The Cellulosic Ceiling

The renewable fuel standard calls for 100 MMgy of cellulosic biofuel to be blended into the nation's fuel in 2010, ramping up to 16 billion gallons per year in 2022. Will the U.S. produce enough to satisfy the mandate?
By Ryan C. Christiansen | July 08, 2009
By 2022, the U.S. EPA expects the domestic biofuels industry to produce more than 32 billion gallons per year of renewable fuel. However, less than half of that fuel is expected to be corn-based ethanol. The majority, 16 billion gallons, will be cellulosic biofuel. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 defines cellulosic biofuel as renewable fuel produced from any cellulose, hemicelluloses, or lignin that is derived from renewable biomass and has life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are at least 60 percent less than the baseline life-cycle GHG emissions. The EPA predicts that, in the long run, those 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel will be cellulosic ethanol. However, EISA's definition for cellulosic biofuel leaves open the possibility that the mandate can be met by other fuels.

Federal Investments
The goal of ultimately producing billions of gallons of cellulosic biofuel has a hefty price tag. Between 2002 and 2008, the U.S. DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Biomass Program, established to develop and demonstrate biomass feedstock and conversion technologies for integrated biorefineries and to ensure cellulosic ethanol can be produced cost-effectively by 2012, was allocated more than $800 million in federal funding. Since 2007, the DOE has announced more than $1 billion in multi-year investments in cellulosic biorefineries and since 2006 the USDA has invested almost $600 million to develop biofuel technology.

The bulk of the DOE's investments began in February 2007 when it announced plans to invest $385 million in six biorefinery projects over four years for a total cellulosic ethanol production capacity of 131 MMgy. Combined with the industry cost share, the projects equated to more than $1.2 billion in investments. Projects identified for funding included an 11 MMgy Abengoa Bioenergy SA plant in Kansas, a 14 MMgy Alico Inc. plant in Florida, a 19 MMgy BlueFire Ethanol Fuels Inc. facility in California, a 30 MMgy Poet LLC plant in Iowa, an 18 MMgy Iogen Corp. plant in Idaho, and a 100 MMgy Range Fuels Inc. plant in Georgia.

In May 2007, the DOE announced it would provide up to $200 million over five years to support the development of small-scale cellulosic biorefineries. The first $114 million was allotted in January 2008 for four projects. The companies identified for funding included ICM Inc., Lignol Energy Corp., Pacific Ethanol Inc., and Stora Enso Oyj. The remaining $86 million was allotted to RSE Pulp & Chemical LLC, Mascoma Corp. and Ecofin LLC in April 2008. In July 2008, the DOE announced an additional $40 million investment for two more companies - Flambeau River Biofuels LLC for its project in Wisconsin and Verenium Corp. for its demonstration-scale facility in Louisiana. Seven of the nine plants were funded for cellulosic ethanol and two for cellulosic diesel.

On the research side, both the DOE and the USDA also provided funding to companies and universities. In March 2007, the DOE invested $23 million in five projects to develop highly efficient fermentative organisms to convert biomass material to ethanol; the companies and organizations identified for funding included Cargill Inc., Verenium, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., Mascoma, and Purdue University. In June 2007, the DOE and USDA together awarded $8.3 million to 10 universities for biomass genomic research. During that month, the DOE also announced a $375 million investment in three new bioenergy research centers, including the DOE BioEnergy Science Center, the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, and the DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute.

To close out the year, the DOE awarded $7.7 million in December 2007 to four projects to demonstrate the thermochemical conversion process of biomass-to-biofuels. Then, in February 2008, the DOE invested $33.8 million in four projects to develop improved enzyme systems to convert cellulosic material into sugars suitable for the production of biofuels. The companies identified for funding included DSM Innovation Center Inc. (a partner with Abengoa), Genencor, a division of Danisco A/S, Novozymes A/S, and Verenium.

In March 2008, the DOE and USDA awarded $18 million to 18 universities and research institutes to develop biomass-based products, including biofuels.

To meet renewable fuel standard targets, the U.S. EPA says cellulosic ethanol plant startups must begin in earnest with a few small plants during 2010-'11 and must continue at an increasing pace thereafter with larger plants. The EPA says the rate of growth for the cellulosic ethanol industry should be similar to that of the corn starch-based ethanol industry in recent years.

Finally, in May 2009, the DOE announced that it would provide $786.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to accelerate advanced biofuels research and development and to provide additional funding for commercial-scale biorefinery demonstration projects. Of the total, $480 million will be distributed among 10 to 20 projects for pilot- or demonstration-scale integrated biorefineries that produce advanced biofuels, bioproducts, and heat and power in an integrated system, which must be operational within three years. In addition, $176.5 million will be used to increase the federal funding ceiling on two or more demonstration- or commercial-scale biorefinery projects that were selected and awarded funds within the past two years. Also, $110 million will be used to support new research. Finally, $20 million has been set aside for optimizing flexible fuel vehicle technology, evaluating the impact of higher ethanol blends on conventional vehicles, and upgrading refueling stations to be compatible with ethanol blends up to E85.

Scaling up
To meet renewable fuel standard targets, the EPA says cellulosic ethanol plant start-ups must begin in earnest with a few small plants during 2010-'11, increasing pace thereafter with larger plants. The EPA says the rate of growth for the cellulosic ethanol industry should be similar to that of the corn starch-based ethanol industry in recent years, beginning with 40 MMgy plants from 2010-'13, increasing to 80 MMgy during 2014-'17 and 100 MMgy and upwards during 2018 and beyond. The EPA projects that approximately two billion gallons per year of new plant construction will need to come online between 2018 and 2022. In total, approximately 180 plants will need to be completed by 2022.

However, with only a few months to go before petroleum blenders must begin to use cellulosic biofuels, there are no commercial-scale plants ready to deliver the fuel. Since the DOE's initial February 2007 funding announcement, very little money has actually been distributed to selected projects. Two of the first six companies to be awarded DOE money - Alico and Iogen - have dropped their applications. Lignol announced in February that it was discontinuing its project as a result of instable energy prices, capital market uncertainty and general market malaise. Meanwhile, subsidiaries of Pacific Ethanol filed for bankruptcy in May.

Abengoa and Poet say they are on track to begin production, but not until 2011. Only Range Fuels, which received an additional $80 million loan guarantee from the USDA in January (the first-ever USDA loan guarantee for a commercial-scale cellulosic biofuels plant), expects to begin producing at near-commercial scale during 2010, with plans to complete the first phase of its planned 100 MMgy facility in Soperton, Ga., early next year.

According to Range Fuels CEO David Aldous, the plant is expected to be mechanically complete during the first quarter of 2010 and commissioning will begin in the second quarter of 2010. The plant will produce cellulosic biofuels from wood chips, he says, and will be scaled up gradually from an initial capacity in Phase 1 of less than 10 MMgy of cellulosic biofuels. The EPA is predicting that Range Fuels will supply 10 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol toward the cellulosic biofuels mandate in 2010.

Aldous says Range Fuels' technology is unique. "It is proprietary technology," he says. "There are a lot of companies that are doing thermal front-end processes, whether they are pyrolysis or gasification, and there are a lot of other companies using different kinds of back-ends, converting the syngas into ethanol, (but) we use a proprietary catalyst on the back end and we use a proprietary technology on the front end." Prior to leading Range Fuels, Aldous was executive vice president for strategy and portfolio at Royal Dutch Shell plc and also served as president of Shell Canada Products. He is also the former CEO for the Shell Group's catalyst company, CRI/Criterion Inc.

Meeting the Mandate
To help meet the 100 MMgy cellulosic biofuels target for 2010, the EPA says there will be 24 pilot- or demonstration- scale plants and seven commercial- scale plants producing cellulosic ethanol or cellulosic diesel in 2010. However, ethanol will satisfy only 28 percent of the total cellulosic biofuels mandate. The EPA says the only companies that will produce more than one million gallons of cellulosic ethanol during 2010 are Verenium, Western Biomass Energy LLC, Fulcrum Bioenergy Inc., RSE, Southeast Renewable Fuels LLC, and Range Fuels.

The majority of the cellulosic biofuels volume (72 percent), the EPA says, is projected to come from cellulosic diesel. A small portion (3 million gallons) will be produced by Flambeau River Biofuels at its 6 MMgy plant in Park Falls, Wis., while the majority of all cellulosic biofuels that will be produced, the EPA says, will be cellulosic diesel from Cello Energy (pronounced "sell-oh"), which has a 20 MMgy plant in Bay Minette, Ala. The EPA says to expect 20 million gallons from the Bay Minette plant, as well as 16.67 million gallons from each of three future 50 MMgy plants, which are expected to be swiftly built—two in Alabama and one in Georgia—at locations to be determined.

Feedstock for Cello Energy's operation can include plant biomass, waste wood, and other organic materials, as well as plastics and used tires. The company uses a catalytic depolymerization technology, the EPA says, to convert the feedstock into short-chain hydrocarbons that are polymerized to produce diesel fuel that meets ASTM standards at a cost between 50 cents and $1 per gallon. The process is reported to be 82 percent efficient and the only energy input is electricity. Allen Boykin, president of Cello Energy, told EPM that the catalyst used by the company is a proprietary catalyst that takes approximately 22 to 25 minutes to convert garbage into fuel oil using a continuous process.

Boykin says Cello Energy's technology has been in the making for 12 to 15 years. His father, Dr. Jack Boykin, a chemical engineer who served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy from 1961 to 1965, is CEO of Cello Energy and has been conducting the research. Allen says he became involved in 2002 to help bring the system to commercial-scale. Allen says bench-and pilot-scale testing was previously conducted in Prichard, Ala.

Imports to Meet Targets
The EPA admits that because cellulosic ethanol production technology is still developing, production plants will be considerably more complex and expensive to build than corn starch-based ethanol plants, thus requiring much more capital funding as well as design and construction resources. "Although technologies needed to convert cellulosic feedstocks into ethanol (and diesel) are becoming more and more understood, there are still a number of efficiency improvements that need to occur before cellulosic biofuel production can compete in today's marketplace," the EPA renewable fuel standard report says. "Additionally, because cellulosic biofuel production has not yet been proven on a commercial level, financing of these projects has primarily been through venture capital and similar funding mechanisms, as opposed to conventional bank loans."

Alternatively, the EPA suggests that usage targets might be met using cellulosic biofuel that is produced internationally, for example, from feedstocks such as bagasse or straw.

Indeed, as much as 21 billion gallons per year of cellulosic biofuel might be produced outside the U.S. by 2017, the EPA says, the majority from bagasse, but also from forest products, and mostly from Brazil.

A recent report from Novozymes describes how Brazil might produce more than two billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel from bagasse by 2020, which would represent an additional $4 billion in export revenue for that country. Like in the U.S., the development of cellulosic biofuels in Brazil will depend on the industry's ability to attract the needed investments and political support, Novozymes says.

Despite a slow start for cellulosic biofuels in the U.S., some in the industry are bullish about the future. "Advanced biofuel companies are ready to deploy their technology and begin meeting the requirements of the [RFS]," says Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's Industrial and Environmental Section. "Now that the rules of the program are finally moving forward and the Obama administration has demonstrated a firm commitment to the industry, companies are prepared to build the next generation of biorefineries."

Ryan C. Christiansen is the assistant editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 373-8042.