006 was re-estimated to be high enough to supply about 1,000 of these same floating refineries on a global basis.

    Yet nothing has moved forward herein while methane shale gas horizontal drilling techniques and fracking has entered into the domestic equation with the DOE and EIA announcing last year that America’s reserves of C1 methane had just been bumped up about 34% of previous estimates.  Whether one looks onshore or offshore, planet earth has very high volumes of available gaseous methane availlable.  Should we clamor for pressurized bottled CH4 to be integrated into the existing transportation infrastructure?  Or should we all be considering something new, something GTL produced via 90 yr. old proven methods and outputting in ambient temps/pressures/high (biodegradaable) volumes which would be seamless to integrate into present day ground or airline transportation?

    And what I reference herein is something GTL which competes head-on with Fischer-Tropsch production of expensive yet cleaner burning oils.

    There remains many logical and practical methods for America and other countries to immediately and intensively become more self-sufficient in liquid energy supplies while we collectively wait for a ‘Tesla-type’ of black box to be demonstrated which produces electricity from the ether of the blue planet’s atmosphere itself.  Until then, what are we going to do?  Back the Tea Party with their drill baby drill mantras?  Or will the USA venture further into the last bastions of giant oilfields across the world to protect source contracts? 

    Where will the political unrest now spreading across the Middle East go?  What will regime changes mean to daily OPEC crude oil imports arriving to the USA and to other countries?  I can only guess…  Yet I’m particularly well-aware that all hydrocarbon oils and coal still phase separate from water on this blue planet – including their uncombusted emissions streams forming oily, smoggy brown air which now billows between continents.

    –Mark

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  3. By rrapier on February 17, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Optimist said:

    The main reason I say that is they have done something very few next generation biofuel companies have done: Produce more than 100,000 gallons of fuel.

    I guess the question remains: who did they sell that 100,000 gals to, and would that customer be back for more? If yes, how much more?

    I think Iogen sold to Shell, who seems to have gotten the heck out of Dodge. Who did Solazyme sell to? DoD?


     

    Yeah, military. I covered it in this story: http://www.consumerenergyrepor…..ies-costs/

    RR

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  4. By rbm on February 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Thank you very much for this article. The article’s format makes it very easy for myself, an applied sciences technician, to understand at a very fundamental level.

     

    Great Work !

     

     

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  5. By Terry on February 14, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    RR: 500,000 gal/yr is 33 barrels per day, so that would put current production at a third of a barrel a day. At that level of production, I don’t believe that one can estimate a cost of production for a commercial facility (maybe 10,000 times the size of their lab unit) with a high level of certainty.

     

    So if they are able to get this 500,000 GPY demo plant working, they would need to do another 100X scale up to reach production scale?  Does these scale up values look right to you?  Or are they trying too large a jump in scale?

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  6. By rrapier on February 15, 2011 at 12:22 am

    Does these scale up values look right to you? Or are they trying too large a jump in scale?

    There is no definite answer on what is too large a jump. It really depends on which pieces of equipment are seeing the large scaling factor, and how many pieces of equipment. For instance, if you really only have uncertainty around one piece of equipment — and you have some supporting data from perhaps a similar case — then a factor of 100 might not be a concern. On the other hand, if you are scaling up three pieces of equipment that have a lot of uncertainty around them, you are asking for a problem.

    But the fact that they need to scale up twice to get to a commercial facility suggests to me that they may be as much as a decade away from competing even if everything goes as planned.

    RR

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  7. By Rick Wilson, Cobalt on February 15, 2011 at 1:25 am

    Cobalt is looking to build a 10MGPY facility after our DEMO for a 20X scale-up. If we sell at n-butanol at $7, and our cost is say $2, that means we will generate 10MGPY x (7-2) = $50M per year, which means we will be the first company to develop technology in this space that actually earns money, which his how we define success.

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  8. By rrapier on February 15, 2011 at 2:14 am

    Rick Wilson, Cobalt said:

    Cobalt is looking to build a 10MGPY facility after our DEMO for a 20X scale-up. If we sell at n-butanol at $7, and our cost is say $2, that means we will generate 10MGPY x (7-2) = $50M per year, which means we will be the first company to develop technology in this space that actually earns money, which his how we define success.


     

    Thanks for dropping by, Rick. That’s a timely comment, because I have been thinking of writing an essay on this theme: Of second generation biofuels, who is likely to make money? I can’t think of anyone who is actually making money today, but I can think of some that may make money. If you can really make butanol at $2 per gallon, you will no doubt make money. I think Solazyme has a shot of making money. But there aren’t a whole lot in this space that will still be standing a decade from now, IMO.

    RR

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  9. By moiety on February 15, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Two things for now that interest me in the article.

    1. RW: We have overcome the butanol tolerance issue over the range of sugar concentrations used in our process. Our rate of production with hemicellulose C5 sugars is 3.7 g/liter/hour.
    2. RR:What is your cost of production today? RW: $1.90/gallon, and we expect to get costs down to $1.50/gallon by next year. 

     

     

    1. The fermentation time is 4 hours hours. Seeing as that Cobalt do not get to the 2 phase concentration and not knowing the type of fermentation (fed batch?, volume constant? etc), it is hard to see the final output concentration and thus get a feel for the energy cost of the separation. This concentration if significantly high (even 3% for now) would be a real indicator of a breakthrough and potential for further development.   
    2. I never like this kind of prediction. It is too aggressive I feel. Anyone who says that reductions of costs by 20% are certainly going to raise eyebrows in my book. What is worse I would suggest is that this is not necessary. If Cobalt can produce at $2 or even as mentioned earlier, $6 then they can undercut the market. Delivered prices from oxo-alcohols reports for n-butanol was 129USc/lb in August 2010 according to http://www.icis.com. This works out around $8.7/USgal. That is a huge margin even at $6 production. I would like to see that margin proven first publically before I see further cost reductions being mentioned. Further there are already enough challenges in the current climate in increasing the plant fleet size so I should not focus on these points until the first margin is proven.
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  10. By RJP on February 15, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Thanks Robert. Great interview.

    Did you ever ask about the logistics challenge of assembling a critical amount of biomass such that a single plant could be an economical producer of n-butanol? Wondering if there is a minimum size, what the biomass requirement per day of that plant would be and what the logistics would involve. As you’ve pointed out in past articles about cellulosic conversion technologies, often underestimated is the amount of biomass needed per day to make these plants economical.

    My sense from the Cobalt conversation is that in theory there is a lot of tree biomass affected by pine beetle invasion that is available as a biomass source, but I wonder how its location and cost to transport to a Cobalt site correlates to the economics of their n-butanol production.

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  11. By russ-finley on February 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    The only challenge is to raise enough money needed to run the company until we can build a plant that pays the bills.

    Huh, heard that one before.

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  12. By Optimist on February 15, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    I think Solazyme has a shot of making money.

    Why?

    If algal fermentation is so great, how come nobody thought of doing it so far?

    And any system based on algal lipids has a remote chance of success, IMHO. You can increase the lipid content, at the cost of reducing overall efficiency, but lipid efficiency seems to remain low, regardless of the approach.

    The Solazyme approach appears to have not one, but two bottlenecks: 1) using only the fermentable portion of the feedstock and 2) relying on lipids for their products.

    I would rate Solazyme as LOW likelihood of success.

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  13. By rrapier on February 15, 2011 at 11:52 pm

    Optimist said:

    I think Solazyme has a shot of making money.

    Why?

    If algal fermentation is so great, how come nobody thought of doing it so far?

    And any system based on algal lipids has a remote chance of success, IMHO. You can increase the lipid content, at the cost of reducing overall efficiency, but lipid efficiency seems to remain low, regardless of the approach.

    The Solazyme approach appears to have not one, but two bottlenecks: 1) using only the fermentable portion of the feedstock and 2) relying on lipids for their products.

    I would rate Solazyme as LOW likelihood of success.


     

    The main reason I say that is they have done something very few next generation biofuel companies have done: Produce more than 100,000 gallons of fuel. Who knows if they will scale that successfully, but they have managed to deliver something. Of course Iogen has also produced a few hundred thousand gallons of cellulosic ethanol over the past few years, and they don’t seem to be any closer to commercialization. But at least Solazyme has passed the test of “Can they really produce something?” Range Fuels spent a third of a billion dollars and failed that test.

    RR

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  14. By niel barnard on February 16, 2011 at 1:34 am

    enjoy your blog with great inciteful content . i am trying to get my head around the current state of various 2 G technologies to get a feel for who is ahead of the game ( arn’t we all). It seems as if the folks at Kior are expecting great things from their techology are certainly making ambitious noises and at a non expert level the technology seems to overcome some of the technical and commercial problems faced by most other thechnological pathways – care to comment?

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  15. By moiety on February 16, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Robert Rapier said:

    RW: No, we do not reach phasing concentrations directly, currently we have to boil off till we get to 7%. However now know to phase out below that concentration (a bit of solvent chemistry learned through our work with the Navy on jet fuel), but have not tested that in our pilot yet.

    RR: While there are solvents that can preferentially extract butanol from water, the butanol ultimately has to be distilled from the solvent. So there is no free lunch here. There may be certain solvents that can reduce the energy requirements somewhat, but distillation is still going to be required.


     

    Some salts can also be used as well as some acids (lactic, acetic). From my memory using certain salts, I reckon you could adjust the phase diagram to get a composition on the top layer circa 97% butanol/3% water and x% (<<1%) salt (you should also get a leaner water phase). Removal of the salt of course is the tricky item as it would preferentially go with the high boiler butanol so distillation is out.

    Further the second column in the butanol distillation scheme would be the lower energy column using somewhere in the region of 15% of total boilup energy according to the article below (based on a 7.7wt% feed ideal system). I guess gains are not going to be huge.

    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10…../ef8004064

     

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  16. By rrapier on February 16, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    niel barnard said:

    enjoy your blog with great inciteful content . i am trying to get my head around the current state of various 2 G technologies to get a feel for who is ahead of the game ( arn’t we all). It seems as if the folks at Kior are expecting great things from their techology are certainly making ambitious noises and at a non expert level the technology seems to overcome some of the technical and commercial problems faced by most other thechnological pathways – care to comment?


     

    Hi Niel,

    I would say the most troublesome aspect of KiOR is that it is being pushed by some of the same people who brought us Range Fuels. So in my view the credibility of the claims is questionable right away. The other thing is that I have seen certain representations of what they are doing that I know to be wrong. For instance, it has been claimed that their product is like crude oil. In fact, it isn’t remotely like crude oil. Theirs is a catalytic pyrolysis process that they claim does some upgrading of the oil. But pyrolysis oil is nothing like crude oil, and has many steps that must be undertaken before it can be turned into a motor fuel. What they get out of their reactor will still require significant processing.

    RR

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  17. By Optimist on February 16, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    The main reason I say that is they have done something very few next generation biofuel companies have done: Produce more than 100,000 gallons of fuel.

    I guess the question remains: who did they sell that 100,000 gals to, and would that customer be back for more? If yes, how much more?

    I think Iogen sold to Shell, who seems to have gotten the heck out of Dodge. Who did Solazyme sell to? DoD?

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  18. By David W. Faulkner on February 17, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    As the guardian of the Peter Booras estate and Yankee Energy I’m willing to talk about the viability of our proposed methanol plantships.

     

    If you would like to know more about Peter Booras and his plantship concept please contact me at Yankeedave@aol.com.

    David W. Faulkner

    [link]      
  19. By Optimist on February 17, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Yeah, military. I covered it in this story:

    Of course you did. Any opinion on whether DoD is help or a hinderance to biofuels, RR? My take is that DoD is finally saving the biofuel industry from being the Congress-supported welfare queen it has become.

    This is assuming there is no existing waste biomass nearby that the facility could source.

    Talk about an utterly senseless assumption. What? Countries we invade don’t have landfills? They don’t use the restroom, hence no sewage sludge? They have developed the “paperless office” to a reality, and hence have no wastepaper? And, of course, once we invade, our soldiers accept the local customs, and produce NO waste themselves!

    Waste to fuel makes great sense everywhere. It’s a sad reflection on the US that it is DoD and not the civilians that are taking the lead in developing this. Of course, paying $140/gal has a way of focussing the mind.

    Then your ENTIRE fuel supply is contingent on one well-placed, well-planned attack

    .
    Oh, don’t be daft! A forward operating base with its own biofuel plant now have options not currently available to commanders. If the biofuel plant gets bombed, how hard is it to pick up the radio and order old-fashioned fossil fuels delivered the old-fashioned way?

    Then out of Pandora’s Box comes a [KISS] fixed-bed catalyst which is loaded into a 90 yr. old basic C1 GTL methanol plant. This proprietary catalyst then builds this simple C1 MeOH molecule back onto itself to form six, eight or ten higher, normal linear alcohols into a combined blend of synthetically-produced, [formula and usage patented] higher mixed alcohols mimicking C4 butanol yet continuous via GTL — not via any sort of batch fermented process. And this century-old original GTL [chemical] MeOH production process is now outputting at twice its previous thermal efficiency in converting midstream CO & H2 syngas into MeOH.

    BTW, Mark,
    On the other thread I asked if you had a link to more info on all this. It got kinda drowned out in the shouting match that followed, unfortunately.

    [link]      
  20. By carbonbridge on February 18, 2011 at 4:03 am

    Optimist said:

    BTW, Mark,

    On the other thread I asked if you had a link to more info on all this. It got kinda drowned out in the shouting match that followed, unfortunately.


     

    Dear Optimist:  Links for further background info were posted on this blog in early December.  I have recently committed to launching a brand new discussion on the topic of higher mixed alcohols GTL synthesis at a new URL link to be announced very soon.  An initial and summary overview of this special technology will be made public.  Then additional pre-NDA discussion plus q&a will be held with those persons willing to unmask and participate using their true identity.  Today, it may not be appropriate to further compare and contrast elements of this particular subject on RR’s blog amid present discusions where (i) Butanol fermentation is attempting to shine while simultaneously Range Fuels and their ligno-cellulosic ethanol [?] is currently going through a public autopsy.  Arguments and public distractions which are continuing here on RR’s blog as the new norm with probable paid shills or hacks – will not be tolerated.  In the interim I’d be happy to discuss your own interests offline   mark at carbonbridge dot net   Try me.  Thanks for your interest.

    –Mark

    [link]      
  21. By Walt on April 18, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Moiety said:

    May be of interest.

     

    http://worldbiofuelsmarkets.info/?p=979


     

    Really interesting…it is definitely a list of who’s who in the space.  I could not agree more than chemicals, rather than fuels, is better economically.  We recently saw a study on our technology where we should ignore the methanol fuels idea, and move to chemicals as an intermediary.  This was always our plan, but they made it obvious using the same financial argument as Biofuels Digest does in the article.  This chart given to us in the report helped us see why fighting to make cheap methanol to beat other jumbo scale producers (or for fuel blending) is going nowhere.

     
    Euro Spot ($/tonne)

    Type Freight Charges**

    Ethylene

    1,5550-1,600

    CIF

    Propylene

    1,760-1788*

    CIF

    Butadiene

    2,300-2,350

    FOB

    Orthoxylene

    1,340-1,350

    FOB

    Paraxylene

    1,680-1,690

    FOB

    Benzene

    1,195-1,200

    FOB

    Methanol

    379-381*

    FOB

    MTBE

    1,210-1,217

    FOB

    [link]      
  22. By moiety on April 18, 2011 at 7:32 am
    [link]      
  23. By carbonbridge on April 18, 2011 at 11:20 am

      Walt said:

    I could not agree more than chemicals, rather than fuels, is better

    economically.  We recently saw a study on our technology where we should

    ignore the methanol fuels idea, and move to chemicals as an

    intermediary.


     

    While selling pieces/parts isolated from low volume batch fermenting processes into the chemical markets may appear to make the best money – there are limitations to how deep these market volumes are — when compared to the GIANT fuel pools.  I’ve studied this to some degree when looking at selling a mixed alcohol blend FOB neat/rack price for $2.85 vs: isolating individual components via expensive steam distillation methods and selling some of these highly purified pieces/parts for $7 or even $12 per gallon.  However – these individualized components have such a limited volume market in global comparison to the combined ‘fuel’ mixture itself – that only one major plant could generate greater profits this way. 

    Walt:  I also note that the only ‘chemical’ on your list above which will easily biodegrade is C1 methanol.  All of these other hydrocarbon compounds [with the exception of MTBE] still phase separate and float-on-water as all OILs do.  So is the net result to make the most money [typical] – or to accomplish the most planetary good in the near term?

    –Mark

    [link]      
  24. By Walt on April 18, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    CarbonBridge said:

      Walt said:

    I could not agree more than chemicals, rather than fuels, is better

    economically.  We recently saw a study on our technology where we should

    ignore the methanol fuels idea, and move to chemicals as an

    intermediary.


     

    While selling pieces/parts isolated from low volume batch fermenting processes into the chemical markets may appear to make the best money – there are limitations to how deep these market volumes are — when compared to the GIANT fuel pools.  I’ve studied this to some degree when looking at selling a mixed alcohol blend FOB neat/rack price for $2.85 vs: isolating individual components via expensive steam distillation methods and selling some of these highly purified pieces/parts for $7 or even $12 per gallon.  However – these individualized components have such a limited volume market in global comparison to the combined ‘fuel’ mixture itself – that only one major plant could generate greater profits this way. 

    Walt:  I also note that the only ‘chemical’ on your list above which will easily biodegrade is C1 methanol.  All of these other hydrocarbon compounds [with the exception of MTBE] still phase separate and float-on-water as all OILs do.  So is the net result to make the most money [typical] – or to accomplish the most planetary good in the near term?

    –Mark


     

    Good question Mark.  Someone also corrected me on the volume of the markets today.  Fuels drawf the chemicals sector where gasoline can drop in to a “million” places and chemicals into “ten” based upon better quality alone.  I suspect the list was intended to say “green chemicals” using GasTechno with methanol/formaldehyde as the intermediate…and biogas/biomethane/landfill gas as the feedstock.  To scale down so small, and try to make a profit at $1.25 / gal. methanol is not likely.  The “add-on” green concept attracts customers in this carbon economy, and where green chemicals get attention (see the biofuels digest list…even if those companies won’t make a profit at small scales).

    Sometimes add-on’s make sense if it is “green” and “clean”…so let’s say net result is most money and planetary good, if possible.

    [link]      
  25. By Ben on July 14, 2014 at 9:32 am

    If these values are real ($1.90 per gal!!!) they should be looking at ever market including gasoline additive. I was reading greencarcongress and is it true

    Cobalt Technologies now has a 100,000 L/day plant?

    [link]      
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