Growing biofuels

Propelled by growing concerns over global warming, the volatility of the world oil market and the host of regulations these issues have spawned, a new generation of biofuels is being developed that may make renewable, replacement fuels viable at long last. Called advanced biohydrocarbon fuels, they are the new darlings of the biofuels business for the potential benefits they offer, if only they can

Propelled by growing concerns over global warming, the volatility of the world oil market and the host of regulations these issues have spawned, a new generation of biofuels is being developed that may make renewable, replacement fuels viable at long last. Called “advanced biohydrocarbon fuels,” they are the new darlings of the biofuels business for the potential benefits they offer, if only they can get into large-scale production.

The big advantage of these new biofuels, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, is that they are essentially equivalent in terms of energy content and molecular structure to conventional hydrocarbon fuels like diesel and gasoline, making them what the industry calls a true “drop-in” fuel. This means that they can be used without significant modifications to the existing distribution infrastructure or to diesel- or gasoline-powered vehicles, and their production may even be tied into existing petroleum refineries, reducing the start-up burden and related impacts.

“Renewable diesel [diesel from biohydrocarbons] is made via a completely different process than biodiesel,” says Tony Greszler, vice president of government and industry relations, Volvo Powertrain. “It is pure diesel — really a true diesel fuel that you could put into the pipeline and use without limitations on how much you can burn.”

Another point in favor of the new biohydrocarbon fuels is that they do not require food crops to be redirected from the fork or feedlot to the fuel tank. While many developmental projects are using feedstocks like sugar cane for now, even inedible plants and waste materials will also do just fine in the future, thank you very much. The quality of the finished product is largely feedstock agnostic.

Advanced biohydrocarbons can be derived from trees, grasses, wastes, and agricultural or forest residues (often referred to as “lignocellulosic biomass”), or even from algae. Many of these feedstocks also require far less fertilizer, pesticides or even water than food crops, giving them the potential for a much smaller overall environmental impact, not to mention a lower cost.

Now biodiesel and ethanol can also be produced from feedstocks other than the edible plant and animal oils used to make biodiesel, or the sugars and starches like corn and sugar cane used to make ethanol. Although the resulting renewable fuels deliver substantial benefits in terms of relatively easy production, tailpipe emissions reductions, and reductions in carbon dioxide, they are still less energy dense and less pure than refined fossil fuels. That is one reason why blending relatively small amounts of biodiesel and ethanol with diesel and gasoline, respectively, is still the norm today.


Whatever their issues past or present, biodiesel and ethanol producers pioneered the commercial production of renewable fuels, and they are still helping to reduce emissions and the dependence on foreign oil. Perhaps even more importantly, they are helping to enable the development of biohydrocarbon fuels, which is in full and intensely competitive swing.

The biggest obstacle would-be biohydrocarbon fuel suppliers face right now is how to create viable, large-scale production capabilities. Teams worldwide are now betting on different methodologies to finally break through. What they all have in common is that each process under development is a complex and multi-stage activity involving various feedstocks and the use of chemical or biological agents to convert plant matter into biohydrocarbon fuels.

One such team includes Royal Dutch Shell, Cargill and Wisconsin-based Virent Energy Systems, which has developed what it calls a “BioForming” technology that uses chemical catalysts to transform soluble plant sugars, including from non-food sources such as switch grass or wheat straw, into renewable hydrocarbons. According to Virent, these hydrocarbons “can be used as chemicals or blended in high concentrations to make premium quality gasoline, diesel or jet fuels with global market acceptance. These products can readily enter the market using existing pipelines and fuel pumps.”

“Over the past four years, Cargill has supported Virent's innovative sugars-to-hydrocarbons technology as it has evolved into a true biorefinery solution with the potential to help replace petroleum as the source of fuels and many chemicals,” noted Scott Portnoy, corporate vice president of Cargill, in a joint press release with Shell and Virent issued in June. The release announced the closing of a $46.4 million third round of funding for Virent from Cargill and Shell.

Using chemical catalysts to make advanced biofuels is not the only game going, by any means, however. Several companies, including LS9, Amyris, Synthetic Genomics (with partner ExxonMobil) and Solazyme, are hoping to use bacteria or other living plants such as algae to turn sugars into fuel.

LS9, a privately held company, uses engineered micro-organisms to convert sugar cane syrup (the feedstock for now anyway) into a diesel replacement product. In February, the company announced that it had acquired an existing production facility in Florida to enable the production of 50,000 to 100,000 gals. of what it calls “UltraClean Diesel” by the end of this year. LS9's fuel meets or exceeds the ASTM standards for on-road use in the U.S., according to the company. The new facility will also house lab and pilot-scale operations to test and integrate the use of cellulosic materials, like wood chips, as a feedstock.

In November, California-based Amyris announced that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has furthered its official registration of Amyris's renewable diesel fuel, raising the registered blend level with ultra-low sulfur diesel from 20 to 35%. According to the company, “this blend level is the highest awarded to date by the EPA for commercial sale of a motor vehicle renewable gasoline or diesel fuel.”

“Obtaining the highest EPA-awarded blend level registration validates the high-performance properties of our renewable hydrocarbon diesel [called ‘No Compromise Renewable Diesel’],” says John Melo, CEO. “We are producing a true ‘No Compromise’ fuel — a renewable diesel that eliminates the critical challenges plaguing biofuels while still enabling dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas and tailpipe emissions for vehicles, from passenger cars through heavy-duty trucks.”


The company's renewable diesel fuel is made from what the company calls “Biofene” (biomass) and is intended to be a drop-in replacement for petroleum diesel. According to the company, “it works well even at extremely low temperatures, does not clog filters, and can be stored for a long period of time without degradation.”

Amyris is not a well-known name to U.S. truck fleets, but that could change. The company notes that independent lab tests have shown that Amyris renewable diesel performs as well as or better than both petroleum diesel and biodiesel on critical ASTM International certification metrics.

At Synthetic Genomics and Solazyme, on the other hand, all bets are on algae to get the biohydrocarbon fuels job done. Solazyme even has a contract with the U.S. Navy to help the development along. The probability of success for the algae-based processes, however, is a matter of considerable discussion and debate.

A study by Pike Research published in October, for example, predicts that algae biofuels production will “grow rapidly over the next decade,” reaching 61 million gals. per year and a market value of $1.3 billion by 2020. The report also anticipates that with 50% of all algae activity, the United States is poised to ramp up production the earliest among world markets.

The first commercial-scale facilities with a potential production capacity of 1 million gals. are expected to come online between 2014 and 2016, according to the Pike study, but it cautions that “it will take significant investments of money and time for algae-based biofuels to reach widespread commercialization.”

A new report from the Energy Biosciences Institute in Berkeley, CA, is even less optimistic, referring to the algae-based biofuels business as a “nascent industry,” which will require much more long-term research, development and demonstration.

Whether you are a tank half-full or half-empty type when it comes to advanced biofuels, companies all around the globe are putting developmental muscle and money into the effort, and regulations are providing a push, helpful or not.

In the U.S., for example, EPA created the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It established the first renewable fuels volume mandate in the country, setting the amount of renewable fuel, in gallons, which had to be blended into gasoline by 2012. In 2007, under the Energy Independence and Security Act, diesel blends were added to the program and the volume of renewable fuel required to be blended was also increased, along with some other changes.

“RFS-2 prescribes the amount of biofuel that has to be blended with gasoline and diesel,” says Gary Parsons, global OEM and industry liaison manager for Chevron Oronite Co. “It also caps the amount of first-generation biofuels [like ethanol and biodiesel] that can be used to achieve compliance. This was done in the hope of encouraging the development of advanced biofuels, but the EPA has had to back off on those goals somewhat since 2007 because advanced biofuels are not yet in sufficient commercial production.

The shortage of the sort of advanced biofuels that the EPA anticipated would be available to meet the phase-in terms of the RFS-2 standard continues. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), biofuel producers won't even be able to make as much cellulosic ethanol (much less biohydrocarbon fuels) as they will need next year to meet blending requirements, even as revised. In November, the EIA projected that cellulosic ethanol production would be just 3.94 million gals. in 2011, below the revised 5.3 million gal. advanced biofuels blending target.


In spite of persistent problems bringing quantities of advanced biofuels to market, individual states are also catching the biofuel fever and passing legislation to help “encourage” the development and production of biofuels (although not necessarily of the biohydrocarbon variety) by requiring that certain amounts of biofuel be blended into conventional diesel and/or gasoline. Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, and Hawaii are already onboard, and several other states are considering doing much the same, including Montana, California, New Mexico, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, and Connecticut.

According to EIA, many states have tied the blending (or potential blending) of biofuels to the growth of biofuel production facilities in their own states. “Minnesota was also the first state to require biodiesel blending into diesel fuel, at 2% by volume,” the EIA notes. “The requirement became effective in mid-2005, when two new biodiesel plants, each with 30 million gal. per year capacity, began operation in the state. The law was waived several times because of quality problems with the biodiesel, but it is again in effect. Washington requires 2% ethanol in gasoline and 2% biodiesel in diesel fuel. …The requirement will increase to 5% once the state can produce biodiesel equal to 3% of its diesel demand.”

California is taking yet another approach to encouraging the development and use of certain alternative fuels by creating a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS). The purpose of the LCFS is to reduce the full fuel-cycle carbon intensity of the transportation fuels used in the state by gradually lowering the carbon content allowed in the transportation fuel mix over time. A 10% reduction is required by 2020, but reductions are scheduled to begin phasing in next year. Several other states have also announced that they will follow California's lead.

There will be winners and losers if the regulation actually goes into effect. California has alleged, for example, that corn-based ethanol, according to its metrics, may actually be higher in carbon intensity than the gasoline currently in use in the state. At least one lawsuit has been filed seeking to block the regulation. It was initiated by two industry ethanol organizations, the Renewable Fuels Assn. and Growth Energy.

All this regulatory activity is meant to create a favorable environment for the development of advanced biofuels, such as biohydrocarbons, but the net effect is not always positive for all interested parties. “Shell supports biofuels growth, but it is up to legislators to clearly define the regulatory framework for biofuels and blending standards,” notes Theodore Rolfvondenbaumen of Shell's issues and crisis management team. “Shell will continue to engage in an open dialogue with regulators on this issue, and fully comply with any new regulations that are developed and implemented.”

Shell is a leading distributor of biofuels, largely ethanol. The company also has strategic partnerships with Iogen and Codexis, however. With the latter, they hope to begin moving from ethanol production toward biohydrocarbons.

“We can make engines that will run on a lot of things, but we can't develop and produce an engine if we don't know what the fuel or fuels of choice will be,” says Volvo's Greszler. “We do think the future of petroleum is limited, so we have to develop alternatives. There is no choice.”

Volvo has been actively exploring alternative fuel options for the past several years and recently announced a new partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“From a macro perspective, tailpipe emissions have been dramatically reduced, and the solutions used to achieve that have coalesced around core technologies,” notes Parsons. “On the other side of the equation, however, the variety of engines and fuels is becoming much greater and much more complicated.

“People are looking for a silver bullet, a single replacement for mineral oil, and that is not necessarily going to happen, at least not anytime soon,” he adds. “We will require a variety of feedstocks [and a variety of biofuels] to meet the world's needs.”

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