Wednesday, March 26, 2014

KiOR in trouble

One of the more promising cellulosic ethanol facilities is in trouble. The KiOR plant based In Mississippi was using wood (mostly pine) in its thermochemical processing. They started production in late 2012 and things looked good. But in recent months things fell apart and they have idled the plant until they can improve the conversion process and receive a cash infusion (essentially they bankrupt). It seesm like they key backer Khosla Ventures will keep them going for now.

This article from GIGAOM blog is the best I've read about the situation. Some telling quotes from the article:
  • The problem was that KiOR hadn’t yet crossed the so-called Valley of Death — that expensive, time-consuming, gap between production on a a very small scale and large-scale commercial production. It’s that phase that tends to eat cleantech companies alive, particularly biofuel startups. 
  • had produced 75 percent less biocrude than it had forecasted. Turns out, it hadn’t achieved a steady state of production and it was having some significant problems with quality, with efficiency, and with bottlenecks in the plant.
  • To understand why volume targets are so important, you have to know a little something about fuel production. For biofuels, everything depends on scale, price and efficiency. It’s relatively easy to make small one-off batches of the stuff — a lot of startups and large companies have done this. But scaling the biofuel production up to the types of volumes that the oil industry operates on, at the cheap prices that fossil fuels are sold at, is another story entirely.
It is essential we keep a realistic perspective on when such facilities will be successful. A number of external factors such as the recession and gas prices influence these outcomes. overcoming the so-called 'valley of death' is critical. It seems very hard to even plan to expect the 'valley of death' in this business.
A view to the KiOR plant showing piles of pine logs

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Intercropping switchgrass and pine

I'm attending a sustainable biomass design workshop in New Bern NC this week. The idea is to look at the working landscape in developing scalable biomass production. This is good region for the workshop with an already active woody biomass industry, and picking up steam with the European demand for wood pellets.

Weyerhaeuser, one of the workshop hosts has a partnership with Chevron called Catchlight whose aim is to develop integrated biomass systems. One of their innovative ideas is to intercrop switchgrass with pine. The pine will be grown to rotation for sawtimber, while the switchgrass is annually harvested for biomass. They have worked on it for a few years but nothing is operational or scalable yet. Many issues. Can it work efficiently. Here are some pictures of the intercropping system.
Switchgrass alleys between rows of pine, Planted 2009

A harvested alley of switchgrass - same site as above

Talking biodiversity impacts during field visit

Friday, February 28, 2014

Newly launched KDF search tool takes pulse of bioenergy in Congress

The US Department of Energy’s Bioenergy KDF site has launched a search tool that reveals congressional patterns in bioenergy legislation.  The KDF posted a blog entry describing the Legislative Library tool as one that tracks Congress and connects the industry.

Image captured from

Here, you can search by bill to understand its history and progress as well as the voting breakdown if it has made it to voting status, by committee to see its legislator roster and a list of bills with which it is involved, or by individual legislator to review his or her committee memberships as well as sponsorship and voting history on specific bills.  In most cases, the bill profiles link to summaries of the bill’s major points (and the full text, if you’re so inclined) as well as a list of related bills as identified by the Library of Congress.

This seems like a friendly search tool that is quite intuitive and would help someone quickly take the pulse of bioenergy legislation under specific conditions, whether by the action of their state’s legislators, with an overview of current committees, or by breaking down bioenergy bills by the numbers.  The KDF blog introducing the tool reminds the reader that 2013 saw about 60 bioenergy-related bills proposed, with only 10 proceeding to voting.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Wood-Based Energy in the Northern Forests

Check out our new book!

The book’s goal is to provide the reader with a sense of the state of woody biomass development in the Northeast region, as well as an overview of the issues in scaling up its production and utilization. Most chapters provide practical hands-on advice for the practitioner, so a key audience is anyone developing a woody bioenergy project.This volume of papers grew from a Penn State short course on developing wood bioenergy projects, held in November 2011.  It was intended as a hands-on course to better identify winning scenarios, avoid costly mistakes, and develop biomass projects that are truly sustainable. The course focused around a bioenergy case study where participants actually developed a biomass project. Given the focused nature of the short course additional papers for this volume were solicited to provide the reader with a comprehensive snapshot of wood energy in the Northeast.  What emerged is a fascinating collection of analysis and discussion on some key issues related to wood energy in the Northern Forest, with special focus on the Northeast United States.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Willow gene responsible for coppicing

Researchers in England have found the gene responsible for explaining how willow, when coppiced, responds so vigorously.  Coppicing willow, cutting the stems at ground level, is crucial to sustained high yields. The study was published in Plant Biotechnology Journal and is available here. Here is a summary article. I'm thinking this work could lead to improved hybrids. Research in our NEWBio project, specifically at Cornell, has shown substantial yield gain from improved hybrids.
This photo shows coppiced willow. Source:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Renmatix: making sugars from wood

As part of the recent NEWBio short course we had the opportunity to tour Renmatix research lab just outside Philadelphia. They are one of the leading innovators taking cellulosic biomass, specifically hardwood and making sugars. In a nutshell their goal is making high valued sugars, the raw matyierila use in for use in things like drop-in fuels and bioplastics using a conversion mechanism called supercritical  water process. These high value added sugars like butane, and paraxylene have better financial margins than the traditional product from cellulose - namely ethanol. So in recent days they have signed joint agreement with BASF among others. They would not let us take photos due to proprietary info, this video is well worth taking a few minutes to watch. PS: Renmatix stands from Renewable Natural Materials.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lower ethanol production quotas set by EPA

Big news is that EPA, for the first time, just issued new lower ethanol quotas as part of the Renewable Fuel Standards. The ethanol, mainly corn based, is mixed up to 10% with regular gasoline. Their argument is that there is not enough demand for fuel to make the 10% blend, ie there is a blend wall. So they are now trying to peg ethanol production at 10% of US fuel supply. The quota for 2014 goes from 16.5 billion gallons to 15. 2 billion gallons. Obama says he remains committed to ethanol, the oil and gas industry are little happier, but want all mandates for ethanol eliminated, and the ethanol industry are obviously fuming:

“We’re all just sort of scratching our heads here today and wondering why this administration is telling us to burn less of a clean-burning American fuel,” said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association.

If we can get more advanced fuels and get off corn based that would be better still, but this probably makes it harder for all renewable fuels to make a stronger foot hold. Lets hopefully see for more incentives for the advanced fuels vs 1st generation fuels.

Read more about the new EPA rules here and here