Biofuel refiners still shopping for new feedstocks

15 March 2010 16:37  [Source: ICIS news]

AMSTERDAM (ICIS news)--Amid the roughly 1,000 biofuel industry representatives gathered in the World Biofuels Markets conference this week, one of the most asked questions on Monday was also one of the most basic – which feedstock was best suited to make renewable fuels?

Behind the debate was market players' desire to exit the soybean and corn fields, where the food versus fuel debate – whether a bushel of grain is better spent feeding a family or fuelling a car – has pitted biofuel refiners against environmentalists and grocery lobbyists.

“The ultimate goal is cheap sugar,” said Shachi Sharma of Swiss agrichem company Syngenta. The question was which plant masses were best suited to yielding that sugar for biofuel refiners.

The dilemma has produced a supermarket's worth of feedstock ideas.

Conference attendees could attend a full day's worth of sessions on refining fuel out of algae, basically turning green scum into black gold. Another four hours were available on castor, cassava, camelina, crambe, isis, jatropha, miscanthus and swithgrass, with elephant grass also making an unscheduled appearance.

But even the most innocuous of crops could have fatal flaws, sources said. Jathropa seeds were toxic and ripened at indeterminate times.

The cost of harvesting the oil from algae is a roadblock to commercialising it as a feedstock.

Wim Soetart, professor of bioscience engineering at Ghent University in Belgium, said even a potential feedstock as seemingly green as poplar trees was facing its own threat - environmentalists.

Soetart showed reporters a photo of about 500 young, genetically modified poplar trees growing on a pilot farm near the school. The trees, which will be harvested to produce ethanol, were surrounded by a chain-link fence to protect them from being torn down by environmental activists, Soetart said.

“This isn't to keep the poplars in,” the professor said. “It's to keep protestors out. People from Greenpeace have protested because this is the first genetically modified plant field trial in Belgium in 10 years.”

The plethora of possible new ingredients in the biofuel chain is ultimately leading up to a brave new world for refiners, one where sustainability, cost and yield hopefully reach optimum levels, said Carlos Rivas, president and CEO of US ethanol giant Verenium.

“These crops have never been grown before in such volume,” he said.

“Everything is brand new.”

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By: Ben Lefebvre
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