Cellulosic ethanol not working out for BP — or anyone else

Remember that “Beyond Petroleum” TV ad with the pudgy farm boy who wondered if biofuels were the future of fuel (or some such nonsense)? Well, the answer is looking like, “no.”

Amid an article entitled “No eureka moments in long U.S. campaign to crack cellulosic code,”, Greenwire reports,

… [BP] broke ground this year on its first cellulosic ethanol refinery in Highlands County, Fla., using a relative of sugar cane that is light on the sugar and thick in the stem. (They call it “energy cane”; the crop is already planted.) The facility will produce 35 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year beginning in 2013, BP says…

[But even a] new yeast strain, which eliminates a whole step and cuts enzyme costs by a third, won’t make BP’s Florida plant profitable. BP has accepted that it will lose money on the biorefinery, which is “almost certainly not going to work well,” [biofuels expert Chris Somerville] said. And it will be expensive.

“They’re putting down $400 million for only 35 million gallons a year of capacity,” Somerville said. “Let’s call that $10 per annual gallon. That’s about two to three times as high as the corn ethanol guys.”

Somerville expects that BP’s second plant could work quite well, though it is unlikely to come online until later this decade. Perhaps by 2020 the field could be profitable. While this is not a reality that the government and media are eager to hear, some caution is justified.

“You got to understand that it’s a big new industrial process,” he said. “It’s a really expensive proposition to put that much steel in the ground. And once you put it in the ground, it’s there. You can’t just pick it up and put the money somewhere else.”

No doubt all this would have failed sooner but for mandates:

Several years ago, overconfident researchers and policymakers predicted that they would soon develop tools to cheaply break down plant walls, creating “cellulosic” ethanol. These predictions begat policy, with congressional biofuel mandates, passed in 2007, calling for 250 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol to be used this year, rising to 500 million gallons in 2012.

It didn’t happen. This year, the government lowered its cellulosic mandate to 6.6 million gallons, and in late June U.S. EPA proposed requiring between 3.5 million and 12.9 million gallons of the fuel for 2012, making up less than 0.010 percent of the country’s fuel supply (Greenwire, June 22). Despite mandates and subsidies, science can only be pushed so quickly. It is a recalcitrant problem, said Steve Koonin, DOE’s undersecretary for science, at a meeting earlier this year.

Yes… science isn’t dinner; it just can’t be ordered.

10 thoughts on “Cellulosic ethanol not working out for BP — or anyone else”

  1. IDEA: Termites digestive systems contain an enzyme that breaks down plant cell walls. Can this enzyme be sythesized and used in the process of producing ethanol?

  2. Sell it to Archer Daniels Midland, the perennial DC insider and fixer company, and which has owned the heavily-subsidized ethanol market since the 1990’s (to the tune of billion$ in profits), and is now into biofuels.

    Google this phrase for lots of info about subsidized ag markets: “archer daniels midland ethanol subsidy andreas”, or check Wikipedia:


    “At least 43 percent of ADM’s annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the American government. Moreover, every $1 of profits earned by ADM’s corn sweetener operation costs consumers $10, and every $1 of profits earned by its ethanol operation costs taxpayers $30.” (Cato Institute)

  3. It took about 40 years to get the corn ethanol business up and running. It’s no wonder that no one can get cellulosic ethanol up and running in 2 years. ADM no longer owns the ethanol market, A group called POET put them into second place.

  4. The corn ethanol business has been profitable as long as long as there has been a United States. Lots of small entrepreneurs, although from time to time they had to be up and running. If cellulosic ethanol were as easy as congress thought, I’m sure those boys would have figured it out long ago.

  5. The corn ethanol business has only been “profitable” because of the federal subsidies and blending requirements. If not for those, there would be no corn ethanol business. It does not make engineering or economic sense.

  6. Science learns why things work. It is the job of Engineering to make it *profitable*. Scientists can make cellulose release sugar. Unfortunately it comes out with other less-useful substances mixed in – substances such as water.
    It is a rule of thumb in the chemical industry that each additional increment in product purity doubles the cost. Water is notoriously hard to remove from anything, and failure to remove it from fuel will result in a product that is quite corrosive, not only to the production equipment but also to the systems which it fuels.
    This is one reason that internal combustion engines ‘prefer’ fossil fuels – they start out without any water to be removed.

  7. See termites articles: http://advancedbiofuelsusa.info/?s=termites&x=7&y=7
    Think about the enzymes in cows’ stomachs, too. Research is also being done on those. The problem this research is attacking is know as biomass recalcitrance. Understanding better how enzymes break down the stems and leaves, etc., of plants into “sugars” that can be a biocrude or fermented into ethanol is the hard part. Learn more: http://advancedbiofuelsusa.info/?s=%22biomass+recalcitrance%22&x=7&y=8

    BP understands that you don’t make a mint doing something that has never been done before. That’s called research and development and it takes time and patience and money. That’s called investment. And the return on this investment isn’t like the IT return. It takes steel in the ground, enviromental permits, water permits and community involvement. Those all cost money before anyone makes money. That’s not failure. It’s process; and, perhaps, progress.

  8. I think that when Bob says “The corn ethanol business has been profitable as long as long as there has been a United States”, he’s referring to ethanol produced for use as a beverage, not a fuel.

  9. As an exterminator I know a bit about termites and I can tell you that they give off a great deal of methane because they are digesting cellulose, but I can also tell you that it is a complicated process and their process turns it into gas, not liquid, which is what they are striving for. However, even if you could get that process down and manufacture methane, I seriously doubt that it wouldn’t be cheaper than drilling for natural gas.

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