I’m guessing that if you polled self-described “green” advocates about their least favorite green technology, biofuels would be at the top of the list. Out of all the forms of renewable energy, biofuels are the most controversial from an environmental perspective, mainly because every drop now available to global markets comes from food crops like corn, sugarcane and soy. It would be nice if cellulosic biofuel — the stuff made from non-food plant materials — could step up and provide at least a fraction of the potential market. But that just hasn’t happened the way the industry and its government backers have hoped. In fact, commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production is so far behind schedule in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has had to slash its targets twice, from an original hope for 100 million gallons by 2010 and 250 million gallons by 2011 to a bare 12.9 million gallons by next year — and even that pathetically small figure will be a challenge for the industry to manage. Looks like we’ve got awhile to perfect cellulosic biofuel’s technology, and the business model, and the feedstock issues, and all the other problems that have limited its development to date.
We’ve got some ambitious plans from Khosla-backed “renewable crude” startup KiOR to report on. This morning, the Houston-based company announced it has a term sheet for a Department of Energy loan guarantee of — wait for it — $1 billion-plus to help it build multiple plants to produce up to 250 million gallons of biofuel per year. A term sheet is just an opening salvo in the long process of landing a DOE loan guarantee, so we’re waiting to see what comes next. Still, it’s a huge amount to request — the last round of DOE biofuel loan guarantees added up to $571 million total for five separate companies, to give a point of comparison. KiOR’s approach to the biofuel challenge is quite different — instead of bypassing the traditional oil refining process with cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel or algae-based biofuel, the company says it can add a catalyst to improve on the well-known industrial process of pyrolysis — super-heating organic matter in the absence of oxygen — to yield a bio-crude product that can be dropped into existing oil refining infrastructure. That could cut out a lot of the headaches associated with brewing and transporting ethanol that can’t run through existing oil pipelines, or adding cold-sensitive biodiesel to truck fuel
Biofuel station owners tell us their businesses are going well, but clearly they’re still a niche market. Why are biofuel stations still a hippie niche?
Joule Unlimited, a startup that promises to genetically engineer an organism that eats CO2 and produces a drop-in diesel fuel, has landed a patent on its “recombinant biosynthesis” technology.
Propel Fuels, a startup trying to create a brand around alternative fuels, held a grand opening at a biofuel station in Oakland, Calif. on Tuesday and announced a plan to add 75 new stations in California by the end of 2011.
Dutch oil giant Shell and Brazilian ethanol giant Cosan sealed the deal Wednesday on a $12 billion joint venture to turn sugarcane into pump-ready fuel. How will the massive partnership affect Codexis, Shell’s biocatalyst partner and recent entrant to the public markets?