[OPINION] Advanced Biofuels: The Vast Taxpayer Cost of Failed Cellulosic and Algal Biofuels
[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Advanced Biofuels: Nothing’s Perfect, But There’s A Lot of Good,” by Joanne Ivancic, executive director of Advanced Biofuels USA.]
Biofuels consumed today are usually ethanol made from the sugar in sugar cane (or sugar beet) or they may be made from starch in grains. In the U.S. this is mostly corn starch. Alternatively, biodiesel may be made from plant oils such as soybean or canola oil.
Cellulosic biofuels, on the other hand, are biofuels made from crop residues (e.g. corn stover), wood, or whole plants, especially grasses (e.g. switchgrass). Cellulosic biofuels include cellulosic ethanol (made by isolating, breaking down and then fermenting the complex sugars in the cell walls of plants), as well as ‘drop in biofuels.’
In November 2014, cellulosic biofuel company KiOR filed for bankruptcy, having shut down their refinery in Columbus, Mississippi earlier that year. The reasons behind KiOR’s failure are simple: Most of the time, they couldn’t get their technology to work enough to produce biofuels and when they did manage it, yields were far lower than KiOR had claimed.
The plant, built to produce 13 million gallons of biofuels a year, produced a mere 133,000 gallons in 2013, sold another 97,000 gallons in early 2014, and then shut down. KiOR had claimed to achieve a yield of 67 gallons from each ton of dry biomass and to be working towards a target of 90 gallons/ton. Yet according to internal documents cited in Mississippi’s lawsuit, KiOR’s actual yields remained a mere 20-22 gallons/ton.
A closer look at another cellulosic biofuels company—Red Rock Biofuels—suggests the federal government has not learned any lessons from KiOR, nor for that matter any of the other failed cellulosic or algae biorefineries.
Red Rock Biofuels’ technology relies on a process that was invented in Germany in the 1920s. In the first stage, fuel (in this case wood, but fossil fuels can be processed in the same way) is exposed to high temperatures under controlled oxygen conditions, called gasification. This turns most of the fuel into a gas that consists mainly of hydrogen and carbon monoxide but still contains many impurities, which then need to be removed. The cleaned gas—called syngas—is then put through a series of chemical reactions, using chemical catalysts, a process called Fischer-Tropsch.
So far, nobody in the world has successfully operated a commercial-scale plant which gasifies biomass and turns the syngas into liquid fuels using the Fischer-Tropsch process, despite decades of research and development.
The disastrous experience with Fischer-Tropsch biofuels is just one part of a much larger failure of cellulosic and algal biofuels, on which billions of dollars of public subsidies have been spent.
Algal biofuels have fared no better. A small number of companies have successfully used their public subsidies to get algal oil production off the ground—but alas, not for use in biofuels.
Cellulosic and algal biofuels are still regarded as a sustainable alternative to corn ethanol and other conventional biofuels, even by many environmental organizations. It is time to put the myths to rest and prevent this colossal waste of public funds still being spent on obviously ill-fated schemes. This is funding that could instead help reduce carbon emissions if they were spent, say, on insulating homes or on supporting solar power, a proven technology with a tiny land footprint compared to that of biofuels.
Almuth Ernsting helped to found Biofuelwatch in 2006. She has researched and published about a wide range of issues related to bioenergy, including the climate, social and biodiversity impacts of biofuels and wood-based biomass, public health impacts of biomass and biofuel power stations, and the science and policy debate related to proposed use of biomass for geo-engineering, especially biochar and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage.