GreenTech: Better Biofuel

In the United States, there is a distinct difference between the classification of a fuel as a biofuel versus an advanced biofuel… to be classified as a biofuel, the primary criteria that need be met is that the fuel must be produced from organic material. Good examples are soybeans, sugarcane, and wood. To be classified as advanced, however, certain government-set criteria must also be met that ensure sustainability, all the way through the process.

For instance, they have to be made from non-food feedstocks, like waste, agricultural residues, or energy crops… they must also have a higher energy density than simple biofuels, as well as reduce emissions by at least 50% compared to baseline petroleum emissions. A good way to think about it is, while biofuels are made from organic material, that’s no guarantee they’re being produced sustainably. Why is this important, you ask? Legislation.

Just this month, several Democratic representatives introduced legislation that would classify corn as an advanced biofuel. This would be an amendment to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), and they want this to happen because they say it’ll help us not only reduce emissions, but also create some much-needed jobs in the biofuels space. It checks out, because right now, the Biden administration is pushing for more advanced biofuels.

From where we sit, it’s looking like we might just be hitting that right mix of need and demand… with things like the development of new catalysts and enzymes for more efficient production driving down costs and propelling growth. The numbers are a bit gob smacking too, which we like. In 2021, the global market value for advanced biofuels sat at around $45 billion, that number is set to swell to well over $800 billion in the next seven years.

You may be familiar with a few of the big names already working on advanced biofuels, such as FutureFuel Corporation, headquartered in Clayton, Missouri which makes all kinds of useful, sustainable things… they have renewable diesel, made from things like cooking oil and animal fats, renewable jet fuel made from things like algae and camelina oil, and they are certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) and U.S. Air Force… seems their stock is doing quite well this year.

But… what about the little engines that could, the little gems in the space? We like talking about big, established players just fine, but we get really excited about innovative little sprites bringing the world new and wonderful things. There’s a company called LanzaTech working on technology that can make ethanol from captured carbon dioxide and renewable electricity, an innovation born of a partnership with British Petroleum (BP).

The partnership between the two is not new, but we applaud it, as it was the first major partnership between a biofuels company and a major oil company. Some in the sustainability space turn their noses up at partnerships such as these, we vehemently disagree. Since the dawn of man’s history, unlikely partnerships forged out of mutual interest have propelled our species forward, this is no different. The partnership was born in 2014… in 2018, their maturity paid off and the announcement was made that ethanol had been successfully produced at scale and was able to fuel a fleet of cars.

So, all this sounds great… but, we still have questions. Such as, if some of this is made of food, isn’t that going to eventually be a problem? Well, seems we are not the only ones thinking about these things. In the United States, we’re developing something called cellulosic biofuels, which are made from non-food sources like wood waste and municipal solid waste (what a good idea), and we want to produce it using what’s called gasification.

Gasification changes biomass into a special mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called syngas, or synthesis gas, which can be used to make things like ethanol, biodiesel, and jet fuel. Also, we’re looking at possible fermentation technology for the production of cellulosic biofuels, which converts sugars into alcohol that can then be used to produce ethanol, which is a type of biofuel.

According to a report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2022, biofuels will play a major role in global energy in the coming years… eventually accounting for up to 10% of global energy demand by 2050. But we can’t forget our challenges, like conflicts over land and water, and the need for more R&D funding… that said, those are just roadblocks. There are always roadblocks, that’s life… come back next week, we’ll have more from the green tech space.