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Canada and the United States have implemented laws promoting the use of renewable fuels and have made considerable investments in helping the industry begin to grow. Still, with the worldwide economic crisis and consequent collapse of oil prices, renewable energy companies face daunting challenges in securing a share of the more than $400 billion transportation fuel market. Currently, the industry appears unable to meet the growth targets set in government policy.


November 30, 1999
By Paul Winters

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Canada and the United States have implemented laws promoting the use of renewable fuels and have made considerable investments in helping the industry begin to grow. Still, with the worldwide economic crisis and consequent collapse of oil prices, renewable energy companies face daunting challenges in securing a share of the more than $400 billion transportation fuel market. Currently, the industry appears unable to meet the growth targets set in government policy.

The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard calls for the production and use of 100 million gallons of “advanced biofuels”—any biofuel not made from corn—beginning in 2010, 1 billion gallons by 2013, and 21 billion gallons by 2022. To meet this rapidly escalating annual production goal, companies would have to begin building facilities today, at a cost that could reach $500 million each. With the current price of petroleum gasoline, that cost may not seem a risky investment.

Burgeoning biorefineries
Right now, 36 cellulosic ethanol biorefineries are in the planning, construction, or initial operating stage across the United States, with at least six more in Canada, including Iogen’s facility in Ottawa, the world’s first operating cellulosic ethanol biorefinery. Most of these biorefineries are pilot-scale facilities producing fewer than 2 million gallons annually. They are designed to test and prove a wide variety of technological solutions for turning cellulosic crops and waste streams into fuels. A recent BusinessWeek article points out that there could be a “glut of innovative biofuel technologies,” meaning that the sheer number of startups will cause some to fail, allowing large energy companies to snap up the technology and use their size to crowd out competing companies.

To date, the U.S. government, private companies, and venture investors have poured more than $3 billion into the research, development, and deployment of advanced biofuels, particularly the nearest-term second-generation biofuel, cellulosic ethanol. Canada’s government and private sector have made a similar-sized investment. A few companies are moving ahead with commercial facilities.

Among the companies that have formed public-private partnerships with state and federal governments in the United States and Canada to try to commercialize biofuel projects are DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE) of Itasca, Illinois, Lignol of Vancouver, B.C., and Mascoma of Lebanon, New Hampshire.

DDCE is a joint venture of DuPont and Genencor, a division of Danisco. DDCE and the University of Tennessee, through Genera Energy, broke ground in October 2008 for a pilot-scale biorefinery in Vonore, Tennessee. The University invested state research dollars to develop switchgrass as a dedicated cellulosic energy crop, employing 16 area farmers and a combined 723 acres as part of the supply chain for the biorefinery. The pilot plant is also designed to convert corn stover to ethanol. The facility is expected to produce cellulosic ethanol by the end of 2009, with an annual capacity of 250,000 gallons.

Mascoma Corporation has received several state and federal grants, including a $14.8 million state grant for the establishment of a demonstration plant in Rome, New York, which began full-scale operation in 2009. Mascoma is currently developing a commercial-scale production facility in Kinross, Michigan, with construction expected to begin in 2010. Lignol has been awarded $3.4 million to produce cellulosic ethanol and other biochemical products from underused forest resources, including lodgepole pine killed by mountain pine beetle. It recently received up to $1.82 million in additional contributions from Sustainable Development Technology Canada. Lignol began operation of a fully integrated industrial-scale biorefinery pilot plant in Burnaby, B.C., in April 2009, with a rated production capacity of 100,000 litres/year of cellulosic ethanol, together with industrial testing quantities of high-purity lignin and other biochemical co-products.

Other companies have pursued private partnerships with large energy companies to take lessons learned from pilot or demonstration projects to commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production. In May 2008, Verenium of Cambridge, Massachusetts, commissioned the United States’ first demonstration-scale facility in Jennings, Louisiana. In early 2009, Verenium and BP announced the formation of a joint venture company that will scale up Verenium’s technology in a 36 million gallon/year facility in Highlands County, Florida.

In March 2009, Codexis of Redwood City, California, announced a partnership with Royal Dutch Shell. Codexis will provide technology to enhance the Iogen facility in Ottawa and expects to have a commercial-scale project up and running by 2013. Codexis is also working to use its technology in to produce cleaner, more efficient and cost-effective alternatives to traditional chemical manufacturing processes that use petroleum-based, non-renewable materials. •

Paul Winters is the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s director of communications for industrial and
environmental biotechnology.  He wrote this ‘state of the cellulosic ethanol industry’ review for Canadian Biomass. www.bio.org.