Gassing Up With Garbage
The New York Times, July 24, 2008
"After years of false starts, a new industry selling motor fuel made
from waste is getting a big push in the United States, with the first
commercial sales possible within months.
Many companies have announced plans to build plants that would take in
material like wood chips, garbage or crop waste and turn out motor
fuels. About 28 small plants are in advanced planning, under
construction or, in a handful of cases, already up and running in test mode.
For decades scientists have known it was possible to convert waste to
fuel, but in an era of cheap oil, it made little sense. With oil now
trading around $125 a barrel and gasoline above $4 a gallon, the
potential economics of a waste-to-fuel industry have shifted radically,
setting off a frenzy to be first to market.
The incentive to make fuel from something, anything, besides oil and
food is greater than ever. Moreover, the federal government is offering
grants to help plants get off the ground and subsidies for one type of
fuel of $1.01 a gallon, twice the subsidy it historically offered to
ethanol made from corn.
Potential controls on global warming gases would heighten the appeal of
these fuels, since many of them would add little new carbon dioxide to
The dream of making fuel from plants is almost as old as the internal
combustion engine. Henry Ford himself was fascinated by the idea, and it
re-emerges in periods of fuel scarcity and high prices. These days,
advancing technology has made the notion more plausible.
Virtually any material containing hydrogen, carbon and oxygen could
potentially be turned into motor fuel. That includes plastics,
construction debris, forest and lawn trimmings, wood chips, wheat straw
and many other types of agricultural waste.
The potential fuels include ethanol, which can be blended with gasoline,
or other liquids that could displace gasoline or diesel entirely.
Government studies suggest the country could potentially replace half
its gasoline supply in this way — even more if cars became more efficient.
The government is pushing to get the industry off the ground.
Legislation passed last year mandates the use of 36 billion gallons of
biofuels a year by 2022, less than half of it from corn ethanol. Almost
all the rest is supposed to come from nonfood sources, though the
requirement could be waived if the industry faltered.
Much of the new money flowing into the field is coming from Silicon
Valley, where the venture capitalists who gave the world the Internet
revolution see an opportunity to do something similar with the fuel supply.
At Solazyme, a start-up in South San Francisco that hopes to
commercialize a process for making fuel from algae, President Harrison
F. Dillon said, “When we founded the company in 2003, we couldn’t find a
venture capital firm that had heard of the concept of a biofuel.” Now he
is backed by two such firms.
Venture capital investment in the first half of this year hit $612
million, up from $375 million in all of 2007, according to a survey by
Thomson Reuters. Every few days brings another announcement. PFC Energy,
a Washington consulting firm, counts projects worth perhaps $1.5 billion
that will total more than 300 million gallons of capacity by 2011, if
they all get built.
One of the first companies to bring a plant online is KL Process Design
Group, in Wyoming. With experience making corn ethanol plants, it has
built a small plant meant to use pine wastes from a nearby national
forest. The company is still testing its production line but hopes to
begin commercial sales of ethanol late this year.
Range Fuels, of Denver, is building a commercial-scale plant in
Soperton, Ga., with help from the Energy Department. That plant will
take pine chips and turn them into ethanol, with commercial sales
expected by late 2009 or 2010.
Some companies want to use garbage. On Friday, a company called Fulcrum
BioEnergy said it would start construction later this year on a $120
million plant at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, in Storey County,
Nev., to make 10.5 million gallons of ethanol a year from 90,000 tons of
garbage. Operation would begin in early 2010.
In Montreal, another firm, Enerkem, plans to use arsenic-contaminated
utility poles from the provincial electric company. On Wednesday, the
Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission approved a plan by
BlueFire Ethanol to build a $30 million garbage-to-ethanol plant on 10
acres next to a landfill in Lancaster, Calif.; construction will start
soon, the company said.
A handful of small companies has long made a diesel replacement from
waste oil, or sold kits to individuals to do the same. One company in
Carthage, Mo., even turns turkey guts into fuel. The goal of the
emerging waste-to-fuel industry is more elaborate, however: to take
bulky, solid feedstocks and transform them into high-grade motor fuel.
History provides plenty of warning that it will not be easy. A company
called Verenium in Lafayette, La., has cut ribbons three times in one
locale since 1998 on plants that would supposedly make fuel from sugar
cane waste, and has yet to sell a drop because of problems converting
laboratory success into smooth, commercial-scale operation.
A bigger operation, Iogen, has been running a demonstration plant in
Ottawa since 2004 that can turn wheat straw into ethanol. It was
expected to build a plant in Idaho but has suspended work to focus
attention on a plant in Saskatchewan. “It would be our view that there
are substantial challenges in scaling up a big new biochemical process,”
said Brian Foody, the president.
The Energy Department early last year picked six projects as most likely
to succeed, and offered each of them tens of millions of dollars.
Iogen’s Idaho project was among them; so was a plant in Kansas proposed
by a Florida company, Alico, that has also been abandoned. Still,
increasing interest from big companies — ones with a track record of
solving technical problems — suggests that a waste-to-fuel industry may
not remain out of reach forever.
General Motors has invested an undisclosed sum in two companies,
Coskata, of Warrenville, Ill., and Macoma, of Lebanon, N.H., that aim to
turn crop wastes into ethanol.
DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical companies, has joined forces
with a company called Genencor, announcing plans to commercialize a
process for making ethanol from the nonedible parts of corn and sugar
cane. They plan to invest $140 million over three years.
In making their announcement, the companies estimated the worldwide
market for fuels made by methods like theirs would eventually reach $75
billion, dwarfing the scale of today’s biofuels produced from food crops
like corn and sugar cane."
Dr. Ann C. Wilkie Tel: (352)392-8699
Soil and Water Science Department Fax: (352)392-7008
University of Florida-IFAS
P.O. Box 110960 E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Gainesville, FL 32611-0960
Campus location: Environmental Microbiology Laboratory (Bldg. 246).
BioEnergy and Sustainable Technology Society