Cellulosic Industry has a Long Way to Go

By Mike Bryan | May 04, 2009
I found the plant construction information in the April issue of EPM most interesting and, despite my years in the ethanol industry, somewhat alarming. It has always been assumed that there would be a gap between grain-based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol. The gap appears to be growing, not shrinking.

In March, I attended a U.S. DOE-sponsored review of cellulose-based biofuels projects that have received DOE funding. Let me repeat myself the gap between grain-based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol is big. But it's certainly not for lack of effort, innovative ideas, or, in some cases, money to move forward. The fact is some basic questions still need to be addressed.

Feedstock remains a major issue. From municipal solid waste to corn stover to various forms of wood, the harvesting, collection and storage of huge quantities of cellulosic feedstock is problematic. Is it unsolvable? No, but it remains an issue that will not easily be resolved.

In addition to the physical handling of the feedstock, I believe price is a core factor. Cellulosic feedstocks are projected to be between $45 and $55 per ton by the proponents of the biofuels plants. A farmer who spoke at the Canadian Renewable Energy Workshop held recently in Regina, Saskatchewan, told potential cellulose-based ethanol producers, "By the way, the biomass in my field is $100 per ton. Get used to it."

Is this the prevailing attitude of the farming community? It's hard to tell at this early juncture, but we all know that price will follow demand. I could not help but wonder if the feedstock prices being used in these DOE presentations were based on what the production facility needs to create a reasonable bottom line, or if that is actually what the farmer, forester or community will sell the feedstock for in the long term?

Finally, it seemed that with the exception of a couple of presenters, none of the companies that participated in the DOE meeting had secured the funding to complete pilot projects. Some have been put on hold; numerous others are still seeking funding. The DOE is sincerely trying to foster the creation of a robust cellulosic industry, but there are significant technical and financial hurdles that remain to be solved.

Look, I believe in the future of cellulosic biofuels, and I'm confident that we will get there. At the same time, it should be of great concern to all of us that there are those who are turning their backs on grain-based biofuels and literally burning the bridge that got us to where we are today. Grain-based ethanol works! It has worked well for the past 30 years and will continue to do so for many years to come. We need to remain committed to the growth of the grain-based industry while we work out the last remaining issues of the cellulose-to-ethanol technology.

That's the way I see it.

Mike Bryan
Publisher & CEO