WASHINGTON — For years, scientists and engineers have been juggling various combinations of acids, steam, bacteria, catalysts and the digestive juices of microorganisms to convert agricultural waste and even household garbage into motor fuel.
So far, such alternative fuels have not moved beyond small pilot plants, despite federal incentives to encourage companies to develop them.
But that could be about to change.
Officials at two companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories say they are very close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of these so-called cellulosic biofuels, and others are predicting success in the months to come.
In Columbus, Miss., KiOR has spent more than $200 million on a plant that is supposed to mix shredded wood waste with a patented catalyst, powdered to talcum-like consistency. Its process does in a few seconds what takes nature millions of years: removes the oxygen from the biomass and converts the other main ingredients, hydrogen and carbon, into molecules that can then be processed into gasoline and diesel fuel.
KiOR aims to turn out 13 million gallons of fuel a year and has already lined up three companies to buy its output, including FedEx and a joint venture of Weyerhauser and Chevron. KiOR said earlier this month that it had begun producing what it called renewable crude and intended to refine that into gasoline and diesel that it would begin shipping by the end of the month.
And Ineos, a European oil and chemical company, is putting the final touches on a plant in Vero Beach, Fla., that would cook wood and woody garbage until they broke down into tiny molecules of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Those molecules would be pumped into a giant steel tank, where bacteria would eat them and excrete ethanol. The company has spent $130 million on the plant, which is supposed to make 8 million gallons a year, about 1 percent of Floridas ethanol demand. The plant is next to a county landfill, and executives covet the incoming garbage.
Both plants are far smaller than typical oil refineries, but commercial production at either one or at any of several of the plants that are a step behind them would be a major milestone in renewable energy.
At such plants, the goal is sometimes to make ethanol and sometimes gasoline or diesel fuel or their ingredients. The pathways to make the biofuels are varied. But the feedstocks have something in common: They are derived from plants and trees, but not from food crops like corn kernels, which are the basis of most of the biofuel currently made in the United States.
Often, the raw ingredients for the cellulosic biofuels are the wastes of farms, paper mills or households, with a value that is low or even negative, meaning people will pay the fuel producers to dispose of them. And the companies developing the new fuels say that their products produce far fewer carbon emissions than petroleum-based gasoline and diesel.
KiOR says that its fuel will release one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide as an equivalent amount of petroleum fuel. That is mostly because every tree or woody plant fed into its process will eventually be replaced by a new tree or plant, which will suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And a byproduct of its factory is surplus electricity, which will be exported to the grid, displacing electricity that would otherwise be generated from natural gas or coal.
Ineos goes a step further, saying its production process actually reduces the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
We could make the argument that were carbon-negative, said Peter Williams, the chief executive. The reason, he said, is that electricity produced from its plant averts emissions that would have come from other electricity sources.
Just becoming the first company to produce commercial volumes of these alternative biofuels is no guarantee of commercial success. That depends on further optimizing production processes to get more gallons of fuel per ton of raw materials at lower operating costs.
Industry officials say that profits also depend on continued high prices for oil, the commodity that biofuels would replace, and a continuation of a federal government mandate that requires fuel blenders to mix a certain percentage of biofuels into the gasoline sold at service stations.
Sustainability requires good economics, Williams said.
If either Ineos or KiOR began commercial production, it would break a long string of overly optimistic promises made by the industry and the government.
The holy grail
New chemistry technology, like hope, springs eternal.
POET, a major producer of ethanol by conventional means, is building a plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, that is supposed to digest 700 tons of corn cobs a day and feed the resulting sugars into a conventional ethanol plant next door. The goal of the project, which is supposed to be ready by late 2013, is to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year.
Abengoa, a Spanish firm, has been running a pilot plant in Salamanca, Spain, and in June 2011, broke ground on a $350 million commercial plant in Hugoton, Kan., that is now 50 percent complete, according to Manuel Sanchez Ortega, the chief executive. It is slated to open in the third quarter of next year and is supposed to make 25 million gallons of ethanol a year from agricultural waste, wood waste and nonfood crops.
And a variety of smaller companies are a step behind.
The holy grail is to find a way to profitably make renewable fuels from otherwise wasted biomass, as opposed to valuable food crops.
If we can do it with biomass, then there is no more discussion of food versus fuel; its over, Ortega said.