Scientists know how to make fuel from prairie grasses growing on marginal land.
They know how to make fuel from fast growing trees with root systems that extend 25 feet into the ground, sequestering carbon emissions and enriching the soil. They even know how to make fuel from algae. They do all this in their labs every day. The problem is making cellulosic and algal fuel in large quantities at costs that compete with fuels from petroleum such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.
This is my second article (previous article) from the 31st Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals sponsored by NREL (also see the liveblogging from the event). 800 global bioscientists gathered in San Francisco to share their research and showcase their progress.
Their progress with biofuels from cellulosic sources is important. Some corn ethanol plants have closed. Once promising corporations, such as VeraSun, are now bankrupt. Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for fuel-from-food are being scrutinized. Industry would benefit greatly from biomass that can be grown at much higher yields per acre than corn. Industries such as agriculture, wood, and paper would benefit from making money from waste and from having added revenue sources.
At the conference, cellulosic ethanol pioneer Verenium shared their progress. In Jennings, Louisiana, they are producing 1.4 million gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol. The fuel can be mixed up to 10 percent with our current gasoline, saving us from needing almost 1.4 million gallons of foreign oil each year. Some might be delivered as E85. Instead of using corn, which requires high inputs of energy, nitrogen, fertilizer, and water to produce, Verenium is using a crop that produces eight times the energy required to process it – energy cane, a hybrid of sugar cane optimized as a fuel source not a food source.
Sugarcane and energy cane are part of Brazil’s energy independence, being the source of over 40 percent of their fuel. Now energy cane is being grown in some of the more tropical places in the United States. At a time when project financing is difficult, major partners are critical to financing larger commercial plants. In a joint-venture with BP, Verenium plans to build a 36 million gallon per year plant in Florida.