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Don’t Discount Biofuels


Xconomy National — 

As one who’s spent a lifetime chasing the quest of a practical, sustainable bioeconomy – I have sympathy for biofuel skeptics. Let’s face it; petroleum is an incumbent that has no match in political or economic strength. But it is hard to deny the convergence of historical and technological trends that suggest a sustainable biofuel might soon be feasible. I have had the privilege of spending the last year in an effort called Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest and learned much from over forty stakeholders in the project. Let me offer four observations that give me some optimism about the viability of next generation biofuels.

Historical Shifts

Serious support for biofuels is very recent. The chemurgy movement (the early 20th century emphasis on biofuels and bioproducts from agriculture) never gained broad political traction. The Energy Security Act of 1980 mentioned biofuels but funding and interest fizzled quickly. It was not until the Farm Bill of 2002 there was an energy title, and serious support began. The last decade’s rapid ascent of Biofuels 1.0 (that being corn-based ethanol and soy-based diesel) was unprecedented. While hindsight suggests energy efficiency, environmental and economic impact could have been better managed, the creation of B1.0 didn’t include those requirements. The spark that ignited growth was the diversification and creation of new markets for a surplus of agricultural commodities while also reducing oil imports and boosting rural economic development. It was a supply-side push.

The biofuels industry emerging today (let’s call it B2.0) has learned from this brief history. First, it is now the consumers (not the producers) of the fuel looking for diversity – they seek a reliably sourced portfolio of biofeedstocks – not one silver bullet. Second, unlike ethanol and biodiesel, these new biofuels are distillates or ‘drop-in’ fuels meaning they can be blended and are compatible with petroleum’s infrastructure of refineries, pipelines, and storage. Third, these consumers are demanding global accepted standards for sustainability. Very pragmatic, in exchange for their backing of these new biofuels, they want assurance the supply chains are net energy positive, that carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced, and they contribute to the environmental, economic, and social health of the region from which they are sourced and used.

Creating a viable B2.0 industry is also attracting talent, perhaps like never before. Biologists who pioneered the human genome like Craig Venter, George Church, even Lee Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology and David Baker of the University of Washington—all noted life science rock stars—have been attracted to the allure and challenge of a sustainable biofuel. Coupled with legacy agricultural land grants, like Washington State University where biofuels never went out of style, the sector is rapidly advancing. Over the past year, among the 10 IPOs in the clean tech space, four are involved with biofuels (Codexis, Solazyme, Amyris, Gevo) and one more is expected, Qteros. A few of these are converting alcohol fuels to distillates, efficiently linking B1.0 to 2.0. Most have valuable co-products and multinational partners. Some might call it a tipping point.

Acknowledging Limits

Deserved or not, B1.0 can also be credited with popularizing the food versus fuel debate. I am pleased with this acknowledgment that our fields, forests, and waters have a finite (but growing) capacity to produce biomass. I am disappointed that the issues have been purposely shaped into a false choice.

Regardless of how or where it’s produced, biomass has five primary fates:

Food – eaten in human diets

Feed – grazed, fed, or consumed in animal diets

Fiber -used for textiles, paper, and other products

Fuel – consumed (usually combusted) for its energy content

Functionality – residing in the ecosystem necessary to cycle nutrients and energy

The allocation of biomass among the ‘5F’ fates have been on-going for all of human existence, and always been determined by society. Many a study and book have been written about those cultures where choices were unwise, and history suggests success has only come with the cycling and integration of all these fates. Among the B2.0 enthusiasts I know, I don’t hear unrealistic expectations of the reach, nor the capacity to produce biofuels. I do hear about the possibility of disruptive discoveries, like the ability to ‘milk’ synthetic microbes that exude hydrocarbons, but I don’t hear irreverence for environmental or economic reality.

Prioritizing Use

Given the finite nature of biofuel capacity, it only makes sense to set priorities for use. And this, I’ve learned, is what makes aviation a special case. Unlike most other modes of travel, planes don’t have viable fuel alternatives, and they have the safest, fastest platform for travel within the atmosphere we’ve ever devised. Even the improvements in fuel efficiency for aircraft have surpassed the rate achieved on the ground, and next generation planes and flight paths will achieve over 100 passenger miles per gallon. One can only hope the future of efficient transportation will involve allocating the appropriate sources of energy (petro, biofuel, electricity, etc.) among the transportation modes best suited for the task. Integrating airport hubs, rail corridors, truck, car, bus, bike, walking and other ways of getting around all need to be optimized.

Aviation’s fuel needs are also scaled and located in such a way to encourage regional biofuel supply chains to be efficiently planned and developed. Using only 10 percent of the nation’s transportation petroleum, the volumes are achievable. And unlike cars and trucks, the aviation industry is served by a very small number of filling stations, with 75 airports accounting for 80 percent of the nation’s fuel use. These hubs, with known fuel demand, serve as a logical geography to organize B2.0, and resolve issues concerning regional sustainability.

Public Sector Leadership

One can’t go to a B2.0 conference or meeting these days without hearing speakers lament the government’s habit of picking ‘winners and losers’. I take this as a good sign, a sign indicative of the talent and competition among technologies and firms inherent in B2.0. They hate to lose. But the fact is, governments have always been in the business of picking winners and losers, and I don’t know of a major industry sector that hasn’t started without some negotiation of the appropriate public/private interface. Picking doesn’t bother me if conflicts of interest are openly acknowledged and managed.

Still, there are technologies that have become government darlings, and public support should be based on principles and outcomes. In this vein, public support of research has been important, but one of the most powerful tools of government I’ve learned is procurement. In the case of biofuels, the military has proven surprisingly progressive. The technology making the first B2.0 biorefineries work (hydrotreated oils from oilseeds, algae, tallow, and other biosources) came from DARPA funded research. Fuel testing and verification to comply with the strict safety and quality standards for aviation came from the Air Force. And one of the first large users will likely be the Navy. On May 23, they put out a request for information from suppliers for the first 500,000 gallons of these new biofuels with delivery requested for Puget Sound. The large scale demonstration could happen in the Pacific Northwest within a year.

So, skeptics of biofuels for whatever reason, I’d ask you to look again at recent progress. Perhaps the ability to create a liquid transportation fuel from biology in near real time isn’t as much of a leap as we might have believed. I credit much of this progress to the diverse and sophisticated community that has come together around biofuels for a specific purpose – aviation. They challenged those of us who have trolled in this space as supply-side and technology pushers. It’s been good news for biofuels, and my hope for that elusive bioeconomy as well.

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6 responses to “Don’t Discount Biofuels”

  1. You forgot one “F” word that is very important use of biomass. Fun. Think of pets, race horses (few used for work any more), golf courses, recreation fields. Also, a lot of agricultural land is not used for the 5-Fs you mentioned, but has been converted to residential/commercial/industrial developments and the road and parking lot infrastructure to serve them. Resulting in loss of the ability to grow the biomass at all. Think of the indirect land use implications of that!

    I’m very glad to read your re-assessment of this nascent industry. I agree.

  2. Brian says:

    Interesting reading to be sure. I’m a corn farmer, and yes some of it goes to ethanol production. However, I think energy independence is very important to the future of our country. There’s a lot of potential for corn even without ethanol. I’m excited about second generation biofuels and sources like algae seem to have huge potential. Ethanol production from corn continues to get more effecient as well, which is good.