Cellulosic ethanol is, for some, the holy grail of alternative fuel, while others remain resolutely unconvinced, claiming such confidence in the potential of biofuel as a fool’s errand (or worse).

Beyond these entrenched extremes, ranging from wild optimism to abject skepticism, comes the real heavy lifting – understanding there are significant hurdles inherent in getting second generation biofuel from the lab into full-scale sustainable commercial production, but seeing those hurdles as challenges to be overcome, not as roadblocks from which to retreat, and working to bridge the gap from current reality to potential promise.

The reality for Alan Novak, Director of Alternative Fuels for Emerson Process Management, is that the advanced biofuels industry lay at a crossroads of timing, innovation, necessity, and entrepreneurial spirit that, in many ways, resembles the computer and information technology industry of the 1980’s and 90’s.

I first spoke with Novak last December, just days before Emerson hosted its first BioEnergy Summit in Madison, Wisconsin. I recently followed up with him on the results of the Madison Summit, Emerson’s plans for at least two more industry events in Denver and Atlanta this spring, and how the biofuels industry is poised for rapid growth to meet the energy challenges facing the nation and the world in the coming decades.

Fueled by imperative

The bleak economic outlook reported earlier this year by large, first-generation ethanol producers like Archer Daniels Midland, who make biofuel from editable feedstocks like corn, has impacted the entire biofuels industry, as it has everyone. Nonetheless, that discouraging outlook does not necessarily reflect the overall state of affairs – and potential for growth – in advanced, second-generation biofuels using non-food feedstocks.

News of jetliners making biofueled test flights (the latest a 747 operated by Japan Airlines), advances in new feedstocks, and bold investment in cellulosic biofuel research continues apace, despite an economy in crisis, perhaps even because of it.

To support all this activity and commitment comes a recent study from Sandia Labs concluding that second generation biofuels could replace 30% of gasoline consumption by 2030. In tandem with the report from Sandia is the World Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, released late last year, projecting a global shortage by 2030 of some 28 millon barrels of oil per day.

Sustainable biofuel production is “arguably no longer an ‘alternative’… it is an imperative”, says Novak.

Toward commercial scale production – two examples of companies doing the “heavy lifting”

There are many companies making significant inroads overcoming the challenges of sustainable biofuel production. Two oft-cited examples include:

  • Range Fuels:Last month Colorado-based Range Fuels announced it had been awarded an $80 million loan guarantee for construction of the company’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant in Soperton, Georgia.
  • Virent:A pioneer in “multiple output” biofuel, Virent has developed a process they call “BioForming” – a process that converts plant sugars into energy-dense hydrocarbon molecules. The process can output a variety of fuels, from gasoline to jet fuel (see Anthony Cefali’s recent Gas2.0 post on Virent).

From boutique fuel to mainstream solution – Consolidating ideas, expertise, and process

Novak told me last December his hope for the first BioEnergy Summit was to initially bring together key players in the advanced biofuels industry – researchers, policy-makers, industry advocates, and business leaders – in an effort to consolidate the ideas and expertise needed to pave the way for advanced biofuels meeting its coming “imperative.” By creating a dialog amongst these key people not only the most promising advances in biofuel research can be explored, but also the challenges of bringing those advances out of the lab and into the mainstream. By creating a forum that focuses on and brings together the disparate elements within the industry, the growing momentum of the advanced biofuel sector is made stronger.

That’s the aim, and according to Novak, all his hopes for the first summit were realized. Madison provided an encouraging beginning and solid precedent for the next two events in Denver and Atlanta this March and April. Novak says the coming events this spring will build on the work begun in Madison, focusing on three principal aspects of biofuel research and production:

  1. Feedstock availabilityAt the core of any biofuel is the feedstock from which it is made. Finding – or creating – feedstocks with sufficient energy density, availability, and both economic and environmental sustainability.
  2. Process viabilityScaling-up is the challenge facing all renewable and alternative sources of energy. Industrial plant automation and process analysis is the business of Emerson Process Management. One goal of the BioEnergy Summits hosted by Emerson is to help bring that expertise to the advanced biofuel industry – taking advances in the lab to sustainable commercial production as efficiently as possible with the least risk to the business and its investors.
  3. Legislative initiative and educationGovernment policy has favored fossil energy for decades. How does that policy need to change to reflect the future energy needs of the nation and the world? What is the work of industry advocacy organizations like the Advanced Biofuels Coalition in brining about a friendly regulatory environment that supports both research and production of second generation biofuels? How can the industry best educate both legislators and the public that advanced biofuel is not, unlike corn-based ethanol, a “food vs. fuel” issue and that a sustainable, energy-dense feedstock can and will be developed?

An ongoing commitment to real progress

Clearly, the first BioEnergy Summit last December was not a “one-off” event or “sales pitch in disguise” for Emerson. The feedback from attendees in Madison proved the concept of hosting such events as a useful and necessary tool in the process of advanced BioEnergy development.

Through the work started in Madison, Emerson hopes to continue to forge a growing coalition of like-minded researchers, entrepreneurs, and industry advocates committed to bridging the potential of advanced biofuels to the reality Novak and others envision. It’s an ongoing process, and I’ll remain in contact with Novak as that process unfolds through the spring and beyond.