[Gasification] Re The Range fuels failure. Observations from a lon, long term skeptic

Iemdon at aol.com Iemdon at aol.com
Tue Jan 25 00:16:53 CST 2011


This is my first ever post to the gasification group.   However the Range 
fuels failure was predictable, and is worth a response .  The Range fuels 
failure discussed on gasification listserv brings up the 40-year old question 
of whether cellulosic ethanol by any path can really work commercially. I 
have been working on this for (believe it or not) almost 40 years.

I have been mostly in biofuels --digestion recently.  Also looking 
(skeptically) at such things as cellulosic ethanol, algal biofuel, and in depth 
(more than possible to detail here) at small-scale gasification to produce clean 
motor fuel.  As an academic credential I have coursework and qualifiers and 
all but dissertation for a Ph. D from MIT (if you want to believe that sort 
of credential) .  I also have over 30 years' experience in fieldwork on 
biofuels, see for example World Bank site presentation at


I have looked at cellulosic ethanol in great depth, over the 30+ year time 
span as an employee of Exxon Research and Engineering, the Electric Power 
Research Institute and IEM.  (independently) 


>From my original analysis along with coworkers' help. I and we see no way 
that cellulosic ethanol can be commercially feasible.  I attach a Power Point 
presentation we gave in Vancouver BC in 2006.  The presentation makes that  
case. I also append below a brief writeup by John Benemann on The Oil Drum 
which makes the same points.  Nothing has changed to the present.  The 
failure of Range fuels, and failure of dozens of other cellulosic ethanol 
projects to come to fruition would vindicate our conclusions. 

The problem is that getting the community's attention about problems, when 
enthusiasm abounds and over $10 billion are being thrown at fantasies, is 
extremely hard when you are in the 5% or less minority of naysayers

Don Augenstein
IEM, Inc. (nonprofit)
Palo Alto California


Whither Cellulosic Ethanol?

Posted by nate hagens on August 16, 2006 - 10:25pm
Topic: Alternative energy
Tags: cellulosic ethanol, ethanol, lignocellulosic, vinod khosla [list all 

[editor's note, by Prof. Goose] 

This is a guest post from TLS's friend Don Augenstein (Pomona96 on TOD)

This post presents a perspective on ethanol from lignocellulose by my 
friend and co-worker, John Benemann. We have worked on, and been immersed in, 
biofuels and analyses of fuels from biomass processes for over 3 decades. We 
are to substantial degrees biotechnologists, as well as chemical engineers and 
have successful processes going today (methane from wastes. You can google 
Don Augenstein). We have worked long and hard on biofuels for entities 
including Exxon (long ago), the Electric Power Research Institute, and others. 
Our carefully considered view, for which we will be happy to provide abundant 
evidence is that severe barriers remain to ethanol from lignocellulose. The 
barriers look as daunting as they did 30 years ago. Ethanol from 
lignocellulose may indeed come to pass. But the odds against are so dismal that a 
hydrocarbon fueled 200 mile per gallon passenger automobile would be more likely 
to be developed. We have been tied up with project work and were not able to 
participate in the interesting, and extensive Oil Drum discussion regarding 
Vinod Khosla's views on ethanol from lignocellulose. Better late than 
never. I present John Benemann's statement below. 

Subj: Vinod Khosla FROM Jbenemann

> TO THE OIL DRUM - drumbeat I read the presentation of Vinod Khosla and 
> most of the responses. I have some experience in this field, about 30 years 
> of being in the ring of biofuels technology development, with first-row 
> seats, so to speak, on the fights I was not in myself.

Re. lignocellulosic ethanol, I am, bluntly, a skeptic. See our abstract, 
> below. This is R&D, not something ready for commercial ventures, at least 
> not in any time, or with any risk ratio, a typical venture capitalist 
> would accept. Perhaps Vinod Khosla is not a typical VC, though I have no basis 
> for assuming that. Much more important, this technology is not ready for 
> policy decisions. It compares with, for one example only, the 
> near-late-lamented Hydrogen Program of the Bush-Cheney Administration. Coming from the 
> same source, talk about curing our addiction to Middle East oil by 
> substituting for it an addiction to Middle America ethanol, has just as much 
> credibility. 

I note that all long-term R&D (is there any other?) for hydrogen is being 
> next month by the Dept. of Energy. 

Of course, the issue is not whether Vinod Khosla is making a wise 
investment, one 
> that will make him even richer and his investors too, or the opposite is 
> true, or even what the Bush-Cheney administration dictates that our reality 
> will be. The issue is, does the technology work now, can it be made to 
> work in short order, or can we predict when and if it will work with any 
> assurance? One thing I notice from this entire discussion is an absence of any 
> arguments based on technology. 

I am among other things a biotechnologist, and very familiar with the 
> chemical engineering issues. I would have expected at least some mention 
> of past and recent experiences, of problems, such as needs for extensive 
> feedstock pretreatment or problems with fermentations, about current R&D 
> focus, at least a few citations to the web. 

Nothing. Neither from Vinod Khosla nor the 360 odd Oil Drum respondents.The 

> only information presented is that Vinod Khosla has invested in three 
> different technologies. Well, a fair enough investment strategy, but even with 
> a one out of three chance, this is a long shot, even in the long term, by 
> which I mean over 10 plus years, beyond which there are no crystal balls.

I strongly support R&D in this field. Money would be better spent on that 
than on 
> just one commercial plant. Or even a pilot plant. And, let me hasten to 
> add, that it is perfectly possible to make ethanol from lignocellulosic 
> biomass, it's just extraordinarily inefficient, with EROEI easily determined to 
> be about 1:5. The Soviets had some wood-to-ethanol plants running during 
> WWII, and kept them going afterwards, with at least one going on until the 
> Soviet Union collapsed. Not a pretty technology, without even looking at the 
> energy balance (cheap coal or then-cheap Soviet natural gas to expensive 
> state subsidized ethanol, an economic model now adopted for corn ethanol in 
> the US.) 

And we, in the U.S., even made butanol from seaweed harvested off San Diego 

> during WWI, in a major industrial enterprise that was set up in a few 
> months, a perfect example of necessity as the mother of invention, and showing 
> how fast we can do something when we need to, for our survival. 

But extrapolating from making explosives for war to transportation 
> fuels for civilians driving SUVs is more than a bit of a reality stretch. 
> I like the analogy of this being the difference between going to the Moon 
> and Mars, another Bush-Cheney vision, I must note. 

Of course, we still haven't figured out why to go to the Moon, aside from 
the feel-
> good factor. Bottom line, making ethanol from lignocellulosics is a 
> technical issue, actually many separate technical issues: can we really make 60 
> or 80 or 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of biomass, can we really ferment 
> pentoses outside the laboratory, will we have a positive energy balance and 
> not run this on fossil fuel as we do corn ethanol? 

And, coming to the details, can we really use commercial enzymes, or the 
> fermentation vessels that are used in the corn ethanol business, or do we 
> need to go to very, very expensive contained fermentations. And at the 
> end, do we get a high enough ethanol content in the fermentation beer (above 
> 10%) to have a reasonable distillation cost? And, finally, can we put it all 
> together, starting with the necessary pretreatment of lignocellulose (and 
> what kind at what cost?). 

Actually, some applications for particular, minor, biomass waste resources, 
> make ethanol now at food processing plants, breweries and such, but this 
> is not what Bush-Cheney or Gates-Khosla are promoting, to bring up another 
> "venture" investor's name.

Not that Vinod Khosla lacks information - his semi-public presentations on 
> topic earlier this year (I saw one of the power point presentations) 
> provide some technology background, which, perhaps not too surprisingly, was 
> almost exactly what was presented just before (or even on) January 31st in 
> the briefing papers for White House, to support the "oil addiction" talk in 
> the State of the Union speech. 

Another great example of sales of good sounding policy first, supporting 
facts to be 
> provided later, a well used modus operandI. And now the Bush-Cheney 
> administration has reshaped the federal government funding priorities for 
> biomass R&D, to support their ethanol from lignocellulosics visions.

However, these visions of tens of billions of gallons ethanol per year from 
> must, by all reasonable analysis, be considered a distant possibility not 
> an imminent accomplishment, as is being portrayed. That is the bottom 
> line.

Of course, reasonable researchers will argue about where exactly we are and 
> and how can we could get there. As one close colleague told me, all the 
> technical problems I talk about (see attached abstract) are actually viewed 
> as "opportunities" by the R&D community. I agree, but there is now the 
> belief that with current high ethanol prices, we have the means to this end at 
> hand. After all, if for the past 25 years we were almost there, according 
> to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and others working on this. It 
> stands to reason that with ethanol prices two or three times that high we 
> must now be in clover. 

Right? Well that is the rub of it. Wrong. We aren't any more "there" or in 
> than before. Yes, we can shave down some of the assumed costs to reach 
> such low, low costs, but the assumptions are still there, only slightly 
> closer to reality. 

Need I point out that there is only one pilot plant operating, Iogen in 
Canada, at a 
> quarter of initially announced capacity? That is all we really can, and 
> actually need, say about the commercial status of this technology. Thus 
> jumping on this bandwagon and joining in the suspension of disbelief, which 
> seems to pervade public discourse, outside some participants of this esteemed 
> Peak Oil blog, is premature.

There is more to this argument, however, than just the issue of whether 
there is 
> real technology (real could be defined, loosely and very charitably as 
> less than $10/gallon of ethanol, or about a $100/mmBtu liquid fuel). The most 
> important question is: what is a better way to use our billion plus ton 
> per year potential biomass resource (and I stress potential, also not real, 
> maybe one or two hundred million tons are real): conversion to ethanol or 
> use for other purposes? Would it not be better to use surplus and waste wood, 
> crop residues, or energy crops (another whole subject) to heat our homes, 
> using wood pellets or even gasification to make heating oils? 

And if we really want ethanol from crops, and I would favor some, 10%, to 
20%, of 
> our use if ethanol is economically or energetically feasible, would it 
> not be better to grow high starch crops (requiring lower fertilizer inputs 
> than corn)? Then we can make ethanol the way we know how, while using part of 
> the crop residues for the process heat, rather than coal or natural gas. 
> That should be an improvement what we are doing now, the corn to ethanol 
> fiasco. 

Well Vinod Khosla is probably correct, as I read him, that there is nothing 
that can 
> be done about the world as we find it, and the function and reward of 
> capital is to serve the system as is, not as it should be. And when I ask, do 
> we want to drive our SUVs or freeze in our homes, that is rhetorical, as I 
> do realize that the question is becoming irrelevant, the "we" will include 
> only those who can do both, and they won't really care, any more than any 
> other ruling class has, about those that can't heat their houses or drive 
> their cars.

And a final question, should we, including our venture capitalists, foist 
on to other 
> countries, let me give India as an example I know of personally, our 
> simultaneously myopic energy policy and visionary technology focus? The answers 
> to this and the prior questions are apparent, they hardly need to be 
> answered, but they are not being sufficiently asked.

So I sincerely wish Vinod Khosla all the success in his enterprises. I hope 
> work for him and his investors, and for all of us. However, I am not 
> enthusiastic about the free enterprise tail enabling -- or even able to enable 
> -- this preordained policy dog to wag. Bluntly, we should not put our trust 
> and future in ethanol from biomass saving the day. No more than in to that 
> prior canard that H2 would save the day after tomorrow (remember those GM 
> ads so long ago, was it last year, saying that todays' toddlers would get 
> their H2 cars for high school graduation?). And remember all the venture 
> capital that went into those hydrogen companies? Anyone into financial 
> forensics? But that is not our problem.OK, as I said, reasonable people can argue 
> the merits of this case, but these merits, particularly the technical nitty 
> gritty, have not been argued to the extent necessary in this forum, 
> neither by Vinod Khosla nor the many who responded to this blog. I hope to add to 
> knowledge, in a minor way, by pointing this out, and some of the technical 
> issues, and suggesting that ethanol from lignocellulosics is not something 
> we should count on, any more than most of the other 1970s ideas and 
> technologies being re-floated (biodiesel from algae being a personal favorite of 
> mine). Yes, biofuels are and will be very important, we are already doing 
> some things, and need to do much more. Much work is required, in many areas, 
> from anaerobic digestion to crop production, and including R&D on 
> lignocellulosics to ethanol. Maybe we will get the proverbial breakthroughs. But 
> multiple barriers must be overcome, and betting the farm on just this one 
> ticket, on only ethanol from switchgrass and such, is foolish in the extreme. 
> And that is, what I am afraid, the Bush-Cheneys are now attempting and the 
> Gates-Khoslas accomplishing. This single rathole could easily consume most 
> biofuels funding and, most likely, nothing real will be 
> accomplished.Another victory for the fossil-nuclear energy companies?

 John Benemann
The following abstract is to be presented August 29th at the Conference on 
Biofuels and Bioenergy: Challenges and Opportunities, Univ. British 
Columbia, Vancouver, Canada (see www.task39.org).ETHANOL FROM LIGNOCELLULOSIC 
BIOMASS - A TECHNO-ECONOMIC ASSESSMENT John R. Benemann1*,Don C. Augenstein1, Don 
J. Wilhelm2 and Dale R. Simbeck2

1.  Institute for Environmental Management, Inc. 4277 Pomona Ave., Palo 
Alto, CA 94306 *Presenter and contact, jbenemann at aol.com

2.  SFA Pacific, Inc, 444 Castro St., Suite 720, Mountain View, CA 94041

Proposed lignocellulosic-to-ethanol processes envision a pre-treatment 
step, to liberate cellulose and hemicelluloses from lignin, followed by a 
hydrolysis step, to convert the carbohydrates to simpler sugars, and then a yeast 
or bacterial fermentation step, to yield ethanol, followed by ethanol 
recovery (distillation, drying). Some steps might be combined, such as in acid 
hydrolysis (combining pre-treatment and saccharification) or in a simultaneous 
saccharification-fermentation process. After five decades of intensive R&D, 
currently only a single pilot plant (Iogen Corp. in Canada) is operating, 
reportedly producing about one million liters of ethanol per year, though well 
below its planned capacity.An independent analysis identified many problems 
with the currently proposed processes, including the relatively high costs 
of biomass delivered to commercial-scale plants (which would need to be 200 
million liters per year output, or greater, for economics of scale), the 
problems with pretreatment, the low rates and yields of sugars from enzymatic 
cellulose hydrolysis, the resulting low sugar and ethanol concentrations, and 
the overall high energy consumption of the overall process. In addition to 
not tolerating high ethanol concentrations, genetically engineered organisms 
developed for combined hexose-pentose fermentations are subject to 
contamination, which will require prohibitively expensive containment systems.Even 
ignoring, as most studies do, such major problems, and using available corn 
stover and enzymatic hydrolysis, the currently favored biomass resource and 
process, our techno-economic analysis estimated a cost of ethanol twice as 
high as that of ethanol from corn. Forest residues and wastes, biomass crops, 
and municipal wastes are even less promising. The conclusions of this 
assessment are that none of the existing processes are ready for commercial 
applications in any foreseeable time frame and that continuing fundamental and 
applied R&D is required. Some opportunities may exist for near-term 
applications of cellulose conversion technologies to some specific, modest-scale, 
agricultural wastes. 

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