The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has released an update to their annual report, “Survey of Non-Starch Ethanol and Renewable Hydrocarbon Biofuels Producers.” Sixty-one commercial scale U.S. facilities were included in the 2016 report, including 27 cellulosic ethanol facilities, two algae-ethanol facilities, and 32 renewable hydrocarbon, or “drop-in” biofuel producers. Of the 61 facilities, 11 of the cellulosic ethanol facilities are operational (5 at commercial scale), and 12 of the drop-in biofuels facilities were operational (2 at commercial scale) at the end of 2015.
Cellulosic Ethanol Facilities
At cellulosic facilities, the feedstocks range from crop residues (primarily corn stover, but also rice and oat hulls), corn kernel cellulose, woody biomass and dedicated bioenergy crops. The cellulosic ethanol facilities operating at commercial scale include DuPont of Nevada, Iowa (crop residues), POET of Emmetsburg, Iowa (crop residues), and Quad County Corn of Galva, Iowa (crop residues).
INEOS New Plant Bioenergy of Vero Beach, Florida (municipal solid waste), expects to be operational this year. INEOS was previously operational, but has been working through mechanical upgrades. Many others expect to be operational in 2017. Most of the existing and planned cellulosic facilities are using a biochemical pathway to produce ethanol; biochemical pathways use fermentation and the addition of enzymes to produce ethanol.
Drop-In Fuel Facilities
Drop-in fuel producers are utilizing feedstocks from vegetable oil (such as soy or corn oil); fats waste oils and greases (from animal processing, food waste); woody biomass; and municipal solid waste. These fuels are referred to as “drop-in” because they are chemically equivalent to petroleum fuels, and do not require engine or infrastructure changes. In 2015, 167 million gallons of drop-in fuels were produced, primarily from AltAir Fuels, of Los Angeles California (vegetable oils, fats, greases), and Diamond Green Diesel of Norco, Louisiana (vegetable oils, fats, greases).
New facilities are coming on-line with one drop-in facility expecting to be operational in 2016, and four in 2017. They include Cool Planet Energy Systems of Alexandria, Louisiana; Emerald Biofuels, of Plaquemine, Louisiana; Fulcrum BioEnergy of Reno, Nevada; and KiOR, of Columbus, Missouri. The operational or planned drop-in facilities use either hydrotreating or thermochemical processes. Hydrotreating is a process that is commonly used in the petroleum refining industry; and thermochemical processes use oxygen-deprived, high heat environments to convert feedstocks to fuels.
Despite the aura of “phantom fuels” surrounding cellulosic and drop-in fuels, the commercial investments in these facilities shows that the advanced biofuels industry is nascent, but growing. Investors note that stable U.S. policy is critical. Since the EPA proposed lowering the volume of renewable fuels in 2013, no commercial-scale cellulosic facility has been planned in the United States. New investments by the cellulosic industry are currently being made in China, Europe, and Brazil.
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