Being First Is Risky

The April issue of EPM contains articles about lignin, algae-to-ethanol production, the process to develop new yeasts for cellulosic ethanol production and biogas entering the D3 RIN market, writes Tom Bryan of BBI International.
By Tom Bryan | March 19, 2015

“Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” I’ve heard that smooth Alexander Pope quote used a few times over the years to describe the mindset ethanol producers have about taking early risks on new technologies. It turns out that Pope’s advice—and he had lots of it—applies perfectly to how America’s first major cellulosic ethanol players are looking at novel coproducts. In the spirit of Pope’s words, they’re holding off on anything that’s uncertain.
In “Fired Up By Lignin,” we learn that Abengoa Bioenergy, Poet-DSM and DuPont are each taking safe approaches to cellulosic ethanol coproducts. EPM Managing Editor Holly Jessen reports that, for now, the vast array of high-value products that could accompany cellulosic ethanol production are being placed on the back burner while producers get past startup and meet volume expectations. Rather than chasing chemicals, resins, acids or fibers from the lignin that’s left over when corn stover and cobs are converted to ethanol, Poet-DSM and Abengoa are simply burning their lignin for power; and DuPont is going to sell its lignin to a third-party buyer. Anything is possible, though, and even substituting ethanol itself for a more valuable product is on the table in the future.  

The subject of our cover story, “Green Expectations,” has all but ignored Pope’s eloquent counsel. As Jessen explains, Algenol CEO Paul Woods is quite comfortable being “the first by whom the new” is tried. Algenol has engineered and brought to market a technology that harnesses carbon dioxide, sunlight and saltwater to make algae which, in turn, yields ethanol and green crude oil. You’ll enjoy this story because the company’s platform is so different than anything else being done today to make ethanol.

We look at more original things being tried in “Yearning For New Yeasts,” EPM Senior Editor Susanne Retka Schill reports that the genetically modified yeasts being developed for cellulosic ethanol are not actually subject to approval by the federal government but rather just cleared from review. Essentially, when the U.S. EPA and Food and Drug Administration stop asking questions about these new microorganisms, the road to market is at hand. Navigating this acronym-laden pathway to GM yeast approval is complicated and fraught with uncertainty, but the fact that a few yeasts have now been successfully reviewed is a positive sign for the whole industry.

Finally, this month, we take a look at the instructive world of renewable identification numbers (RINs) for biogas, which has been the hottest segment of the cellulosic, or D3 RINs market lately. In less than a year, D3 RINs associated with cellulosic biogas used as a transportation fuel have soared from almost nothing to more than 32 million units. Our story, “The 2014 D3 RIN Leap—for Biogas,” also by Retka Schill, provides valuable insight on the current dynamics of the exciting D3 market.

Author: Tom Bryan
President & Editor in Chief
[email protected]