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By George, They Think They’ve Got It

November 26, 2012 - Making fuel from trash has been a kind of holy grail – long sought after, much desired.  Many have cried “Eureka,” only to find that either money or interest had dried up.  I suspect lack of interest was frequently the culprit, when energy companies were the source of funds.  Now, however, we have two companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories for the purpose of large-scale, commercial production of cellulosic biofuel.  One will, in fact, be shipping product by the end of this month.
KiOR has built their plant in Columbus, Mississippi, at a cost of $200 million.  Its goal is the manufacture of 13 million gallons of fuel annually from wood waste.  How can they already be shipping fuel?  They have customers!  FedEx, Weyerhauser and Chevron, to be exact.  This sounds serious, for which we can all be grateful.  Here’s why:  No. 1 - KiOR’s fuel isn’t made from an edible crop, like corn.  All of us have heard of food riots in various parts of the world, and have heard the warnings of more to come.  The shortage of food can be, at least partly, directly attributed to substituting corn ethanol for fuel.  If more corn can be grown as food, fewer children will suffer and die from malnutrition.   No. 2 - Because KiOR converts wood waste to fuel, its fuel will release one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels.  Every woody plant used to produce biofuel will be replaced with another tree or plant, which will remove CO2 from the air.  No. 3 - Even better, a byproduct of KiOR’s factory will be surplus electricity, ready for export to the grid.  It will replace electricity produced with fossil fuels.

As I mentioned, there are two companies taking aim at cellulosic biofuel.  The second is Ineos, a European oil and chemical company.  Their $130 million facility, almost finished, is being erected in Vero Beach, Fla., where it will produce eight million gallons of biofuel annually.  I was impressed to learn that this will satisfy only 1 percent of Florida’s demand for biofuel.  Lots of room for competition here!  Ineos has claimed a much-coveted property next to the county landfill, with access to garbage galore.

In order for these two pioneering companies to be successful, high prices for oil must not fall.  In addition, the federal government policy that mandates biofuel constitute a portion of all fuel blends must remain in place.  If these two contingencies are met, energy experts maintain that renewable motor fuel could eventually have a much bigger impact on the U.S. economy than renewable electricity from wind farms or solar cells.  Renewable electricity saves on coal, which, though cheap and domestically plentiful, is a polluter of the first rank.  Renewable motor fuel that displaces oil makes a significant contribution to the solving of national security and trade problems.
As you might by now have imagined, KiOR and Ineos are not the only two contenders; they’re just first in line.  POET, a major producer of ethanol by conventional means, is building a plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa.  The surrounding farms will provide it with 700 tons of corn cobs a day (with the corn having been stripped off by a food manufacturer, presumably) that will yield sugars for the production of ethanol.  POET’s plant will be ready for launch in late 2013.  It will produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year.

Then there’s Abengoa, a Spanish firm.  They’ve been operating a pilot plant in Salamanca, Spain, and gave the go-ahead to construction of a $350 million commercial plant in Hugotan, Kansas back in 2011.  Slated to begin production in the third quarter of next year, the Hugotan facility will process 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol each year from agricultural waste, wood waste, and nonfood crops.  Holy Grail no more, it looks like cellulosic biofuel’s time has come, and certainly not a moment too soon.  Bring it!
With thanks to the New York Times for the information in this article.


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