Experts discuss biomass-based ethanol future

By Kris Bevill | July 08, 2008
Web exclusive posted August 4, 2008 at 10:41 a.m. CST

General Motors Corp., the largest auto manufacturer in the world, hosted a "biofuel backgrounder" in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on July 31, offering attendees insight from experts specializing in the various areas of biomass-based biofuels production.

The day-long event, held at Ceres Inc. headquarters in Thousand Oaks, Calif., included a tour of Ceres' genomics laboratory and presentations by Ceres President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Hamilton, Mascoma Corp. co-founder Charles Wyman, BlueFire Ethanol President Arnold Klann and GM Technical Fellow Candace Wheeler.

GM has a vested interest in the future of biofuels. The automaker recently invested unspecified amounts in start-up cellulosic ethanol producers Coskata Inc. and Mascoma, and is planning to expand its line of flex-fuel vehicles from 11 to 18 models in 2009.

As part of her work at GM, Wheeler has focused the past 12 years on sustainable transportation. She told the attendees that in her viewpoint, "biomass is critical" and that GM believes biofuels, in particular E85, offer the most significant near-term solution for energy independence. She added that despite GM's recent cutbacks, the company remains committed to its "advanced technology strategy", which begins with biofuels and advances towards a greater use of hydrogen and electricity.

Hamilton spoke at length on the work being done at Ceres to create the "perfect" energy crop. "Agriculture is not perfect, so we should be trying to get better at it," he said, adding that the concept of agriculture is a recent phenomenon, created by humans.

Hamilton believes the company is getting close to that perfect crop and Ceres will be offering three varietals of switchgrass seed for sale this fall. Ethanol Producer Magazine will be featuring a closer look at Ceres in its October issue.

Klann and Wyman presented overviews of their individual company's processes to produce ethanol from biomass feedstocks. While BlueFire Ethanol is focused on utilizing municipal solid waste as its primary feedstock, Mascoma is working on the use of wood waste and other agricultural residues. Both companies have made recent advancements toward building commercial-scale cellulosic facilities.

Mascoma, which is planning for its first 40 MMgy cellulosic facility that will be built in Michigan, announced in early July it has partnered with Michigan companies for feedstock and that state legislation had been passed which will result in additional financial incentives for Mascoma. The company expects the Michigan facility to be operational in 2012.

Last week, Los Angeles County unanimously voted to allow permits for BlueFire to proceed with its plan to construct and operate a 3.2 MMgy cellulosic ethanol facility near Lancaster, Calif. Klann expects the plant, which will be colocated with a municipal landfill, to be operation in late 2009. The company also just received its first installment of a U.S. DOE grant it was awarded last year for the development of a commercial-scale facility in Southern California and also signed an agreement with Amalgamated Research Inc. for the use of its concentrated sulfuric acid and simple sugar separation technology.

Despite all the recent advancements, Klann and Wyman agreed that financing remains the largest hurdle for cellulosic ethanol companies. No financial institution wants to be the support behind the first of any kind of technology, said Klann. "They all want to be the first to finance the second plant."