Biofuel Promises

Many promises have been made concerning biofuels, but can those promises be kept?

Periodically some type of biofuel is splashed across the headlines. Algae was the darling of the media a few months ago. Earlier it was all about cellulosic ethanol. Then there was ethanol from kombu, a seaweed.

Now, it’s making ethanol from waste gasses.

Each time a new biofuel appears in the headlines, an attempt is made to determine the biofuel’s viability, and especially its cost.

In the case of kombu, it turns out that all the territorial waters of the United States would be required to produce enough ethanol from kombu to replace the gasoline used by Americans.

Frequently, the area required to produce a significant quantity of ethanol, is very large. In one process, an area the size of Arizona would be required.

Bankruptcies and closures, such as Range Fuel’s, have resulted from attempting to produce cellulosic ethanol.

Costs are the real Achilles heel of biofuels.  Algae for use in the Navy’s demonstration project cost around $16 per gallon.

Now, a new biofuel has reached the headline stage: Can bacteria save the planet?

The assumption in the headline is that CO2 is causing global warming, i.e., climate change, and that the new process, that uses CO2 and CO, will convert the CO2 into ethanol.

LanzaTech, originally a New Zealand company, now in Illinois, claims to have such a process.

It claims to have completed a pilot plant that has produced at the rate of 100,000 gallons per year, i.e., 2,381 bbls per year.

To keep this in context, the United States uses around 8,000,000 barrels of oil per day for gasoline.

However, the company also claims to be building a facility in China that will be able to produce 714,000 bbls per year, still a small quantity when compared with gasoline usage in the United States.

The LanzaTech process uses a proprietary bacterium to convert CO2 and CO into ethanol and other chemical products.

The concept is intriguing, because the source of the CO2 and CO can be obtained in large volumes from steel mills and coal-fired power plants. The availability of feed stock in high volume is something most other proposals have lacked.

Coal-fired power plant in China. Photo by D. Dears
Coal-fired power plant in China. Photo by D. Dears

 

Unfortunately, after making all these claims, nothing in its web site or in its brochure discusses cost. A request for cost information was ignored1.

A telling comment in its website was a statement that producers of ethanol from these plants could obtain credits for eliminating CO2 emissions, which infers that these credits, or subsidies, are required to make the process profitable.

If that’s true, then we will once again have a process that isn’t competitive with gasoline.

Time will tell whether LanzaTech is just another claimant on tax payer dollars.

 

Note:

  1. An email was sent to LanzaTech on April 25th.

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