Officials at two companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories say they are very close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of these so-called cellulosic biofuels
For years, scientists and engineers have been juggling various combinations of acids, steam, bacteria, catalysts and the digestive juices of microorganisms to convert agricultural waste and even household garbage into motor fuel.
So far, such alternative fuels have not moved beyond small pilot plants, despite federal incentives to encourage companies to develop them.
But that could be about to change.
Officials at two companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories say they are very close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of these so-called cellulosic biofuels, and others are predicting success in the months to come.
In Columbus, Miss., KiOR has spent more than $200 million on a plant that is supposed to mix shredded wood waste with a patented catalyst, powdered to talcumlike consistency. Its process does in a few seconds what takes nature millions of years: removes the oxygen from the biomass and converts the other main ingredients, hydrogen and carbon, into molecules that can then be processed into gasoline and diesel fuel.
KiOR aims to turn out 13 million gallons of fuel a year and has already lined up three companies to buy its output, including FedEx and a joint venture of Weyerhauser and Chevron. KiOR said on Thursday that it had begun producing what it called “renewable crude” and intended to refine that into gasoline and diesel that it would begin shipping by the end of the month.
And Ineos, a European oil and chemical company, is putting the final touches on a plant in Vero Beach, Fla., that would cook wood and woody garbage until they broke down into tiny molecules of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Those molecules would be pumped into a giant steel tank, where bacteria would eat them and excrete ethanol. The company has spent $130 million on the plant, which is supposed to make eight million gallons a year, about 1 percent of Florida’s ethanol demand. The plant is next to a county landfill, and executives covet the incoming garbage.
Both plants are far smaller than typical oil refineries, but commercial production at either one — or at any of several of the plants that are a step behind them — would be a major milestone in renewable energy.
At such plants, the goal is sometimes to make ethanol and sometimes gasoline or diesel fuel or their ingredients. The pathways to make the biofuels are varied. But the feedstocks have something in common: they are derived from plants and trees, but not from food crops like corn kernels, which are the basis of most of the biofuel currently made in the United States.
Often, the raw ingredients for the cellulosic biofuels are the wastes of farms, paper mills or households, with a value that is low or even negative, meaning people will pay the fuel producers to dispose of them. And the companies developing the new fuels say that their products produce far fewer carbon emissions than petroleum-based gasoline and diesel.
KiOR says that its fuel will release one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide as an equivalent amount of petroleum fuel. That is mostly because every tree or woody plant fed into its process will eventually be replaced by a new tree or plant, which will suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And a byproduct of its factory is surplus electricity, which will be exported to the grid, displacing electricity that would otherwise be generated from natural gas or coal.
Ineos goes a step further, saying its production process actually reduces the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere. “We could make the argument that we’re carbon-negative,” said Peter Williams, the chief executive. The reason, he said, is that electricity produced from its plant averts emissions that would have come from other electricity sources.