It's that holiday time, time to look-back with misty eyes at the glories of yesteryear. In our case, at the 11 Hottest Trends of 2011, in what proved to be a vintage year for biofuels. There were IPOs a go-go, a big comeback from biodiesel. The global ethanol fleet has acquired new popularity amongst advanced biofuels developers looking for capital light steel in the ground. Meanwhile, gasification got hot. Seemed like every algae venture headed for Australia, and Brazil and the US Navy became everyone's new best friends.
But it wasn’t all holly-jolly and ho-ho-ho. The long awaited biofuels shakeout began, with the are-they-with-us-or-are-they-not at Qteros, and the keel-over of Range Fuels. Who’s next, we wonder? Meanwhile, alcohol-to-jet fuel technology got hot, in part because oilseed-to-jet is so darn hard to find at scale.
We celebrate the holiday season with this look back at the 11 Trends for 2011.
1. The Rush for the Exit: Industry IPOs
The Great Green Bull Market in public equities opened up in early 2010 with the Codexis IPO, but gained momentum throughout 2010-11. Our IPO stories, generally styled the 10-Minute IPO, looked at the S-1 IPO registration statements and looked for the story underneath all the SEC gobbledygook. Our coverage of the Amyris, Solazyme, and KiOR IPOs were the most-read of the year.
2. Biodiesel roars back with mandate, tax credits, B20 OKs
Turns out that predictions of biodiesel’s demise were a tad premature. The fuel’s boosters are gathering this week at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo, touting a stream of good news. Highlights:
“The EPA has said that they are going to enforce the 800 million gallon volume RFS2 requirement” said National Biodiesel Board CEO Joe Jobe to Biodiesel magazine, “and we will have the tax credit in place. Last year we had neither in place.” He described the combination as a “powerful policy framework” and predicted that 2011 would be the biggest year yet for US biodiesel sales.
At the same time, more good news on vehicle acceptance. Jobe is touting that, “We’ve got all of the Big Three American automakers accepting B20 in their vehicles.”
At the same time, there are challenges on the feedstock front. Bottom line, jatropha, camelina and algae are still emerging feedstocks; soy and canola are pricey, waste oils & greases are tough to find at scale; and palm is politically radioactive.
3. Ethanol’s back, too, sort of, or is it that drop-ins have waned?
Drop-in fuels all the rage? Not smart, says Coskata CSO Rathin Datta, ethanol is the champion for biomass-based fuels.
In Washington DC last July , at the DOE’s Biomass 2011 annual conclave, Rick Wilson, the CEO of Cobalt Technologies, and Wes Bolsen, CMO of Coskata, engaged in a formal debate over the motion: “Federal funding for biofuels should focus primarily on the development of infrastructure-compatible, hydrocarbon fuels.”
There has been quite a lot of press in recent years around the development of “drop-in fuels” – from articles like 2009′s “Drop In, Tune Out, Turn On” to the coverage of recent DOE funding of consortia like the NABC that are pursuing infrastructure-compatible fuels.
But Coskata has been on the warpath of late to remind the industry, and the broader stakeholders in a future beyond fossil fuels, about why ethanol fuels were developed in the first place, and why they should be considered a superior alternative to drop-in hydrocarbons, when refining fuels from biomass.
At the end of last summer, Coskata CSO Rathin Datta didn’t exactly descend into the lion’s den, when choosing to present this strongly positive view on ethanol at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop in Indianapolis. It’s sort of like praising Cal Ripken Jr. in the friendly confines of Camden Yards.
4. Aviation biofuels begins take-off
In Washington, U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this month that the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) signed a contract to purchase 450,000 gallons of advanced drop-in biofuel, the single largest purchase of biofuel in government history.
5. Jumpin’ Jack Flash! It’s a gas, gas, gas!
New technologies bring gases into the vanguard of advanced biofuels feedstocks. In traditional biofuels, the story to date been all about solids and liquids – grains, juices, mash, slurries and eventually files, chemicals and biomaterials.
A lot of the early companies through the advanced biofuels IPO gate – like Amyris, Solazyme and Gevo, work on liquids too. In short, the wet stuff is the publicity hog.
But a new generation of technologies is coming along fast, primarily in advanced biofuels, which is gasifying biomass at the front end along its path towards making fuels, chemicals or other biomaterials – or in some cases, using organic chemicals already in a gaseous state.
One of the most exciting new technologies, syngas fermentation – described recently as the “third path for cellulosic ethanol” by Advanced Biofuels USA, is profiled here.
But there are a variety of types. Fisher-Tropsch process companies, such as Rentech; gas fermentation specialists such as INEOS Bio, Coskata, LanzaTech; pyrolysis companies like KiOR; and companies using catalysts to convert gasified biomass to liquid fuels and materials, such as S4, SynGest, and TRI. Plus, there is the hybrid fermentation and gasification approach that ZeaChem takes.
6. Algae heads for Algstralia
Are the reports of an algal biofuels revolution in the Back of Beyond true? The Digest takes a look (or, a Captain Cook) at Algae.Tec, Aurora Algae and more. What do you do with a country that is basically a desert, cut off from the global biomass trade by a tyranny of distance, with a carbon emissions problem, a wealthy population, a stumbling rural economy, and the occasional political will to do something about climate change?