Posts tagged “cellulose”
A few people have asked if I can reproduce more of my Forbes columns here, because they don’t like wading through the ads there to get to the content. This week I wrote an update on the progress toward cellulosic ethanol commercialization, and given my previous coverage on the topic (especially Why I Don’t Ride a Unicorn to Work) this seems like an appropriate subject to discuss here.
Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that during the first quarter of 2016, just over 1 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol were produced. In fact, production for the month of March jumped 64% from the previous month to 446,000 gallons produced, the highest levels of the modern era. Production this year is well ahead of the pace in 2015, when 2.2 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol were produced for the entire year.
So, have we finally reached the long-promised realization of commercial cellulosic ethanol? CONTINUE»
Ten years ago a visionary named Vinod Khosla gave a presentation called Biofuels: Think Outside the Barrel. It seems to have disappeared from his Khosla Ventures website, but you can find an archived version here. In that presentation Mr. Khosla outlined his vision for biofuels. He projected that ethanol produced from biomass – aka “cellulosic ethanol” – would scale up rapidly. From zero commercial production in 2006, Khosla foresaw the first 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol hitting the market in 2008 (see Slide 78), ramping rapidly to 2.5 billion gallons in 2011, 14.6 billion gallons in 2015, and ultimately 173 billion gallons per year by 2030. Combined with corn ethanol production, he believed cellulosic ethanol could totally end U.S. dependence on petroleum for transportation fuel – but he needed to get the government on board to foot some costs.
Khosla addressed potential obstacles in his presentation. Certainly cellulosic ethanol wouldn’t fail because of technology. There were too many companies working on it. The magic of Moore’s Law and black swans would be the ticket to success. (As an aside, he doesn’t seem to understand the black swan theory, as he frequently cites these “high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events” as an expected outcome). The only real barrier he could identify was those despicable oil companies, who had to be shaking in their boots that this 100-year old upstart technology would spell their demise.
But he would deal with the oil companies through legislation by forcing them to purchase this product that had yet to be commercialized. So he lobbied, and he testified before Congress. He lost a vote or two, but he was instrumental in getting cellulosic ethanol mandates included in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The EPA was charged with implementing the RFS, and they based the mandated volumes on the amount that potential cellulosic ethanol producers claimed they would be able to produce. For 2010 the EPA was counting on 100 million gallons of cellulosic fuels based on claims primarily from two companies associated with Vinod Khosla: Range Fuels and Cello Energy. CONTINUE»
There was a recent article in MIT Technology review called What’s Holding Biofuels Back? There is a relatively simple answer to the question that I will delve into below, but the short answer to “What’s holding biofuels back?” is that we placed unreasonable expectations on them to begin with, and they have simply failed to meet those unreasonable expectations. People would think it was unreasonable if Congress mandated a cure for the common cold within 5 years, but they don’t think twice when Congress mandates the creation of a cellulosic ethanol industry within 5 years. Yet either scenario requires technical breakthroughs that are not assured. The article notes that the cellulosic ethanol mandate for 2010 in the U.S. was cut… Continue»
The USDA has just issued a report detailing the outlook and challenges of next generation biofuels.
I have written several essays on Xethanol over the past few years. If you recall, they were a poster child for the theme of “overpromise, boost your stock price, and get rich quick” on biofuels. For me, this story dates back to 2006, when an investigative journalist working for Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban e-mailed me and asked about the company’s claims. They had announced that thy would “be the first to commercialize cellulosic ethanol” (if I had a nickel for every time I have heard that), and they issued press releases at every opportunity. It worked for a while – at one point their market cap was something like half a billion dollars – despite the fact that there… Continue»
I missed this story when it came out last week:Hydrocarbon biofuels’ promise tops that of ethanol, gasoline John Regalbuto, a chemical engineer at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and director of the NSF catalysis and biocatalysis program, wrote in Science that biomass-derived fuels are not far from being part of the energy mix as a replacement for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Hydrocarbon fuels can be directly produced from the sugars of woody biomass — forest waste, cornstalks or switchgrass — through microbial fermentation or liquid-phase catalysis, he wrote. They can be produced by pyrolysis or gasification directly from the woody biomass. And they can be produced by converting the lipids of nonfood crops and algae. “The drawback to using… Continue»
I am not a big believer in a commercial future for the biochemical conversion of cellulose into fuels. There are many big hurdles in place that are going to have to be overcome before cellulose is commercially converted to ethanol. In a nutshell, one is the logistical problem, which I have covered before. Beyond the logistical problem is the issue that biochemistry often starts to malfunction as the conditions in a reactor change, and with cellulosic ethanol that means that if you get a 4% solution of ethanol in water, you are doing well. But from an energy return point of view, a 4% solution is about like the trillions barrels of oil shale reserves we have. If it takes… Continue»
This is a continuation of the previous post covering Vinod Khosla’s (VK) recent lengthy interview Milken Institute 2009 Global Conference. The interview was conducted by Elizabeth Corcoran (EC) of Forbes and can be viewed here. In Part I, VK discussed the role of government money, capital intensity of renewable projects, and some of his solar investments. Part II picks up at the 13:40 mark of the 75 minute interview. In this section, VK covers his strategy for cutting poor performers from his portfolio, discusses butanol, suggests that cellulosic ethanol can replace oil, says nuclear power can’t compete without subsidies, says cap and trade is inevitable, talks efficiency and smart grid, and tells us that he is often wrong. EC (13:40):… Continue»
About to hop a plane for Europe, but wanted to share with you a new map from the NRDC that I think is extremely cool: Renewable Energy Map for the U.S. I like this map for two reasons. First, it shows the renewable energy possibilities across the country (solar, wind, cellulosic biomass, and biogas). But second, you can filter by planned and existing facilities for wind, advanced biofuels, and biogas. (However, I think some of the ones that they have called “existing” are not yet producing anything). There are a lot of small facilities that I have never heard of, and need to investigate when I have some time. Offline now for a day or so as I make the… Continue»
Through at least this week, my posting will continue to be sporadic. I have been traveling a lot the past couple of weeks, and this week (Thursday April 23rd) I head to Kansas City to give a talk that will be partially about biofuels and partially about acetylated wood: Economic Forum – Biofuels, Biobuildings, and Beyond After that, I think things will settle down for a little while. I am back in Europe next week, and I usually have more time for writing then (since my family isn’t there, I write in the evenings). For now, there is an interesting series of articles that will be published this week at Scientific American: Beyond Fossil Fuels: Energy Leaders Weigh In Here… Continue»