Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Race to Make Biomass More Productive and Useful

Brian Westenhaus looks at the economics of biomass-to-fuels, and finds that current yields per acre for available biomass crops is not high enough to motivate farmers to sign on. Even with the simple genetic tricks which are coming along now, it's very tough to squeeze enough biomass out of an acre to make it profitable for farmers.

A lot of projects are attempting to improve the productivity picture, including Chromatin's sorghum project, the Giant King Grass enterprise, the Shell and Codexis collaboration, the long line of Ceres grass products, and more.

With so much riding on the biological end run around liquid fossil fuels, researchers and technologists understand that they need to get it right. In the case of biofuels, there are many interlocking things which must be gotten right.
“We all know how to get from the beginning to the end and make biofuels—we’ve all done it,” says James A. Dumesic, a chemical engineer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “What you would like to do is put raw biomass in one end and get a ready-to-use fuel out the other end, using as few steps and engineering unit operations as possible. Now, we are to try to get the costs down so it can be affordable. The winning processes, whatever they will be, will need to be as light as possible on the capital investment in order to be practical. Everyone is looking to develop processes that can compete without subsidies.”

“Because the energy industry is so large, there is room for everybody to play, as long as you can meet the economics,” says Jay D. Keasling, a synthetic biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “That is the great thing about this problem. Chemical technologies can be engineered to happen more quickly. It does take a long time to engineer the biology. But the beauty of biology is that it can work under dirtier conditions, and you can get the specific molecule you want under a range of conditions.”

Synthetic biology seemed to have the early edge in the race to the pump. But despite success in ethanol production, synthetic biology’s limitations—the primary products are alcohols, not alkanes typical of transportation fuels, and fermentation processes are slow—have stalled progress. That has created an opening for chemical technologies.

“Chemical approaches offer plenty of advantages,” says Mark Mascal, a chemistry professor at UC Davis whose group is working on several biofuel projects. “Generally, if you have an inexpensive catalyst and a fast method, a chemical approach can be more cost-effective and doesn’t take a few days or a week the way most fermentation processes do,” he notes. “A consistent feedstock isn’t needed as is the case with microbes in sugar fermentation—you can use anything as long as it has sugar or cellulose in it.” _ACS
This is what Al Fin energy analysts have been saying for years now. In the long run, genetic engineering along with microbial fuels will carry the day. But in the short and medium terms, thermochemical approaches can pick up the ball and run, as long as they've got plenty of reliable sources for the biomass.

The advantage of gasification and pyrolysis is that the entire plant is used -- not just an oil seed or a grain, as in maize or soy. With low-lignin biomass, more of the plant can be converted into sugars and fermented.

The economic potential for cellulosic sugars -- above and beyond biofuels -- has barely been considered by most analysts. But a few smart operators are beginning to anticipate what is happening there.

The potential for converting biomass into fuels, chemical feedstocks, high value chemicals and feeds, etc. is exciting. There will be many opportunities for the growth of large new enterprises at all levels and most global locations.



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