A World of Potential

Experts at the 4th World Biofuels Symposium offered their impressions of the global potential for ethanol, biodiesel and beyond.
By Travis Hochard | January 03, 2009
More than 200 people attended the 4th World Biofuels Symposium held Oct. 19-21 in Beijing. The symposium, which was organized by BBI International and Tsinghua University, featured 48 speakers from biofuel associations, technology companies and research institutions from countries around the world including Brazil, China, Scotland, Thailand, Italy, Republic of Ghana, Sweden, United Kingdom and the United States.

The common thread throughout the conference was that sustainability must be a top priority in the expansion of biofuels worldwide. While many speakers found this path in second-generation ethanol and other advanced biofuels, Marcos Jank, president and chief executive officer of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) said that he considered Brazilian ethanol from sugarcane to be a sustainable biofuel based on the greenhouse gas emissions reductions achieved and low percentage of arable land used.

Jank said in Brazil, the equivalent of 25.8 million tons of carbon dioxide was avoided in 2007, thanks to the use of ethanol. He also said that food versus fuel is not an issue for the country. "Sugarcane for ethanol accounts for only 1 percent of the arable land in Brazil, reducing our gasoline consumption by 50 percent," Jank said. "This is in a country where gasoline is considered the alternative fuel."

Brazil produced 23 billion liters (6.08 billion gallons) of ethanol in 2007, and the domestic sales of E100 were 1 billion liters (264 million gallons), according to Jank. "This demand is driven by consumer choice—90 percent of new cars sold in Brazil are flex fuel—representing more than 25 percent of the fleet," Jank said, adding that another driver of Brazil's success is the mandatory blending of 20 percent to 25 percent of ethanol into gasoline.

Projections for Brazilian ethanol from sugarcane show tremendous potential with 47 billion liters (12.42 billion gallons) by 2016 and 65 billion liters (17.17 billion gallons) by 2021.

Most of this expanded production would be exported—an unpredictable market for Brazil. This is why Jank is in favor of making ethanol a globally traded energy commodity by lifting all tariff and nontariff barriers. "Sugarcane is the most competitive raw material for the production of ethanol—competitive with any gasoline obtained from a U.S. $70 barrel of crude—and has very positive energy and environmental balances," Jank said, adding that Brazil does not intend to supply ethanol for the rest of the world. "We are part of the solution, not the solution," he said.

While Brazil is a net exporter of ethanol, China will have to look to next-generation technologies for ethanol and other biofuels to become a significant part of its fuel supply, according to information provided by Xiaohui Wang, director and senior analyst of the Market Monitoring Division of the China Grains and Oils Information Center, a government think tank researching grain and oilseed supply and demand. Wang's analysis of Chinese agriculture and food supply revealed the country's limitations for grain-based ethanol expansion. "Chinese agricultural products will continue to increase yields and efficiency, but the lack of water and arable land will limit China's future in grain output," Wang said. "With a rising population and increased standard of living we must ask who will feed Chinese people in the future."

Wang explained that to expand agricultural production the Chinese government has implemented policies that will improve crop yields, increase storage and restrict uses for arable land, but he stressed that food will remain the priority for Chinese agriculture.

It is for this reason that China's largest food manufacturer and ethanol producer is focusing its research and development efforts on cellulosic ethanol. The China National Cereals, Oils, & Foodstuffs Corp. (COFCO) produces 820,000 tons (275 million gallons) of ethanol in China annually, which is half the country's total capacity. "Our demand for cellulose is more than in the United States," Guojun Yue, assistant president of COFCO told the audience during the general session. "With the development of biomass technologies we have a goal to produce 2 million tons (670 million gallons) of biomass ethanol by 2010 and 10 million tons (3.3 billion gallons) by 2020." However, Yue did not dismiss the production of grain-based ethanol altogether. He explained that corn and wheat are laying down the foundation for nongrain ethanol in China, and the second stage will include sweet potato and sweet sorghum—which is still considered a grain. "This will provide a transition period, but the future of ethanol in China lies in cellulose."

A U.S. company that is trying to find a way to supply the Chinese biofuels market is Coskata Inc., a cutting-edge technology firm that is commercializing a proprietary process for the production of fuel-grade ethanol. Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of business development for Coskata, discussed China's rising potential for second-generation biofuels and outlined his company's solution to its food-versus-fuel dilemma. Bolsen's figures showed that Chinese grain-based ethanol production has grown from 100 million gallons in 2004 to about 500 million in 2008. He attributed this increase to E10 mandates in several Chinese provinces and cities, but cautioned that "high food demand limits the further growth of first-generation ethanol in China." He added that corn ethanol is not economical without subsidies in China, and said that cellulosic ethanol from the
Coskata process costs less than half the current cost of producing grain-based ethanol.

Bolsen told participants that cellulosic ethanol can tap into a wealth of nonfood resources and help make China energy self-sufficient. He said that China's current annual biomass resources can displace the equivalent of 1.2 billion barrels of imported oil, and that additional potential exists from dedicated energy crops, garbage, steel off-gasses and fossil sources. "Using Coskata's hybrid gasification plus fermentation technology combines the best of both routes and allows the use of a wide variety of feedstocks," Bolsen said. "This could provide important economic development in China—not only in rural areas—but outside major cities using things like tires, municipal solid waste and plastic bottles."

General Motors Corp., a premier sponsor of the symposium, supports Coskata's process and the second-generation ethanol movement. The automaker has announced alliances with Coskata and Boston-based Mascoma Corp., another cellulosic ethanol start-up based in the United States. "GM is committed to the rapid commercialization of the next generation of ethanol," said Andreas Lippert, director for Global Energy Systems in General Motor's Research and Development and Strategic Planning Department. "This is why we started a strategic alliance with the two leading cellulosic ethanol companies that together cover the biothermal and biochemical spectrum in advanced biofuel technology."

The United States is also looking at cellulosic ethanol and other advanced biofuels to meet its goals for alternative transportation fuels, according to Dale Gardner, associate director for Renewable Fuels Science and Technology at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. Gardner presented an overview of the biofuels industry in the United States and pointed out the limitations of grain feedstocks.

The United States has 162 commercial ethanol plants with a total capacity of 9.4 billion gallons per year and another 4.2 billion gallons per year planned, Gardner explained. There are an additional 13 cellulosic ethanol demonstration plants funded by the U.S. DOE with a projected capacity of 250 million gallons per year for 2008.

Gardner listed three government programs designed to increase the capacity of alternative transportation fuels in the United States including President George W. Bush's 20-in-'10 target of 35 billion gallons of alternative transportation fuels by 2017, the renewable fuels standard legislation that requires the use of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022, and the DOE's 30x'30 goal of 60 billion gallons of ethanol (30 percent of today's gasoline consumption of 140 billion gallons per year) by 2030. "A major goal of the DOE is to reduce the cost of cellulosic ethanol," Gardner said. "We are currently funding projects using various technologies including biochemical, thermochemical and integrated processes." In addition to technical barriers for commercially viable production, Gardner explained that another challenge is collecting the feedstock. "We have done extensive resource assessments so we know where it is … the challenge is how to get it."

The U.S. biodiesel industry will also require technological breakthroughs to meet these goals. Gardner said that while the production capacity for the 171 biodiesel plants in the United States is currently 2.2 billion gallons per year—only 450 million gallons were produced in 2007. "Lack of feedstock is a factor for our biodiesel industry," Gardner said, adding that its future will rely on what he called third-generation technologies, which includes the use of microalgae. "We see algae as a promising new feedstock with potential to produce 10 to 50 times more lipids per acre than other terrestrial plants," Gardner said. "Other benefits of algae cultivation are that it can utilize marginal, nonarable land, saline or brackish water, and can provide large waste carbon dioxide vent resources such as absorbing flue gases from coal plants."

According to Gardner, the DOE also has plans to start an advanced biofuels program. "What we mean by this is beyond ethanol and biodiesel," Gardner explained, using the term fourth-generation technologies—converting higher energy density molecules directly from organisms into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. "Regardless of what path we take, we cannot assume that land use, water, soil and other environmental factors are not part of the equation," Gardner said. "We must put together a comprehensive sustainability analysis that considers environmental, social and economic impacts."

Most experts agree that a comprehensive life-cycle assessment of future biofuels is needed, and to understand that not all biofuels are created equal. Ausilio Bauen, director of E4tech, a European sustainable energy consultancy, gave an overview of international developments in carbon and sustainability policy for biofuels. He said that the recent rapid growth of biofuels led by strong policy support in the United States, European Union and Brazil has led to carbon and sustainability concerns. "Life-cycle greenhouse gas savings vary depending on the biofuel type and how it is produced," Bauen said. "Direct change of land use to grow biofuels increases these emissions significantly—in some cases negating the benefits of using biofuels." This has led to a variety of policy responses worldwide such as in Germany where biofuels laws require a minimum greenhouse gas savings of 30 percent, rising to 40 percent in 2011. In addition there are mandatory requirements on agriculture and habitats. The EU, United Kingdom and the Netherlands have similar laws in place. They all use a life-cycle approach to assess biofuel's carbon intensity. "It is essential to consider all of the policy goals when designing low-carbon fuels policy," Bauen explained, adding that greenhouse gas emissions savings may be the key driver, but other goals must also be considered and prioritized including energy security, macroeconomic impact, rural development, social responsibility and the potential for innovation. "Regardless of the model, policy must be made in an international context and it must be flexible and adaptable to new technologies."

Travis Hochard attended the World Biofuels Symposium held in October in Beijing.