February 8, 2007

Wood beats corn stover in U.S. cellulosic ethanol race

We knew it was coming. Vinod Khosla has finally made a bold move to back up industry-wide speculation that cellulosic ethanol would soon emerge as the next phase in ethanol production. The surprise is that wood would be the feedstock of choice given the vast headstart of corn-based biorefineries in the country and the obvious synergy of basing corn stover conversion technologies near sugar fermentation plants.

However, the high energy potential of wood cellulose, the ready availability of cheap waste, and the search for a renaissance of forestry-based industries makes the announcement a welcome one to the "nation's woodpile" in the southeastern states.

Here is an abridged version of the press release issued by Range Fuels, Inc. (formerly Kergy, Inc.)...

Khosla's Range Fuels to build woody cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgia

Range Fuels, Inc., a cellulosic ethanol company, today announced it will build its first ethanol plant in Treutlen County, Georgia. Founded by Menlo Park, California-based Khosla Ventures, Range Fuels estimates that this plant – combined with others to follow – will have the capacity to produce over 1 billion gallons of ethanol per year. The first plant will create over 70 new jobs for the area.

Wood waste from the state’s millions of acres of indigenous Georgia Pine will be the main source of biomass for the ethanol production.

While most domestic ethanol production requires corn as a feedstock, Range Fuels' proprietary process does not. It also completely eliminates the use of enzymes, which have been an expensive component of traditional cellulosic ethanol production. Its innovative and proprietary technology transforms otherwise useless products such as wood chips, agricultural wastes, grasses, and cornstalks as well as hog manure, municipal garbage, sawdust and paper pulp into ethanol through a thermo-chemical conversion process. The company's system, K2, uses a two step process to convert biomass to a synthetic gas and from there, convert the gas to ethanol.

“The state of Georgia has provided us with an excellent opportunity to use its abundant renewable natural resources to help solve fuel issues for the country,” said Mitch Mandich, Range Fuels CEO. “Thanks to Georgia’s environmentally sensitive stewardship of its forests for the past 50 years, Range Fuels can take what is traditionally considered a waste product, and turn it into a source of transportation fuel.”

“The production of cellulosic ethanol represents not only a step toward true energy diversity for the country, but a very cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels. It is advanced weaponry in the war on oil,” said Vinod Khosla, managing partner of Khosla Ventures, who recently told a Reuters Global Biofuels Summit that he could see cellulosic fuel prices sinking to $1 per gallon within 10 years.

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Simmons said...

A thought:
If ethanol (or a different alternative fuel) becomes mainstream, would the price of gasoline fall? Would people then switch back?

C. Scott Miller said...

Any competition will have the impact of suppressing price increases. That is to say, the price of both may go up together but less than if we have no alternatives. That has been the experience of Brazil which has had a growing dual-fuel economy developing for 30 years.

Another consideration is that there may be a tax levied on carbon-positive fuels like gasoline to provide incentives for switching and staying on a carbon-neutral standard like ethanol.

We need alternatives, we need carbon neutral, we need flex-fuel vehicles, and we need renewables so that, as consumers, we have more freedom of choice to steer our energy and environmental futures. We vote with our purchases.

Anonymous said...

It's great to see companies finally taking the plunge into cellulosic ethanol. Yet, none of the recent announcements mention anything about project costs or financing. Iogen has been trying raise money to build a commercial scale ethanol production facility in the US for years. The risk of being first and high project costs have kept it from happening until now. It will be interesting to see how these challenges will be overcome.


C. Scott Miller said...

If you ever saw a spreadsheet of the costs and liabilities involved in building an emerging technology plant, you would be less surprised.

The major liability is the political one, because that cost is unpredictable. How do you navigate the due diligence, permits, regulations, and environmental impact study obstacles that have become standard procedure on the installation of any refinery? That's part of the reason that there have been no new oil refineries in the U.S. for the last 30 years.

In California, even "failsafe" plans run into a buzz-saw of community meetings, emissions testing, and permitting restrictions. Unrealistic Catch-22's like... you have to build it and provide test results here first before you can build it here. My BIOconversion Blog traces a couple of the struggles faced even by well-heeled utilities in California (search under "AB 1090").

Don't expect California to be an early adopter. Can you imagine the uproar that would occur in California over trees even if only forestry waste was the feedstock?

Khosla is smart to start deployments in a pro-forestry state. Georgia is perfect.

Anonymous said...

Hemp would work nicely in this ethanol plant.

Aunty Proton said...

Hello, I'm from Georgia so it seems I have a vested interest in this. A few questions: Any idea how many jobs this process might create for the state? Would your program accept biomass from residential sources like grass, bush and tree clippings in addition to forestry biomass? And how similar (or different) is this process to thermal depolymerization?


Anonymous said...


C. Scott Miller said...

Tilt -

While RangeFuels is keeping the lid on what specific process is involved (they call it anaerobic thermal conversion) what they describe sounds like gasification since the output of the process is synthesis gas (aka "syngas"). Syngas is typically carbon monoxide (CO) plus hydrogen (H2). The conversion of syngas into ethanol is a tremendous area of research right now. RangeFuels sounds like they are using a catalyst of some sort as does Frontier Fuels. BRI uses a bioreactor full of bacteria that ingest the syngas and expells ethanol and water.

Thermal polymerization and gasification are defined in Wiki. I refer you there for a comparison. Both are different from incineration.

C. Scott Miller said...


Technologies such as RangeFuel's are breakthroughs that are totally in keeping with the global warming objectives of creating renewable fuels from carbon-neutral biostock while emitting virtually no emissions.

The gas is "syngas" - see previous response to Tilt. Syngas can be combusted to drive turbines but then you have the problem of carbon emissions (although carbon neutral and even cleaner than natural gas). By converting the syngas to ethanol you are storing the energy in a form that can be used to either extend gasoline (through blending) or replace gasoline in flex-fuel vehicles.

Another source of energy was not mentioned in the press release. When the syngas is superhot the heat can be exploited to generate steam to co-generate electricity. In the BRI process this is a critical step for cooling down the gas to room temperature for bacterial conversion into ethanol.

C. Scott Miller said...

"Canary" wrote -

oh, delightful.

we really did need to find a way to get rid of those pesky southern forests. and with the by-products of breaking down cellulose, no doubt we'll have plenty of toxins to go around. at least we'll have our cars to isolate ourselves in.

good luck, georgia...


To which I respond -

The RangeFuels press release specifically cites "forestry waste" as the biostock. Unless otherwise converted, this waste will most likely be combusted which is a much more toxic source of carbon emissions than RangeFuel's K2 process.

There is a national problem in communication between what are euphemistically referred to as "tree-huggers" and stewards of our nation's forests. Proper forestry management requires that we thin forests, remove dead growth, mitigate bark beetle infestrations, and suppress forest fires.

Forest Newswatch data shows how incredibly toxic forest fires (particularly reactive organic gases, CO, and particulate matter) are to our atmosphere as a contributor to global warming.

While you might assume that healthy trees would eventually fall under the axe, it is more likely that other sources of otherwise unrecycleable cheap waste (principally construction and demolition waste) that normally end up in landfills would be next. This also would reduce methane emissions - which is 21-23 times more toxic than CO2.

Healthy logs are expensive both financially and socially - as I am sure you would attest. "Waste" is really "wasted solar energy" because whatever grows is a repository for captured solar energy.

Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to see this latest announcement of wood waste to "ethanol" in Georgia being classified as "ligno-cellulosic" conversion. This is rather blatent misinformation - a ruse of sorts to keep investors mystified and still attached to a new buzzword coined by W. The process that is being proposed has A) absolutely nothing to do with converting cellulose with acidic enzymes into sugars for inefficient batch fermentation. And B) the end product being touted as ligno-cell ethanol is another erronious statement. The end product will likely become a blend of higher synthetic alcohols and maybe will be in conflict with another's formula usage patents. To make the end product ethanol, over 50% losses in K2 efficiencies (ie: process flowthrough) will occur.

C. Scott Miller said...

In response to Anonymous...

I don't know why you are "anonymous." These are good, important questions. In any discussion about new technologies it is vital to know the source of information. By remaining anonymous you reduce your credibility about 75%.

To respond to your comment, I don't see any "blatant misinformation" at all.

Concerning A): You are probably right. But so what? As you say, enzymatic or acidic hydrolysis to break down feedstock into sugars is inefficient. Use thermal processes like gasification to create syngas for conversion bypasses this inefficiency and is easier to achieve in a continuous process flowthrough.

Concerning B): "Ligno-cellulosic" refers to the feedstock. "Ethanol" is the product. Since they have guarded publication of the details of their conversion process for syngas fermentation there is no way of guessing, as you do, what the products and byproducts are or of claiming that "50% losses in K2 efficiencies will occur."

Unless you can site sources to substantiate such claims - why should we believe them?

Thanks for writing.

Unknown said...

There is a company from Baltimore (ThermoChem Recovery)that has conceptualized a process using gasification, followed by gas to liquid conversion using the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process. Very interesting. It takes an integrated pulp and paper mill (very energy intensive industry), and converts it to a manufacturing facility that produces paper products, renewable transportation fuels, is fossil fuel independent and generates green electricity. There's an article in March/April 07 Paperage. There are other processes focused on production of ethanol vs. FT gases, but its 3am and I'm having trouble finding my reference. All in all the biofuel boom is here, and although the forest industry often is deamonized for its past environmental practices, things have changed. The sector has is efficient at growing, harvesting, and transporting biomass. They have a workforce who is familar with converting biomass to power (recovery boilers use wood residuals to generate steam). You may see the forestry sector become a huge player in the biofuel market. Again folks, we are not talking about cutting down more trees, we are talking about utilizing the waste streams from the process to their fullest.

This is an exciting time.

Anonymous said...

Just a point of clarification, the news reports I've seen report 100 million gallons ethanol annual output from this plant. The billion gallons sighted on Range Fuels web site is pure puffery at this point.

How many tons of raw material will it take to produce 100 million gallons of ethanol in a thermal conversion process? and what will that translate to in terms of trucks in the gate for this plant?

Anonymous said...

Concerning B): "Ligno-cellulosic" refers to the feedstock. "Ethanol" is the product. Since they have guarded publication of the details of their conversion process for syngas fermentation there is no way of guessing, as you do, what the products and byproducts are or of claiming that "50% losses in K2 efficiencies will occur."

Are you putting forth that our utter ignorance about these issues means that we should assume that everything is safe, or does it just read that way?

C. Scott Miller said...

As litigious as our society has become, I have a hard time imagining that facilities costing in the 9 figure range, are going to be built without a tremendous amount of scrutiny by the EPA, investment institutions, construction engineers, state and federal government, air quality boards, and a whole host of certification agencies and environmental associations.

Once constructed, I think there are problems that they will have to deal with regardless of how safe their plans are. And it will require retrenchment, oversight, testing, and re-engineering.

But, call me naive, I think that we need to cut developers some slack because, bottom line, we know the cost of doing nothing and it is much more to the detriment of society to place hurdles in the way than to allow deployment with some risk factors.

Would you invest in a high risk venture without due diligence, knowing that it could be shut down or worse, sued by an irate citizenry if something goes wrong? Probably not.

Thanks for writing.

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