Driving under the influence

C&I Issue 15, 2010

Neil Eisberg looks at the incentives that may encourage the development and adoption of biofuels in the US and Europe and some current examples of the developments in first and second generation biofuels

‘Driving under the influence’ is how the US pressure group Environmental Working Group (EWG), based in Washington DC, has described the US government’s efforts to encourage the use of bioethanol as a transportation fuel over recent years. The group says that $17bn has been spent on subsidies to encourage the blending of corn-based ethanol in US gasoline to produce a reduction in overall oil consumption that equates to just a 1.1mile/gallon increase in fuel economy across the whole US vehicle fleet. Looking at ethanol itself, the EWG says the contribution is even smaller, the equivalent of 0.6mile/gal across the vehicle fleet.

Corn ethanol

These are the conclusions in the EWG’s latest report Driving under the influence: Corn ethanol and energy security. ‘Sadly, the degree of energy independence derived from the American taxpayer’s massive investment in corn ethanol could have been accomplished for free by proper tire (sic) inflation and using the right grade of motor oil, driving sensibly or better enforcement of speed limits,’ says Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president and co-author of the report.

In 2009, the EWG points out that the current US Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) cost taxpayers $4.8bn to replace 7.2bn gallons of gasoline with 10.6bn gallons of ethanol. Between 2005 and 2009, the EWG has calculated that more than $17bn was spent on tax credits. In 2010, the bill is expected to rise to $5.4bn and the US Congress is being lobbied to extend the tax credit, which is due to expire at the end of 2010. If extended, the EWG calculates that a further $31bn will be spent between 2011 and 2015, making a cumulative total of almost $54bn by 2015.

‘It is clear that continuing taxpayers’ lavish support for corn ethanol will not deliver the clean energy independence our country needs to ensure prosperity and security,’ says Cox.

But corn-based ethanol has only been seen as the first in a number of generations of biofuels. Without the experience that has been built up there would be no incentive to move to second generation cellulosic bioethanol, which is said to offer much greater promise as it will not compete with food crops as corn has been accused of doing.

As Jeremy Martin, a senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) Clean Vehicle Program, expresses it: ‘We need to get advanced biofuels out of the laboratory and into gas tanks.’ Martin believes that, rather than cutting government funding, more is needed. ‘In the current financial climate, existing federal policies are simply not enough to encourage the investments that will make these fuels a reality.’

The EWG believes that the VEETC is just a ‘blenders’ tax credit’ that benefits mainly the oil companies, but while the UCS does agree with this assessment, it has also suggested replacing the subsidy with a ‘biofuels performance tax credit, which would reward biofuels based on their environmental performance.

‘We shouldn’t be paying the oil industry billions of dollars a year to purchase biofuels when it is already required to do so by law,’ says Martin. ‘We need to make smart investments in clean, advanced biofuels that can cut our oil dependence and reduce heat-trapping pollution.’

In its own recently published report, The billion gallon challenge, the UCS says that reforming production tax credits for biofuels and providing new loan guarantees, investment tax credits and other financial incentives would spark investment in cellulosic biofuels, cut oil consumption, reduce global warming and ultimately save US taxpayers money.

Securing investment

CornThe US Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) has echoed this call for support by calling on the US Congress to help the industry secure investment by strengthening and extending federal tax incentives for next generation biofuels. ‘This support, including new tax credit options for advanced biofuels, loan guarantees and continued support for R&D, is vital for producers seeking the private investment needed to build biorefineries and infrastructure,’ says Brent Erickson, executive vp for BIO’s industrial and environment section.

‘BIO supports creation of a refundable investment tax credit for cellulosic biofuels that could provide pioneering developers with critical flexibility in electing the form of tax incentive that best suits a given project and mirrors the tax credits available for other alternative energy projects,’ Erickson adds.

Although not going as far as BIO’s suggestions, the Renewable Fuels for America’s Future Act, introduced in mid-July 2010 by congressman Jeff Fortenberry from Nebraska, would extend VEETC for five years for ethanol produced beyond required levels.

But how much progress is being made in the development of these advanced biofuels? The latest research by the US Department of Energy’s (DoE) recently formed Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), for example, includes the use of ionic liquids, such as 1-nethyl- 3-methylimidazolium acetate (EmimAC), to swell and solubilise lignocelluloses as a pretreatment prior to the fermentation process. Using switchgrass as the feedstock, EmimAc dissolves the biomass into its three components: cellulose and hemicellulose sugars and lignin. The addition of a so-called anti-solvent, such as water, results in the precipitation of the sugars while the lignin remains in solution.

Room for improvement

Despite all the work on second generation cellulosic biofuels, there is still scope to improve the production of corn-based bioethanol. The Office of Energy Policy within the US Department of Agriculture, for example, has recently published a report showing that the net energy gain from converting corn to ethanol has made the transition from an energy sink, to a moderate net energy gain in the 1990s, to a substantial net energy gain in 2008. For every British Thermal Unit (BTU) of energy used to produce ethanol, 2.3BTUs of energy are produced, up from 1.76 BTUs in 2004.

Additionally, the report points out that corn yields have increased by 39% over the last 20 years, resulting in a reduced land area being required to produce the same amount of ethanol, while ethanol yields themselves have also increased by about 10% over the same period.

Addressing a key step in corn ethanol production, Genencor, a division of Danisco, has recently launched a new enzyme for ethanol production using dry ground corn, Spezyme robust starch liquefaction (RSL) enzyme, at the 2010 Fuel Ethanol Workshop and Expo in St Louis, Missouri, US. Unlike conventional liquefaction enzymes, Spezyme RSL is said to break down starch efficiently across a range of pH levels, substantially reducing the amount of sulfuric acid required to complete the liquefaction process. Additionally, current practice typically requires two pH adjustments and two enzyme doses; however, the new enzyme is said to be effective with one dose and no pH adjustment. According to Genencor, these changes can result is 25–50% reductions in sulfuric acid usage.

European biofuel progress

But where does the EU stand, compared with the US? ‘On the road to nowhere’ was how one speaker described the EU position at the recent Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport biofuel seminar in London. Mark Harvey, director of the Centre for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation at the University of Essex, noted that in order to deliver a transition to sustainable transport energy strong, long-term strategic political direction is required, together with strong state support and steering from basic science to commercialisation. ‘Market signals will not drive radical, comprehensive or urgent technological change,’ he added.

Europe has failed to deliver on either count, unlike the US, where, as Harvey pointed out, consistent and long term planning and government support over the last couple of decades has delivered major progress in the development of transportation biofuels. This planning and support resulted from the impact of oil shocks in the 1980s and 1990s, but Europe failed to respond to those same oil shocks in the biofuel field, said Harvey. Instead, Europe, which is still one of the three main biofuel markets, has been ‘dithering in diversity’. This was due to Europe’s primary goal of climate change mitigation, rather than energy security as in the US, said Harvey.

Europe’s one major success, however, has resulted from its sustainability approach: a strong regulatory framework, but, as Harvey added, regrettably this framework is without adequate means to deliver.

While the US is focusing on both biodiesel and second generation cellulosic ethanol, Harvey emphasised that Europe is trapped in biodiesel. The one optimistic aspect of Europe’s love affair with diesel is the speed of change and take-up of the fuel. This demonstrates that if Europe could be mobilised then it too could make similar major strides in biofuel developments, he said.

Within Europe, there is also the problem of individual countries pulling in different directions in the midst of a lack of strategic political direction and an environment uniquely characterised by strong anti-biofuel lobbying, said Harvey.

All this is not to say that the technological development is not available in Europe, as Lars Christian Hansen, president, Europe, at Danish enzyme specialist Novozymes, emphasised. But, as he also stressed, legislation is the key to encouraging innovation.

In the EU, the development of cellulosic bioethanol is not standing still. What is claimed to be the largest cellulosic ethanol facility in the world, Inbicon’s 1.4m gal/year biomass refinery, has come onstream in Kalundborg, Denmark. The biorefinery uses wheat straw as its feedstock, enzyme technology from Novozymes and waste steam from the adjacent Asnaes power station.

Despite such developments, it is very clear that Europe needs to pull itself together and focus on planning, and funding, its biofuel future if it is not to be left behind.

Biogas from fossil fuel and hydrocarbons from glucose

An interesting twist to the fossil v biofuel debate comes from researchers at the University of Calgary, Canada, and the University of Newcastle, UK, and an industrial partner ConocoPhillips, who have examined the possibility of using bacteria to turn oil into gas in situ. Recognising that biodegradation of crude oil takes place at near to ground level, Steve Larter, professor of geosciences and the current holder of the research chair in petroleum geology, told delegates at the recent Goldschmidt Conference held in Knoxville, Tennessee, US, how bacteria, moulds and fungi break down the oil and convert the products of the decomposition, including CO2, into methane and hydrogen. In addition to looking at how this might be applied to recover hydrogen rather than oil directly from oilfields, he also looked at the possibility of capturing CO2, combining it with specially developed bacteria and pumping it into alkaline rock formations where the CO2 could be converted into methane. Larter and his team has already published work on this topic in 2008 (Nature, 2008, 9, 451)(doi:10.1038/7175ixa)

Meanwhile, researchers with the DoE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have described the identification of a three-gene cluster from the bacterium Micrococcus luteus, which, when introduced into a fatty-acid over-producing strain of E. Coli, can produce enzymes for the conversion of plant-derived glucose into long-chain alkene hydrocarbons. These alkenes can then be cracked to produce hydrocarbons that may be used as direct replacements for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, the researchers said at the DoE’s Genomic Science Workshop earlier in 2010.

Biofuels take to the skies with the help of algae

BiofuelsA number of airlines have been testing biofuels made from various different feedstocks but mostly by using biobased jet fuel blends to run just one engine. In 2008 Virgin Atlantic, tested a blend of JetA-1 based on 20% biofuel produced from coconut and babassu, while a 50% jatropha-based blend was tested by Air New Zealand; in both cases, the aircraft were Boeing 747 ‘jumbo’ jets. During 2009, both US-based Continental and Japan’s JAL tested mixed blends of algal fuel with jatropha and cameline/jatropha, respectively, while Dutch airline KLM tested a camelina blend. In 2010, testing has speeded up with a number of other airlines conducting tests, including Air China, with a jatropha blend and Brazil’s Azul using a blend based on sugar cane.

At the 2010 Farnborough International Airshow, however, a somewhat smaller aircraft flew using only algal derived biofuel: a twin-engined Diamond Aircraft DA42. First demonstrated at the 2010 Berlin Air Show by EADS Innovation Works, the project has received funding from the Bavarian government. The algal oil was supplied by Argentina’s Biocombustibles del Chubut and refined into fuel by VTS Verfahrenstechnik Schwedt in Germany.

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