Monday, August 09, 2010

Making a Way for Advanced Biofuels

The U.S. biofuel industry has grown dramatically in recent years, with pro-
duction expanding from 1.6 billion gallons in 2000 to 9 billion gallons in 2008.
1 This dramatic increase can be attributed to the rise in production of corn-based ethanol and associated, smaller quantities of soy-based biodiesel. The number of refneries has also increased—from 54 in 2,000 to 170 in January 2009.
2 The worldwide economic recession and lower prices for petroleum have slowed the expansion of the industry, but because of strong state and federal mandates, production is expected to grow until production capacity reaches the federally mandated 36 billion gallons of biofuel in 2022.
3 _NAP_Report_on_Advanced_Biofuels_2010_Koshel_McAllister (free PDF download)

In the short run, heavy and rapid investment in an advanced biofuels infrastructure does not make much sense. But in the long run, I suspect that the parts of the US which possess a working advanced biofuels infrastructure will be happy to have the fuels, chemicals, feeds, and other high value co-products which will be available at a more stable price than what imported petrofuels and chemicals will require. Here are a few news items dealing with advanced biofuels progress:

Gevo is retrofitting a Minnesota bio-ethanol plant for production of isobutanol -- a much more valuable product. More on the Gevo process and competing approaches from MIT's Technology Review.

New approach to advanced refining of vegetable oils to high-value chemicals and fuels

Japanese project for quick conversion of glucose to 5 HMF (high value chemical, fuel extender, and fuel precursor)

Award to Aston University for improved methods for conversion of biomass to biofuels via fast pyrolysis (heating of biomass in absence of O2) to produce pyrolysis gas, pyrolysis oil, and bio-char. Pyrolysis is also a useful method of biomass densification for transport and further processing.

Large quantities of waste biomass from forestry, ranching, and agriculture will be converted to products for providing heat, combined heat and power, co-firing with coal, and further processing to high value fuels, chemicals, etc. This article profiles one such biomass operation

Biomass has low energy density. But it is widely distributed and is renewable. Various means for improving biomass yields per acre of land (or sea) are progressing. Several methods for densifying biomass energy are likewise making progress.

The wide distribution of biomass potential provides for an extensive distribution of the economic benefits of developing biomass energy. While participants in the biomass enterprise are not likely to "get rich quick" like an oil and gas developer or investor may expect, as the biomass infrastructure builds, the economic potential will grow at all levels and in thousands of locations.

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