We've seen a number of high-profile cellulosic projects open in
recent years, and not much ethanol being produced? Wondered why?
Here are answers to your questions.
As Jack Webb used to say on Dragnet, just the facts,
Fact one. There’s not much ethanol being
produced at the new generation of cellulosic projects.
Fact two. We have seen significant changes in
senior leadership at a number of key developers.
Industry rumor going around: Psst! These
facts are linked!
For sure, Dorio Giordano has been appointed CEO at Beta
Renewables, Dan Cummings has been tapped as president of POET-DSM,
Bioenergy CEO Javier Garoz has moved over to become CEO of Abengoa
Yield, and this week former Segetis CEO Atul Thakrar was selected
as the new President of DSM Bio-Based.
And it’s true, we’ve seen elongated commissioning periods for
some cellulosic ethanol projects.
Officially, there’s no confirmation of a linkage. Every company
loyalist denies it, every company cynic whispers it. Anything to
it? Some, not as much as you’d think. There’s frustration around
pace, that’s for sure.
Officially, by the way, the outlook on cellulosic biofuels is
relatively bullish in 2015 compared to 2014. Last year, there were
33.0 million RINs generated for cellulosic biofuels; this year,
we’ve seen an impressive jump — in all, 36.9 million RINs for
cellulosic biofuels as a whole.
But almost all of the production is Renewable Compressed or
Liquified Natural Gas — last year 32.6 million RINs in all,
compared to 728,000 RINs for cellulosic ethanol. This year,
668,940 RINs for cellulosic ethanol, through May.
So, with four projects open in the US (INEOS Bio, Abengoa,
POET-DSM and QCCP — not to mention Beta’s Crescentino project, and
GranBio and Raizen in Brazil), you might have found yourself
wondering of late, where is all the cellulosic ethanol? What’s
taking so long?
Let’s take you through a quick Q&A.
Q: What is the official explanation for the slow
A: If you should inquire, you’ll be told
Q: What exactly does that mean?
A: It will differ from project to project, but
it generally means that some aspect of the final design has proven
troublesome at scale, and is causing any or all of: a material
shortfall in the rate of production, low titer (that is the
concentration of fuel alcohol in the broth), excessive or noxious
byproducts, the yield in terms of gallons per ton of biomass,
excessive rates of catalyst destruction, or in the cost or yield
in separating the product from catalysts, by-products, or
Q: How long can de-bottlenecking take?
A: In a practical sense, anywhere from a handful
of months to several years.
Q: Are multi-year de-bottlenecking periods usually
A: If you speculated that a number of projects
were expected by their parents to be producing by this time at
significant volumes and generating cash, you would not be wrong.
Q: If there was one phrase you could offer to sum up the
troubles, would it be “core technology failure?”
A: No. But we have heard “pre-treatment”
frequently, though not universally.
Q. What about pre-treatment?
A: A few months before he died, Beta Renewables
CEO Guido Ghisolfi spoke at length about “the front end problem,”
as he called it, with The Digest. He pointed out that the bales of
cellulosic material were coming in “dirtier” than had been
expected. In Beta’s case, literally — dirt, rocks, mice, farm
tools — a lot of junk was sneaking into the bales, and they
installed a washing system to clean the biomass more throughly, as
the debris was causing, at a minimum, reductions in productivity.
Q: But what about the entire pre-treatment approach?
A: We’ve heard grumbling about pre-treatment systems
(that begin the process of liberating sugars from biomass).
Specifically, that the new generation systems — which have, as
examples, the promise of high sugar yields at lower enzyme
loadings, less conversion of sugars to furfural and HMF, and lower
capex and opex — are not producing the front-end results that are
expected. But it generally it is all coming back, we hear, to
higher degrees of biomass contamination than expected.
Q: You’ve mentioned a new system put in place at Beta
Renewables? Any other delays at the other projects for retrofits
A: INEOS Bio put in a new system last year, a
hydrogen sulfide scrubber, when higher than expected rates of H2S
were materially affecting the production organism.
Q: What was the word about that?
A: Last September, we wrote:
“According to the project team,
“INPB has implemented a pilot project at the Fayetteville,
Arkansas, facility to test the sensitivity of the fermentation
process to HCN concentration. The pilot project involved
installation of HCN scrubbing and water regeneration unit to
prove that the concept of HCN removal and regeneration can be
successful at full scale.
The Fayetteville, Arkansas,
system proved that fermentation is operable on mulch syngas
after removal of HCN and provided design data for the proposed
HCN removal and control system at the Vero Beach facility. The
Vero Beach system requires a third column to remove the HCN from
the air used to regenerate the recirculated scrubber water.
According to INEOS Bio
management, the scrubber technology will be installed and
commissioned by October and the plant should be resuming normal
operations by the end of the year.”
Q: How confident should we be that these technology
problems will be solved?
A: Given that we have heard no clear indications
of “core technology failure” from any party (from bullish company
operatives to cynical industry observers), we can be reasonably
confident that the companies will “figure it out” and reach the
intended productivity levels, though actual timelines would be not
much more than pure speculation at this stage.
Q: Why aren’t the companies more up-front and transparent
about the difficulties? Don’t they see the risks in going
stealthy during periods of adversity?
A: First of all, they see intransigence on the
part of obligated parties relating to infrastructure, not stealthy
cellulosic projects trying to reach steady-state operations, as
the #1 risk factor for the RFS. #2 is the Obama Administration’s
lack of faith in the RIN mechanism for getting round E10
Secondly, corporate candor is one of those attributes, like
greenhouse emission reduction, where they create a public benefit
but not always a benefit that accrues directly to the corporation.
Q: We’ve seen a lot of biogas projects pop up, including
the afore-mentioned compressed natural gas for CNG vehicles
technologies, which have experienced fewer technology hassles
and issued millions of RINs — will that trend continue?
A: For the time being, yes. And it shows the
benefit of a technology and feedstock-neutral RFS. No one saw it
coming that landfill gas CNG would outsell cellulosic fuel ethanol
in 2015, but that’s the beauty of the market that RINs create.
Q: In his presentation on timelines to bring up new
systems from installation to expected rates of productivity and
uptime, what did Iogen CEO Brian Foody have to say?
A: He didn’t encourage thinking along the lines
of “6 months or less to full production”, that’s for sure.
Q. In his presentation at ABFC 2015, Foody discussed the
timelines to reach target production uptime in detail, for
Iogen’s R6, R7 and R8 technology releases, right?
A. Yes. The R8 technology was the release
eventually commercialized at Costa Pinto, Brazil in the Raizen
Q. How long did the de-bottlenecking take?
A. According to Foody, “expect everyone to
struggle to achieve highly reliable commercial operation.”
Specifically with the R6 release, the company took 10 months to
reach 10% uptime, and peaked at 40 percent uptime one year after
A. A lot of unexpected results in the impact of
handling large amounts of biomass — blockages and corrosion among
Q. Did results improve with the R7 release?
A. Yes, and you can see the tale of the tape,
below. The project ultimately hit its “asset utilization” target
of 80%, but it took a full 21 months to get there. A year beyond
start-up, R7 was still at around 50% uptime.
Q. So, R8 was commercialized, so it must have gone much
A. Relatively so. Here’s the data, below. Hit
the 80 percent uptime target in 10 months, and stayed there. But
still, 10 months of struggle.
Q. What happens if you plot actual cellulosic ethanol
production, as seen in the EPA’s RIN date, against the
production capacity out there?
A. Iogen has conveniently done that for us.
Here’s the data, below. What you can see is an industry moving
along roughly the same performance timeline as Iogen’s R6 release.
Q. Suggesting that immature technology is in the field?
A. Possibly. But just as likely, that these
companies experience steep learning curves as they seek steep
increases in month-to-month production uptime.
Q. Bottom line?
A. It could be another year, or more, before we
see anything like targeted uptimes at all of these projects.
Q. What can I do about it?
A. Preach patience. These are complex
technologies, be generous in your assessment.
Jim Lane is editor and publisher of Biofuels Digest where this
was originally published.
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