A Dozen Years Out

On June 19, the 2003 FEW Forum of Futuristic Thinkers panel offered insightful, pragmatic, projections for the industry.
By Tom Bryan | July 01, 2003
In the year 2015, the U.S. ethanol industry will produce five to eight billion gallons of ethanol per year, rely heavily on genetically modified corn, regularly build and expand plants to well over 100 million gallons per year, embrace the biorefinery concept, and use improved enzyme technology to process cellulosic feedstocks.

These forecasts and others were made during the Forum of Futuristic Thinkers, June 19, at the 2003 International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Trade Show (FEW) in Sioux Falls, S.D., where a panel of eight industry experts were assembled to hammer out concepts for the future of ethanol production on the final day of the ethanol industry's largest U.S. conference.

With BBI International's Mark Yancey, director of consulting services, and Joe Bryan, director of communications, moderating, a select panel of experts explored various topics addressed in the day's earlier session - "The Family Fuel" - a mock game show that pitted ethanol producers against ethanol plant builders and technology providers.

The Forum of Futuristic Thinkers panel was comprised of Ryan Heuer, technical services, Novozymes, North America; Dr. W.M. (Mike) Ingledew, alcohol fermentation specialist, University of Saskatchewan; Ron Lamberty, market development director (and interim executive director), American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE); Mark Luitjens, marketing alliance manager, Aventine Renewable Energy (formerly Williams Bioenergy); Mike Knauf, industry manager for fuel ethanol enzymes, Genencor International; Richard Hanson, plant manager, Badger State Ethanol; Klaus-Holger Dunker, ethanol plant project coordinator, Nordzucker AG(Germany); and Brian Duff, biochemical process engineer/project manager, BBI Consulting.

GMO Corn and Cellulosics
When asked about cellulose-to-ethanol conversion, most panelists were optimistic but hesitant to believe corn - specifically genetically modified corn - would not be the feedstock of choice in 12 years.

"[Yellow #2 and GMO corn] I think will continue to dominate the ethanol market for a long time - along with sugarcane overseas," said Knauf. "However, by 2015 we'll start to see the enzymatic process take over."

Luitjens and others agreed that utilization of GMO corn as an ethanol feedstock will only increase, saying, "What's the current percentage of [GMO corn feedstock] being used in the ethanol industry? Around 40 percent. . . I can't imagine that American farmers will back off of the current trend in using GMO corn - unless something [negative is discovered about GMO corn]."

Ingledew and Lamberty both suggested that powerful new enzymes needed to process cellulosic material into ethanol are already being developed. However, they said, more research and development is needed in other areas of the cellulose-to-ethanol process before the technology is commercialized.

"My real hope is that it will take place and cellulosics will be the fuel of the future," Ingledew said. "But we must avoid science that is not accessible by the public. Furthermore, I believe the process itself is not getting enough attention. . . Enzyme development is [the focus of most cellulose-to ethanol R&D] and is the most advanced side of this [process science] - but, in my opinion, other aspects are lacking."

Lamberty agreed, "It seems like the enzyme part is all but done, but [commercialization] is still hard to justify. To make [cellulose-to-ethanol production] more technically viable on a large scale, some form of continued government support will probably be needed - and it should be focused toward specific projects."

Luitjens reminded the audience that, even if the science of turning cellulose into ethanol is advanced, significant barriers to commercialization will still exist. "Collection and storage [of cellulosics like corn stover and waste wood] is a huge barrier to all this," he said.

Optimistically, Knauf and Heuer both expressed confidence in the enzymes being developed for the commercialization of large-scale cellulose-to-ethanol production.

"The cost of enzymes is directly related to the process they are used in," Knauf suggested. "Corn-to-ethanol production process technology was designed around enzymes, but I think enzymes will be designed around the existing process in terms of cellulosics. That's a big difference."

Heuer added, "[Government and private industry] have just devoted $30 million in a high-profile effort to develop enzymes for cellulosic conversion. A lack of optimism in the promise of the [enzymatic] conversion process [by a small minority of those polled at the event] is somewhat discouraging."

How Much Ethanol in 2015?

Most of the panelists believed that the U.S. ethanol industry's production capacity would exceed five billion gallons per year by 2015, and probably reach eight billion gallons. But U.S. producers will have to contend with an international market, most agreed.

"My prediction is eight billion gallons per year by 2015," Knauf said. "Brazil will be at eight billion gallons per year as well, as will Asia. . . That's 24 billion gallons per year worldwide but still just five percent of the global market."

BBI International's Brian Duff said the industry will far exceed five billion gallons, while pursuing the biorefinery concept and the integration of other renewable fuels technology with ethanol production.

"My best guess," Lamberty said, "is seven to eight billion [gallons per year]," adding. "The real answer [to the future of ethanol production] is probably unknown to us today. . . so it's hard to say what we will achieve."

Luitjens did not make a 2015 prediction, but said the U.S. industry will exceed five billion gallons per year by 2008. "We will eventually be building 100 and 200 [mmgy] plants on a regular basis," he said. "So we could easily grow at one billion gallons a year - or more - if we need to."

Heuer jested to his competitor, "If Genencor [Knauf] says eight, I would have to say at least 8.1 [billion gallons per year by 2015]."

Dunker, of Germany, said Europe will likely be producing 2.5 billion gallons per year by 2015.

Other forecasts made by the panelists included:

-Chemical intermediates will pose great promise by 2015.

-C5 carbon sugars (cooking and fermentation) technology will be developed, but not without also developing starch technology - rate of fermentation and alcohol concentration by 2015. "The best dry mills have simply increased alcohol concentrations," Ingledew said.

-Producers will develop more substrates by 2015.

-Coproduct production will begin to transition from animal feed products to human food products by 2015. Human food supplements [high-volume products] will have a better market than animal protein markets, Heuer proposed.

-Hydrogen fuel cells that use ethanol will be developed by 2015, "but market battles will need to be fought," Lamberty said.

-Distillers grains markets will continue to be strong in 2015. "Ten years ago we thought we would be up to our knees in DDGS," Luitjens said. "But the truth is, we are taking feed off the market by taking corn off the market."

-Steam heat power - and the sharing of power - will become growingly important by 2015, Richard Hanson suggested.

-As the industry evolves, economies of scale will take over; industry consolidation will be largely completed by 2015.

-More plants will be expanded by 2015.

-Sugar cane will be used as a feedstock for production in 2015, not only in South America and Asia, but Europe and America as well.

-Canada will become a major world player in the ethanol industry by 2015. EP