ABW: Creating markets for advanced biofuels

By Bryan Sims | September 08, 2008
Web exclusive posted Oct. 1, 2008 at 5:17 p.m. CST

Producing advanced biofuels such as higher corn-based ethanol blends is one thing, but finding a feasible way of introducing a product that makes up approximately 60 percent of the federal renewable fuels standard while complying with U.S. EPA standards is another. This was the overarching theme that speakers reiterated to attendees at the 2008 Advanced Biofuels Workshop & Trade Show in Minneapolis on Sept. 28-30.

Ralph Groschen, senior marketing specialist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, kicked off the concurrent breakout session entitled "Markets for Advanced Biofuels." First, Groschen discussed the inherent economic benefits that come with using and producing ethanol, in addition to the advantages of other burgeoning industries in the state such as biodiesel, biomass and wind. Minnesota, widely considered a trailblazer in the nation when it comes to renewable energy and fuel policies, currently has 19 producing ethanol plants with a combined capacity of 850 MMgy; another three plants are under construction and would total another 270 MMgy. With a substantial amount of supply already installed and more expected to come online, the state is working towards achieving approval for mid to higher level ethanol blends while building the infrastructure necessary to accommodate that demand.

Groschen noted that, like the U.S., Minnesota is in the middle of an E10 "blend wall," which is capped at approximately 260 million gallons per year. In addition to an E10 mandate, Minnesota's goal is to achieve an E20 goal by 2013 with 5 percent coming from cellulosic sources. If cellulosic ethanol is to be sold, a new U.S. market beyond E10 will be required, he added. Groschen outlined three solutions for overcoming the E10 saturation dilemma: increasing to higher blend levels (E20 or E85), increasing the number of blender pumps at retail stations and implementing E20 use in conventional vehicles.

The effort of expanding to higher ethanol blends isn't easy since only flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) are capable of only running on those higher blends. To make this leap, the state has received fervent political support. In May 2005, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed into law legislation that called for the state to move to E20 statewide by 2013. In addition, he boosted the number of E85 vehicles in the state fleet with grants worth more than $500,000. Currently, Minnesota is home to more than 330 retail stations that carry E85 with about 18 blender pumps already in operation—by far the most within any state in the country. The state funded Next Generation Energy initiative increased E85 gas stations from 300 to 1,800 by 2010.

Since E20 will be considered a "new additive" it will have to be certified by the EPA. However, approval will apply on a national level and the EPA is currently seeking guidance from vehicle and small engine manufacturers to see if the blend meets standards. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is currently working with the Renewable Fuels Association on a focused research program to develop data on the performance of E20 in vehicle and small engine fuel systems, as well as material compatibility, vehicle drivability and emissions. Reports will be included in an application to EPA for a 211(f) (4) Waiver to the Clean Air Act, Groschen said.

"Certainly, E85 has its challenges," he said. "Blender pumps are a possible way of achieving a blend somewhere between E10 and E85 in combination with FFVs. If there becomes a significant legal market for conventional vehicles, mid-level blends will require some sort of EPA waiver."

Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol, spoke during the ABW of Minnesota's aggressive movement towards mid- to higher-level ethanol blends and urged other states to follow suit in order to accommodate the commercialization of advanced biofuels easier on a national scale.

"We need the transition of mid-level blends," Jennings said, noting that the U.S. "cannot simply rely on the quantum leap from E10 to E85 to get the job done. I would make the case that if we don't find this pathway and we don't have a market for advanced biofuel, it will chill investment, it will stymie growth and it will slow or delay for years the commercialization of advanced biofuel in my opinion. This is not the corn-based ethanol industry's problem, this is everyone's problem."

In an effort to support its claims that mid- to higher-levels of ethanol blends are commercially viable, ACE is actively conducting studies on various ethanol blends in medium-sized cars and assessing vehicle performance, various emissions tests, durability, drivability, materials compatibility and health effects to name a few.

David Kittelson, director and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, spoke at the conference about Minnesota's efforts on meeting greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction standards and ways to more efficiently achieve those goals. Currently, reductions target total GHG emissions established by the 2007 Minnesota Next Generation Energy Act which calls for a 15 percent reduction by 2015, 30 percent reduction by 2025 and an 80 percent by 2050.

Kittelson and his staff are conducting research to determine what biofuels carry low carbon values for FFVs to meet those GHG reduction goals. Cellulosic ethanol, he said, was the clear-cut winner for achieving emissions reduction in the short-term.

"To reduce the fuel carbon footprint on a long-term basis we have to improve the way we're handling fuels and we really have to look at the second generation of fuels," Kittelson said. "Overall, you get a much better overall footprint from cellulosic ethanol compared to coal-to-liquid, tar sands and obviously petroleum."

Additionally, cellulosic ethanol has competition as an emissions reducer, according to Kittelson. Methanol and dimethyl ether (DME) are other products that have even lower GHG emission profiles than cellulosic ethanol. DME, which has similar physical properties to propone, can be produced from natural gas or biomass, such as wood waste, corn stover and/or prairie grasses. Both DME and methanol production are gaining traction in the pulp and paper industries, which uses the black liquor left over from the pulp and paper process. The Volvo Group, Nissan Motor Co. and Isuzu Motors Ltd. have advanced DME engines ready for production, Kittelson said.

"If you want to really lower your carbon footprint you want to go to something like dimethyl ether and methanol," Kittelson said. "Of all the possible transit fuels, those two have the best fuel carbon footprint."