Thinking Beyond EthanolBy
Ethanol as a biofuel may soon reach practical limits in the US and frankly is clouded with questions about its economic and environmental utility. However, the fermentation systems for producing ethanol can be adapted to produce much more valuable products using special microbes developed at some of the most promising green energy and biotech companies. The result is enticing, as we read in “Brazil: The Bossa Nova of Biofuels” from Biofuels Digest:
Another wave of next-generation renewable drop-in fuel companies, Amyris, LS9, Gevo and Dupont, are also investing in and partnering with Brazilâ€™s sugarcane fermentation bioreï¬neries. Why? Because their emerging technologies from cellulosic microbes (yeast, algae, fungus and bacteria) can use the same ethanol fermentation facilities in the US corn belt and in Brazilâ€™s sugarcane belt to produce bio-crude, green diesel, petrol and biojet.
The simplicity is astounding. Hereâ€™s the big idea. Take an existing, stranded ethanol factory or conglomerate. Buy it for a substantial discount. Start with cheap sugar. Drop in a new Amyris, LS9, Gevo, or Cobalt microbe/ bug in the same fermentation vat and what do you get? An integrated biorefinery that can use cheap, sustainable sugars to produce renewable diesel, aviation fuel, and biobutanol â€“ fuels that are compatible with existing petroleum pipelines, storage, petrol stations, and vehicle engines today.
In the near future, these fermentation-based bioreï¬neries will be able to convert multiple inputs from cellulosic sugars–bagasse, switchgrass, wood chips, municipal solid waste, and glycerin–into a diverse set Of outputs, including renewable diesel, aviation fuel, bio-crude oil, biochemicals and biopolymers with significant GHG reductions and carbon emissions compared to petrochemical hydrocarbons.
This is an important lesson in innovation. Don’t live with current assumptions. Look at existing technologies, processes, and products as simply a stepping stone to something more valuable, and then ask what is next. If I have raw materials and processing stations that can use microbes to convert sugars into a biofuel, why be satisfied with the least valuable biofuel around? Why not look at the higher-value products that similar technology could produce? That’s the genius behind some of these rising bioproducts companies.
Speaking about bioproducts, let me encourage any chemical engineers out there to join me at the AIChE Annual Meeting, where the Division that I chair, the Forest Bioproducts Division, is hosting numerous sessions dealing with the exciting developments in biorefineries and value-added products from cellulosic biomass. That’s where some of the best potential is: energy and chemical products from something besides the food that people need to eat.