JULY 2009

 

ON TOPIC


Biofuels from non-food biomass

Currently there are three facilities producing methanol in the United States – two that use natural gas as a feedstock and one that uses coal. Range Fuels’ new facility will be the first to produce biofuels from non-food biomass, including wood and wood waste from nearby timber harvesting operations.

David Aldous, Range Fuels’ CEO, recently spoke with American Recycler about the new plant it is building, technological developments and the future of the market for methanol, ethanol and biofuels in general.

Is there a sufficient amount of wood and green waste in the United States to provide a secure long-term feedstock to cellulosic biofuels producers?

Aldous: In a 2005 joint report the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Energy (DOE) identified more than one billion tons of biomass in the United States that could be converted annually to cellulosic biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol and methanol. A more recent study conducted by Sandia National Laboratories and General Motors found that plant and forestry waste and dedicated energy crops could sustainably replace nearly a third of gasoline use by 2030.

How important was the participation of the DOE in funding the Range’s cellulosic biofuels plant near Soperton, Georgia? Will further DOE funding be required to build future production facilities?

Aldous: Funding for Range Fuels’ first commercial cellulosic biofuels plant will come from both private and public sources, including over $100 million from an oversubscribed Series B round of private financing completed in early April 2008, an $80 million loan guarantee through a United States Department of Agriculture program, $76 million through a United States Department of Energy grant, and support from the State of Georgia.

How will using renewable biomass reduce the carbon footprint of cellulosic biofuels production, such as cellulosic ethanol and methanol?

Aldous: Production of cellulosic biofuels based on using renewable supplies of non-food biomass will significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases since the biomass feedstock for the production of cellulosic biofuels is carbon neutral. Studies completed by Argonne National Laboratory and the Gallagher Review have shown that cellulosic biofuels or fuels produced from renewable sources like biomass reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by over 80 percent compared with gasoline.

What are the target markets for low carbon biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol and methanol? Do you foresee that cellulosic biofuels use will be limited to certain sectors in the short term?

Aldous: There are a number of markets for ethanol and methanol produced from non-food biomass. Both cellulosic ethanol and methanol can be used as a transportation fuel blend component in motor vehicles, and cellulosic methanol can also be used as a combustion fuel in generating clean, renewable power, an ingredient in biodiesel production, and a feedstock in chemical manufacturing.

The market for ethanol in the United States is already established and significant – 70 percent of the gasoline sold in the United States contains some amount of ethanol, which contributed to over 9 billion gallons of ethanol being used to help fuel motor vehicles in 2009. Longer term, the use of cellulosic biofuels in the transportation sector has the potential to grow to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022 as a result of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) established in 2007. The RFS calls for increasing use of renewable fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol and methanol, in transportation fuels, reaching 36 billion gallons per year by 2022 with 16 billion gallons of this from cellulosic biofuels.

How quickly is the science advancing to maximize cellulosic biofuels production?

Aldous: Range Fuels plans to have the first phase of its commercial-scale cellulosic biofuels plant operating by the second quarter 2010. The plant in Georgia will be the first plant in the United States to produce commercial quantities of cellulosic biofuels. The company has plans to construct additional facilities, and other companies have plans to construct and operate commercial cellulosic biofuels plants in the near term.

Are there certain regions where cellulosic biofuels production should be centered or do you anticipate regional production plants across the country?

Aldous: Cellulosic biofuels plants that use non-food biomass as their feedstock will likely be located in regions of the United States where there are significant renewable and sustainable supplies of non-food biomass that can be supplied at reasonable costs. It’s also realistic to think these plants will be located in areas where demand for the same feedstock is limited, which will help maintain reasonable delivered feedstock costs.

The Midwest could provide meaningful supplies of agricultural wastes like corn stover and cobs, and the South and Southeast, for example, produce significant and sustainable supplies of wood and wood waste.

Additionally, these and other regions have the potential to support the sustainable production of high-yield and low impact biomass feedstocks that could also serve as feedstocks for future cellulosic biofuels plants.

How will using renewable biomass reduce the carbon footprint of cellulosic biofuels production, such as cellulosic ethanol and methanol?

Aldous: Production of cellulosic biofuels based on using renewable supplies of non-food biomass will significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases since the biomass feedstock for the production of cellulosic biofuels is carbon neutral. Studies completed by Argonne National Laboratory and the Gallagher Review have shown that cellulosic biofuels or fuels produced from renewable sources like biomass reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by over 80 percent compared with gasoline. Our carbon life cycle analysis using standard models and including the positive impact of our generation of clean renewable power shows our project will have a negative carbon footprint, or in other words we will have a greater than a 100 percent reduction in greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuels gasoline.