Monday, April 19, 2010

2010: The Year of the Biofuel Pilot Plants?

The state of the art in biofuels has gone far beyond "moonshine" corn ethanol. With second and third generation biofuels moving from the labs into the pilot plants, 2010 may prove a pivotal year in the quest for a growable, sustainable liquid fuel. After the pilot plants are proven, the processes must scale up to commercial scale -- beginning in 2011 and 2012.
“I think this is the year of the pilots,” says Riggs Eckelberry, president and CEO of California-based OriginOil Inc. The company is one of several working to optimize algae production for biofuels and while Eckelberry recognizes that widespread production and competition with petroleum is 20 to 25 years away, he believes 2011 will bring about the first small-scale commercial systems.

“Scaling up will require time,” he says. “It’s a lot of brick and mortar. I still see scale, commercial programs at three to five years out. I think 2011 is going to be a very good year for showing that we’ve got commercial systems.” _biomassmag
It will take about ten years for biofuels to start to make an impact on world liquid fuels markets, but in the meantime, smart operators will look for profitable niches -- to jump start their profits and attract new investors.
Co-locating algae ponds at wastewater treatment plants would allow larger-scale growth, while providing more money to the plants, along with benefits such as waste energy, CO2 absorption and nutrient cleaning. “The fact is, wastewater is the home run for algae,” Eckelberry says, adding that it provides the most bang for the buck currently. Cultivating algae in a wastewater environment is 20 percent more profitable than other processes, he says. “Wastewater treatment plants have lots of nutrients,” he says. “So algae solves the problem by eliminating the denitrification stage.”

Researchers at the University of Virginia recommended co-location with wastewater treatment plants in a recent study, “Environmental Life Cycle Comparison of Algae to Other Bioenergy Feedstocks.” Published in Environmental Science & Technology, the report found that algae cultivation (excluding conversion) consumes more energy, has higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and uses more water than switchgrass, canola and corn. That environmental footprint, researchers concluded, comes primarily from upstream impacts such as CO2 demand and fertilizer, two major barriers to commercial and widespread production that can be alleviated by co-location at wastewater treatment plants or other areas that emit CO2.

“We were surprised by what we found initially,” says Andres Clarens, assistant professor at the university’s civil and environmental engineering department and lead author of the paper. “At the end of the day, the main conclusions here were that algae cultivation, at least as it’s envisioned or was envisioned for much of the ’90s and recently, in terms of open ponds, has a big environmental footprint.” But terrestrial crop production has improved greatly with experience in the past 100 years and so can algae growth. “It’s a pretty clear upward trend,” Clarens says of other crops, such as corn. “I think we’re standing at the bottom of that hill with algae.”

The message of the paper is there’s some low-hanging fruit in algae production, Clarens says. “If we’re serious about algae, we need to find a way to get nutrients from other sources, other than just dumping bags of fertilizer into the pond,” he says. “That’s never going to be a winner from the environmental standpoint and probably not from a financial standpoint, either.”
Entrepreneurs and biofuels managers cannot afford to stand still in a dynamic marketplace. Modern maize ethanol producers, for example, have grown far more savvy in their use of water and process energy/heat. The smartest producers are doing well, many of the others have had to sell out. That is how capitalism works -- and it works far better than central control and mandate by government.

The same type of shaking out process will occur in all biofuels and bioenergy enterprises. Some companies will be good, some will be lucky, some both, and some neither. There will be biofuels and bioenergy billionaires and bankrupts both. Success in honest business has always been a moving target, requiring fast thinking and quick feet.

The approaches that offer the most promise for bioenergy include thermochemical approaches (pyrolysis and gasification), algal / microbial fuels, cellulosic fuels, biomass co-firing with coal, better biodiesels, and better catalytic processes for refining bio-products to gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc.

Pilot plants for cellulosic alcohols, algal fuels, and gasification to biofuels via FT synthesis, are all either under construction or just starting up and under production. The bioenergy industry is not just sitting on its government mandates -- it is already working its way along a path to profitability and energy revolution.

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