Today in Cleantech

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.

Today in Cleantech

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

Rise of Lost Empires: Like Warcraft for iPhone, but Not Nearly as Good

riseoflostempires

I think I may have achieved a grasp of Gameloft’s concept design strategy for their iPhone (s aapl) catalog. It seems to have something to do with being “inspired” by titles and franchises that are already wildly successful. You can’t help but see the similarity between Hero of Sparta and God of War (even syntactically). Likewise, with Rise of Lost Empires ($4.99, iTunes link), their new real-time strategy game for the platform, which resembles a certain other title in which humans and orcs do battle strategically.

Don’t get me wrong, Gameloft’s “inspiration” strategy is not something I’m against. It has resulted in some very fun games to date, and Rise of Lost Empires is, hopefully, just one more opportunity for them to get iPhone gaming right with yet another lovely homage. If the original dev studios aren’t bringing the platform any love, I’d rather Gameloft did than no one at all. Read More about Rise of Lost Empires: Like Warcraft for iPhone, but Not Nearly as Good

Enerkem Heads to Mississippi for Biofuel Plant

enerkem_logoIf you live in Mississippi, your garbage could soon be turned into ethanol. Montreal-based Enerkem said today that it’s heading south for its next commercial-scale plant, with plans to build a 20-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant in Pontotoc, Miss.
Enerkem said it expects the $250 million project, which includes the cost of an upstream municipal solid waste recycling and pre-treatment center, will be able to convert about 60 percent of the trash that comes into the Three Rivers landfill, which handles garbage from the counties of Calhoun, Itawamba, Lafayette, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc, and Union in Mississippi.
Enerkem said its plant will go up next to the landfill, taking in 189,000 tons of unsorted municipal solid waste annually under a preliminary deal that the company signed with the Three Rivers Solid Waste Management Authority of Mississippi. Financial terms of that deal were not disclosed.
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Range Fuels Taps Ceres For Grass to Gas Plans

Cellulosic biofuel startup Range Fuels is getting ready to reap what it has sown with its biomass feedstock partner Ceres, an energy crop company. Range Fuels announced the partnership for a multi-year test of commercial varieties of switchgrass and high-biomass sorghum planted near its Soperton Plant site in Georgia. Range Fuels will use the dedicated energy crops to produce biofuel using its thermo-chemical conversion process, which the company says can convert sundry feedstocks like wood chips, paper pulp and olive pits into fuel. The financial details of the partnership were not disclosed.

The Soperton plant is scheduled to come online in 2009 and is expected to produce 100 million gallons of fuel a year. Its primary feedstock will be waste from the Georgia forestry industry, but the partnership with Ceres is designed to test the economic, environmental and logistical attributes of grasses as a feedstock. While it hasn’t come out and said it will be aiming for the golden $1 a gallon mark competitors like Coskata, Range Fuels has said it projects its costs to be significantly lower than both the enzymatic process and the current corn ethanol production costs, which are near $2 per gallon.

Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Ceres genomically enhances energy crops like switchgrass, sorghum and miscanthus and sells the seed under the brand name Blade Energy Crops replete with an ever growing list of hyphenated features: low-input, non-invasive, low-carbon, non-food, low-impact and high-yield. Some of largest players in next-gen biofuel space have turned to genetics to enhance their feedstocks including DuPont and Monsanto through a partnership with Mendel Biotechnology.

Both startups are well funded; Range Fuels collected a cool $100 million in April and Ceres pulled in $75 million a year ago.

Mascoma Backed by $61M and Big Oil Investor

On the heels of the news of its partnership with auto giant General Motors, cellulosic-biofuel startup Mascoma has added Big Oil to its growing list of investors. The Boston-headquartered company says this week that it has raised $61 million in a third round of financing that included $10 million from Houston-based Marathon Oil. GM participated (as we reported last week) in this round, as did previous investors Khosla Ventures, Flagship Ventures, Atlas Venture, General Catalyst Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Vantage Point Venture Partners, as well as Pinnacle Ventures, which provided an additional $20 million in venture debt.

This pushes Mascoma’s venture funding over $100 million; that’s in addition to over $100 million in federal and state grants, making Mascoma one of the most well-funded biofuel startups.

Marathon’s participation is not unprecedented; the company has equity in Midwestern ethanol plants and plans to be able to blend E-10 throughout its entire distribution system later this year.

Now Mascoma’s got deals with Big Oil and Detroit, two huge industries that see biofuels as a significant part of the future. The companies’ bets on Mascoma are a vote of confidence for the industry.

Going forward, Mascoma needs to use these funds to deliver that one-stop “consolidated bioprocessing” microbe and get its plant up and running ASAP. While there will likely be plenty of space in this industry for multiple players, being the first to market with a viable cellulosic ethanol process will grab a huge amount of public attention and probably even more funding.

Cellulose-Chomping Fungus Could Boost Biofuels

Although plants and bacteria get most of the biofuel research dollars and media column inches, fungus, a kingdom of organisms that excels at breaking down fibrous cellulose, could provide some innovation for cheap and easy cellulosic biofuel production. Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute have sequenced the genetic code of Tricoderma reesei, a fungal strain that was discovered during World War II when it was found to be eating through the military canvas tents and fatigues.

“We were aware of T. reesei’s reputation as producer of massive quantities of degrading enzymes, however we were surprised by how few enzyme types it produces, which suggested to us that its protein secretion system is exceptionally efficient,” the study’s lead author, Diego Martinez, told Science Daily.
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New York’s “Amazon Tax” and You

New York has become the first (so far as I know) state to try to close the “Amazon Loophole” in its sales tax collections. With the passage of a new state budget, they’re requiring out-of-state interstate retailers who do $10,000 or more of business per year with New York residents to collect and remit sales tax on those purchases. The theory is apparently that pushing out ads and making web sites available gives you a “presence” in the state sufficient to get around the historic Quill decision which made mail-order merchants exempt from such collection requirements.

Most web workers probably won’t feel the effects directly on the selling side: the bulk of us are selling services, rather than goods, and so don’t fall into a category of sales where sales tax is collected. But if your web business includes shipping anything physical, from computers to hand-knit booties, to New York, you’ll need to keep track of what happens as the State Department of Taxation and Finance issues regulations to implement the tax. Read More about New York’s “Amazon Tax” and You

Phillips VOIP841 Takes Skype Beyond Your Computer

As a voice service, Skype is different from other VoIP (voice over IP) services such as Vonage because it usually requires you to be attached to your computer either on a headset or using your onboard microphone and speakers.  This “tied down” factor is what motivated Skype to partner with hardware manufacturers to take Skype beyond the computer.

VOIP841There are handsets that plug in to your USB port that look like a traditional wireline phone along with units that use your wireless network and look like a cell phone.  However Philips took a different approach with their VOIP841 product.  It looks like a very stylish traditional cordless phone but features a color LCD screen that features the normal Skype look and feel.

The VOIP841 can make calls over traditional landline and via Skype by connecting directly to your broadband access point, not the computer.

One major advantage for web workers the VOIP841 presents is the ability to make global calls at Skype’s ridiculously cheap prices.  Currently to call most places in Europe, their rate is around 2 cents a minute.

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