One of the barriers to efficient second generation biofuels is creating a better way to break down the lignin in plants that is then converted to the sugars that create the building blocks of biobased products such as cellulosic ethanol, biomaterials and biochemicals. But this hurdle may be getting lower with research out of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Scientists have demonstrated an enzyme that can be tweaked to reduce lignin in plants.
This illustration shows the molecular structure of HCT that was derived at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source. The purple and green areas are two domains of the enzyme, and the multi-colored structures between the two domains are two molecules (p-coumaryl-shikimate and HS-CoA) in the binding site. New research shows this binding site is indiscriminate with the acceptor molecules it recruits, including molecules that inhibit lignin production. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)
Lignin is essential to plant health. It resides in a plant’s cell walls and surrounds and traps the sugars inside. In order to extract the sugars, the lignin must first be broken down through chemical pretreament. Thus, the less lignin there is, the less expensive the pretreatment step becomes.
The research was published in Plant & Cell Physiology and focuses on an enzyme called HCT that plays a key role in synthesizing lignin in plants and has been found to be indiscriminate with what molecules it binds with. With this discovery, the researchers introduced another molecule to the enzyme that occupies the binding site usually occupied by the lignin-producing molecule. This swap inhibits the enzyme’s ability to support lignin production. Initial tests showed a decrease in lignin content by 30 percent while increasing sugar production, without weakening the plant.
“Our goal is to tune the process so that lignin is reduced in a plant where we want it reduced, such as in tissues that produce thick cell walls, and when we want it reduced, such as later in a plant’s development,” said Dominique Loque, a plant biologist with the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a DOE Bioenergy Research Center led by Berkeley Lab, which pursues breakthroughs in the production of cellulosic biofuels. “This would result in robust bioenergy crops with more sugar and less lignin, and dramatically cheaper pretreatment costs.”
Next the researchers want to learn how to adjust the temporal and spatial specificity of the enzyme’s lignin-reduction abilities in plants. They also want to further study the Advanced Light Source-derived enzyme structures to see if HCT can be modified to be even more attractive to the new molecules.
Second generation biofuels made from non-food biomass are here right now according to a new report from UNCTAD. “Second-Generation Biofuel Markets: State of Play, Trade and Developing Country Perspectives,” finds these biofuels are a commercial reality in the context of advanced technologies, economic pressures and a political will to act on climate change. The report focuses on the role advanced biofuels can play in meeting global climate and energy goals and how to make the technology available in developing countries.
With a specific focus on cellulosic ethanol, the report provides a wide-ranging review of the second-generation biofuels sector, maps selected cellulosic ethanol projects, and details recent policy developments from around the world. A key factor in decreasing costs for the industry has been process improvements that have allowed the market to expand, the report finds.
The United States has the largest installed capacity for cellulosic ethanol production and the greatest number of working second-generation biofuel facilities, the report found, followed respectively by the People’s Republic of China, Canada, the European Union (EU) and Brazil. As of 2015, there were no cellulosic ethanol projects on the African continent and in Latin America (excluding Brazil); however, progress has been made in bagasse-fired electricity co-generation and biomass cook stoves in these regions.
The report finds two main strategies have given traction to the growth of advanced biofuels. The first is a market-segmentation strategy in conventional/advanced cellulosic biofuels used in the U.S., and more recently in the EU with the adoption of limits for conventional biofuels, resulting in premium pricing. The second is the availability of national development bank loans that have reduced risk and promoted growth in the industry, especially in China and Brazil. Low interest rates and a venture-capital culture have also played a role in advancing the position of second-generation biofuels.
The report concludes with five suggestions for the responsible development of the second-generation global biofuels industry and is an update from a similar UNCTAD report published in 2014.
A new study from Lux Research finds innovation is still needed to make advanced biofuels competitive. The report cites six cellulosic ethanol facilities online and finds Raizen has the lowest projected minimum ethanol selling price of $2.17 per gallon. Abengoa’s $500 million Hugoton plant has the highest price of $4.55 with feedstock cost as the most critical variable. (It should be noted the study was conducted before the Hugoton plant was taken offline due to Abengoa’s financial troubles.)
“Improving feedstock aggregation and lowering feedstock cost is critical in cellulosic ethanol achieving cost parity, as feedstock cost can impact total cost by 40%,” said Yuan-Sheng Yu, Lux Research Analyst and lead author of the report titled, “Uncovering the Cost of Cellulosic Ethanol Production.”
Lux Research built a comprehensive cost model based on six cellulosic feedstocks and three pre-treatment technologies. Among their findings:
- Feedstock cost is a key differentiator. Two companies with the lowest projected minimum ethanol selling price – GranBio and Raizen – both utilize the cheapest cellulosic feedstocks. Sugarcane straw and sugarcane bagasse cost $40 and $38 per dry metric ton (MT), respectively, compared with corn stover ($90) used by Abengoa and POET-DSM and wheat straw ($75) used by Beta Renewables.
- Bigger is far from better. Abengoa’s Hugoton facility cost $500 million but despite getting economic credits for a 21 MW on-site generation unit, it is projected to have the highest projected selling price for ethanol of $4.55 per gallon.
- DuPont creates new economics. Even without electricity credits, DuPont has a projected selling price of $3.31 per gallon, similar to Beta Renewables and POET-DSM, at its 30 MGY plant. It uses improved feedstock aggregation processes, reducing corn stover from $90 per dry MT to $52 per day MT.
Yuan-Sheng Yu added, “Improvements in pre-treatment yield, enzyme performance and price, and fermentation efficiency potentially reduce costs by up to 16%.”
Flint Hills Resources has signed an agreement to license Edeniq‘s Pathway Technology for all of its ethanol plants. The ethanol group has been an investor in the company since April of 2012 and a customer since June 2012.
“This comprehensive Pathway agreement is the seventh license agreement between our companies, including the installation of Edeniq’s Cellunators at three of FHR’s plants,” said Brian Thome, President and CEO of Edeniq. “Our work with Flint Hills demonstrates the value of our technology to increase profitability in the ethanol industry.”
Edeniq’s Pathway Technology integrates its Cellunator technology that includes cellulase enzymes to convert corn kernel fiber into cellulosic ethanol. The technology utilizes existing fermentation and distillation equipment to produce up to 2.5 percent cellulosic ethanol and a percent increase in overall ethanol yield. Edeniq’s technology also includes a technical validation process that allows ethanol plants to quantify the amount of cellulosic ethanol produced within their plants (the resulting ethanol is considered a D3 RIN under the Renewable Fuel Standard #RFS) and comply with federal registration record keeping and reporting.
Big oil is partnering up with a giant in biodiesel production to explore the potential of biodiesel made from cellulosic sugars. This news release from Renewable Energy Group (REG) says the green fuel company is partnering with ExxonMobil to make the biodiesel by fermenting renewable cellulosic sugars from sources such as agricultural waste.
REG has developed a patented technology that uses microbes to convert sugars to biodiesel in a one-step fermentation process similar to ethanol manufacturing. The ExxonMobil and REG Life Sciences research will focus on using sugars from non-food sources.
“This research is just one way ExxonMobil is working to identify potential breakthrough technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy supplies and realize other environmental benefits,” said Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. “The science is extremely complex, but we hope to identify new affordable and reliable supplies of energy for the world that do not have a major impact on food supplies.”
”REG has a long history of innovation in the production of advanced biofuels from lower carbon, waste feedstocks,” said Eric Bowen, REG Vice President and head of REG Life Sciences. “We look forward to this collaboration with ExxonMobil to advance our proprietary cellulosic sugar fermentation technology and capitalize on the combined power of cellulosic sugars and microbial fermentation to revolutionize the production of ultra-low carbon, cleaner burning advanced biofuels.”
Through the research, the two companies will be addressing the challenge of how to ferment real-world renewable cellulosic sugars, which contain multiple types of sugars, including glucose and xylose, but also impurities that can inhibit fermentation.
“As we research renewable energy supplies, we are exploring future energy options with a reduced environmental impact,” Swarup said. “Our first challenge is to determine technical feasibility and potential environmental benefits during the initial research. If the results are positive, we can then take the next step and explore the potential to expand our efforts and explore scalability.”
Terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
A recent study shows that perennial grasses are economical biofuel crops to meet U.S. fuel goals and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, the West will have to contribute to the biofuels market in ways other than grasses. Tara Hudiburg, an ecologist in the College of Natural Resources at University of Idaho along with researchers from the University of Illinois, Colorado State University and the University of Georgia published their research in the first-ever issue of Nature Energy.
Hudiburg said the study is the most comprehensive to date focused on perennial grasses and one of the first to bring together economists and ecologists from around the country for a thorough assessment of whether grasses such as switchgrass and Miscanthus can reduce emissions and meet the biofuel demands of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard. The grasses can be used to make cellulosic biofuels.
Perennial grasses can supply the fuel needed to meet the RFS but only through smart land-use planning, said Hudiburg, and should not be planted in the West where other feedstocks are more sustainable and economical.
“These perennial grasses are not feasible environmentally for the West,” Hudiburg said. “Replacing greenhouse-gas-intensive crops — like corn grain for ethanol — is a much easier greenhouse gas problem to solve than replacing land out here.”
Hudiburg explained that much of the land in the West, such as forest land, is already positively contributing to emission reduction by storing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases rather than releasing them. The Midwest, on the other hand, is a net source of greenhouse gases, largely due to agriculture. Continue reading
Pacific Ethanol biorefinery located in Stockton, California is now producing cellulosic ethanol using Edeniq, Inc.’s Pathway Technology. The Stockton plant, a facility with a production capacity of 60 million gallons per year, is expected to produce up to 750,000 gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol with the Pathway process.
Photo Credit: Joanna Schroeder
Neil Koehler, president and CEO of Pacific Ethanol, said of the milestone, “We are now commercially producing cellulosic ethanol using Edeniq’s Pathway enzyme at our Stockton facility. This is an important step in our strategy to increase production yields at our plants and our mission to be the leading producer and marketer of low-carbon renewable fuels. We are working with Edeniq and the Environmental Protection Agency to qualify these gallons for generating D3 cellulosic RINs, which carry a premium over conventional ethanol, and we expect to receive EPA approval in the first quarter of 2016.”
Edeniq’s Pathway Technology integrates Edeniq’s Cellunator high shear equipment with cellulase enzymes to convert corn kernel fiber to fermentable sugars. According to the company, the pathway includes a proprietary technical validation process that enables customers to quantify the amount of cellulosic ethanol produced within their plants and comply with the registration, recordkeeping, and reporting required by the EPA to generate cellulosic D3 Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) as defined by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).
“Our Pathway Technology enables ethanol plants to produce cellulosic ethanol directly in existing fermentation vessels at a very low cost,” aded Brian Thome, President and CEO of Edeniq. “Pacific Ethanol’s production of cellulosic ethanol is an important landmark for both of our companies, and for the ethanol industry.”
A cellulosic biofuel plant in Georgia will get built, thanks in part to a $70 million U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan guarantee. This news release from USDA says the money is being made available through the agency’s Biorefinery Assistance Program.
“There is a clear consumer demand for clean, American-made, renewable fuels, which our rural communities stand ready to meet,” said [Ag Secretary Tom] Vilsack. “USDA is proud to support environmentally and technologically sound projects like this one, which will increase biofuel availability nationwide and create jobs in rural Georgia. This loan commitment is the most recent example of our support for President Obama’s ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy, which includes alternative and renewable fuel sources.”
Ensyn Georgia Biorefinery I, LLC (Ensyn) will construct and operate a cellulosic biofuel refinery in Dooly County, Georgia. The company will produce 20 million gallons of renewable fuel per year employing its Rapid Thermal Processing (RTP) technology. RTP uses a fast thermal process to convert non-food-based feedstocks into biobased fuels.
Ensyn will convert 440 dry tons of woody biomass into a renewable fuel oil (RFO) product. There is an abundant supply of woody biomass near the plant due to excess forest materials in the region. However, Ensyn can use a variety of other non-food cellulosic feedstocks as well.
The renewable fuel oil will be used as a heating oil replacement and as a renewable feedstock for diesel and gasoline production at refineries.
The advance biofuels industry is fairly positive about increased volumes in the final Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) rules that were released yesterday but leaders are stressing that this isn’t enough to keep the advanced biofuels industry growing and get investor confidence back on track. In the past year, four commercial scale cellulosic ethanol biorefineries went online and when they are in full production will produce more than 100 million gallons of advanced biofuels each year.
Leaders continue to express frustration with the EPA and legislators- especially when they point out that the #RFS is the most effective energy policy ever implemented. So what exactly is the industry saying? Read some of their responses below:
Brooke Coleman, Advanced Biofuels Business Council Executive Director:
“What we’re seeing in the RFS final rule, volumetrically at least, is continued growth in renewable fuel blending. That counts for something, predominantly in markets already inclined to offer consumers more renewable fuels. But it is frustrating that the Administration missed this opportunity to fix two waiver issues that are undercutting U.S. investment in low carbon, advanced biofuels. Waivers are absolutely critical to U.S. investment, because they define for investors when the field of play can be altered. It is confounding that the Obama Administration would side with the oil industry against Democratic members of Congress and the advanced biofuels industry in reinterpreting its waiver authority to allow for “distribution waivers,” which would permit EPA to waive the RFS if the oil industry refuses to make arrangements to distribute renewable fuel and comply with the law.” Click to read entire ABBC statement.
Brent Erickson, Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO):
“Today’s rule is a severe blow to American consumers and the biofuels industry. To date, BIO member companies have invested billions of dollars to develop first-of-a-kind advanced and cellulosic biofuel production facilities. EPA’s two-year delay in finalizing the rule created untenable uncertainty and shook investor confidence in the RFS program. BIO estimates that investment in the advanced biofuel sector has experienced a $13.7 billion shortfall due to EPA’s delays and proposed changes. Unfortunately, this final rule exacerbates the problem.”
Michael McAdams, President, Advanced Biofuels Association:
“The Advanced Biofuels Association applauds EPA’s support of next-generation biofuels…While we appreciate EPA’s efforts, we continue to believe that legislative reform is required to address ongoing hurdles facing next-generation biofuels. Congress needs to strengthen the RFS to help focus and expedite the production of advanced biofuels. Outdated definitions, cellulosic waivers, as well as overall program uncertainty have created significant barriers to entry for the advanced and cellulosic industry. That’s why ABFA will continue to work with Congress and the Administration to reform and strengthen the RFS so it can deliver on the promise of next-generation renewable fuels.”
Leading up to COP21 in Paris in a couple of weeks Fuels America has launched a climate campaign targeted at President Obama. The campaign encourages him to tout the success of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) during the climate talks. Fuels America is calling on the administration to get the RFS back on track. During the call biofuel industry representatives discussed how the decision on the RFS will be critical in determining if the U.S. will lead by example on climate action. The campaign includes full page ad in the New York Times and digital ads in the Beltway.
“If the President doesn’t reverse course on the disastrous proposal, he will effectively be letting the oil industry and climate deniers in Congress dictate our climate policy,” said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, during the press call. “It will upend America’s most successful policy cutting greenhouse gas emissions and combatting climate change, and stifle investment in advanced biofuels in America.”
Speakers noted the threat to the advanced biofuels industry is significant with $13.7 billion in investment in advanced biofuels currently frozen according to a report from BIO. Chris Standlee, executive vice president of global affairs at Abengoa Bioenergy, noted during the call that Abengoa is looking to deploy its cellulosic ethanol technology overseas due to the uncertainty caused by the current state of the RFS. The company’s first cellulosic ethanol plant went online last October in Hugoton, Kansas.
“This Administration’s proposal inserts a loophole into the RFS—our country’s most aggressive climate policy in force today—and allows oil companies to continue ignoring their obligations under the law,” explained Standlee. “Our industry has fought and won this battle before—this waiver was sought for years by the oil industry and would allow them to control the RFS and restrict the deployment of the lowest carbon fuels in the world.”
Listen to the presser here: Fuels America Launches Biofuel Climate Ad Campaign Presser Continue reading