INSIGHT: Millions more $ in quest for cellulosic holy grail

18 August 2011 17:32  [Source: ICIS news]

A replica of the Holy GrailBy Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--The Obama administration this week launched another emergency effort to keep cellulosic biofuels on life-support, pumping another $500m (€345m) worth of financial lifeblood into the creature in hopes that one day it will stand on its own.

The Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Agriculture (DOA) and the Department of the Navy (DON) announced a jointly funded, three-year programme to “construct or retrofit several drop-in biofuel plants and refineries”.

In a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the three departments, the goal is “to assist the development and support of a sustainable commercial biofuels industry”.

The funding is to be matched dollar-for-dollar with private-sector money, and the three departments said they expect to develop and release a solicitation to the biofuels industry by the end of this year, outlining specific production goals of the project and inviting proposals.

The US Navy’s involvement in the effort is significant.  A major motivation for the half-billion dollar plan, according to the agreement, is to “sustain the US military’s mission capabilities, which are at risk due to potential disruptions of crude oil supplies”.

Most of the US Navy’s nearly 300 warships are powered by oil, except for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, representing a major use potential for biodiesel, for example, already used in some cruise ships and ferries.

The National Biodiesel Board (NBB) hailed the development.  “We applaud the Obama administration for continuing to support biofuels and the role they can play in strengthening our economy while improving the environment and bolstering our energy security,” said board spokesman Ben Evans.

Growth Energy, another major biofuels trade group, said that development of next-generation biofuels for use in aviation and by the military strengthens US national security through the use of home-grown renewable fuels.

But Growth Energy chief executive Tom Buis also urged the Obama administration “to do everything it can for first generation ethanol”.

That appeal highlights the fact that the new $500m, multi-department effort is aimed at developing and sustaining non-food cellulosic biofuels, rather than propping up existing US corn-ethanol production.

The initiative is aimed at “the construction or retrofit of multiple domestic commercial or pre-commercial scale advanced drop-in biofuel plants and refineries”, the agreement says.

Those refineries, however, must meet three criteria:  geographically diverse sites, the ability to produce “drop-in” biofuels that meet military specifications, and “no significant impact on the supply of agricultural commodities for the production of food”.

A “drop-in” biofuel is defined as a substitute for conventional jet or marine engine fuels that is completely interchangeable and compatible with conventional jet/marine fuels. A drop-in substitute fuel must be capable of being blended with conventional military fuels or used alone without requiring any adaptations to aircraft or marine fuel systems or distribution networks.

That’s a tall order, one that is not likely to be realised without substantial government subsidies and a wide-scale commitment of national resources.

As energy writer Bob Brooks noted, “Possibly the single biggest issue is the question of which bio material can be made in the huge quantities needed as substitutes for petroleum”.

“While the best single answer to this may be algae, even at the favourable yield of 5,000 gallons per acre per year, millions of acres of land for algae cultivation would be needed to achieve significant replacement of US petroleum use,” he said.

As the departments’ memo related: “Given the current economic environment, significant start-up risks and competitive barriers posed by the firmly established crude oil markets, industry will not assume all of the uncertainty and risk associated with providing a commercially viable production capability for advanced drop-in biofuels.”

“Therefore, it is necessary that the federal government cooperate with industry to create a strong demand signal and to make targeted investments to achieve the necessary production capacity required for a robust domestic advanced drop-in biofuels industry,” the memo added.

“Without these efforts, the [three departments] believe adequate production capability would not otherwise be established in a timely manner,” the agreement said.

Perhaps the question is whether commercial scale cellulosic biofuels can ever be achieved.

This week’s announced DOE investment of $510m in the quest for a viable, cost-competitive cellulosic biofuel is only the latest in an already substantial Energy Department spending splurge on that objective.

Not counting this week’s $500m deal, DOE has in recent years committed more than $2bn to the holy grail of cellulosic biofuel, a horizon that never nears – forever “just three years away” from commercial scale production.

In July 2006 the department put $200m into a cellulosic biomass research effort aimed at achieving large-scale production of the fuel.

In February 2007 DOE put $385m into funding six cellulosic biorefineries, one or another of which was to make cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive with gasoline by 2012.

In May that same year, the department committed $200m to fund up to ten cellulosic research biorefineries intended to help jump-start cellulosic research.

A month later, in June 2007, DOE set aside $375m to establish three new bio-energy research facilities within the department, with a goal of finding breakthrough technologies for cost-competitive cellulosic ethanol by 2012.

That was followed by a fairly modest $114m DOE investment in January 2008 for partial funding of four pilot plants to explore cellulosic ethanol feedstock options and production processes.

But the department next piled on the cash in May 2009 with an expenditure of $786m to accelerate advanced biofuels research and development (R&D).

In a 1960s budget debate, the late US Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois was said to have remarked: “A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

 ($1 = €0.69)

Paul Hodges studies key influencers shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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