CHIGAGO -- Scientists for years have shown they can produce liquid fuels from grass, leaves and wood. But the question plaguing the renewable fuels industry has always been “scale.’’
Can anyone out there produce these fuels on a scale needed to cost-effectively power the world’s cars and trucks?
That was one of the central discussions this year at BIO International, the world’s largest gathering of the bio-science industry, the theme of which this year is “Healing, Fueling and Feeding.’’
In short, almost everyone interviewed this week noted many promising technologies that likely will play a role in America’s energy future. But there is still a lot of work yet to do.
“We’ve had a lot of industries tell us: Don’t show tell us you have the perfect molecule. Don’t tell us you can produce it for $1.05 a gallon. Show us you can do it at scale,’’ said Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme, a San Francisco area company that has developed a system that uses algae to convert cellulosic materials such as wood and crop waste into “in spec” jet fuel.
“Each technology faces specific challenges to commercialization – and we have a long way to go to get to fuel scale.’’
The problems are well known. Fossil fuels are still plentiful, cheap and contain more BTUs of energy than alcohol fuels. And America uses a lot of energy – about 400 million gallons of gasoline a day just to power cars and trucks.
Dozens of companies at BIO are working on different solutions. Many of companies on display at BIO are focused on making fuel from cellulosic material because it is abundant, cheap and it is material that couldn't otherwise be used for food. At the same time, its sugars are locked tightly within its fibrous membranes so they're difficult to economically extract -- and the alcohol-based fuels from crop "sugars'' are usually blended, not used a stand-alone source of fuel.
Solazyme has a key to solving this dilemma, Wolfson said. Its technology takes wood and crop waste that has been processed to extract its sugars, which are then fed to algae microbes. The microbes produce oil nearly identical to jet fuel, which Wolfson called a “drop-in’’ fuel because it can be used by cars and trucks that won't have to be modified.
While the technology can produce large volumes of fuel, Solazyme does not yet have a pilot plant. And even at full scale, a microbial fuel factory would not produce the amount of fuel in a year what a commercial petroleum refinery would produce in a day.
There are 30 cellulosic "bio-fuel'' plants, built or are now under construction, according to a report on the biofuels industry released earlier this year by Bio Economic Research Associates for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). But most are small and many are still part of a research effort to "scale'' a future, larger plant.
“The solutions will likely be regional,’’ said Troy Runge, director of the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative in an interview at BIO. “You’ll see different technologies in the southeast, such as algae and solar, where they have a lot of sun. In the Midwest, where we have a lot of rain but less light and heat, you’ll see other technologies that utilize grasses and wood which we have in abundance.’’
But “scale’’ is an enormous hurdle, he said “What you see here at BIO is mostly conversion technologies’’ – the latest ideas in how to unlock the sugars from plant material to produce fuels.
“What you don’t see,’’ he added, are the businesses and marketing systems needed to collect, store and process the tens of millions of tons of cellulose feedstock materials that will be needed to produce enough fuels for a modern economy.
Still, there are examples of success. For example, the United States ethanol industry , spurred by enormous government incentives, last year produced 12 billion gallons of ethanol alcohol – and Brazil converted its enormous sugar cane industry to a system that produces all its transportation fuel.
“So it can be done,’’ said John McCarthy, president and CEO of Qteros, a Massachusetts-based bio-science company with a patent on a microbe that its says can more efficiently unlock sugars from cellulosic plant material.
The key to success, he said, will be in a strong, consistent government policy that creates an environment so that investors will put money into these ideas and build the technology and a “scaled’’ renewable energy infrastructure.“The macro elements are all in place for a system of scaled up production (of renewable fuels,’’ McCarthy said. “The problem is policy. We need an aggressive, consistent national energy policy.''