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

Mark Ludlow mark at ludlow.com
Sat Jan 29 21:55:17 CST 2011

It appears as though a key problem is simply hubris. "Don't give me facts; I
might get confused!" Hear no evil; see no evil; speak no evil. Science will
turn lead into gold. The War on Impossibility!


Most of the Gotchas! are well known and have been known for a long time. One
doesn't have to build a plant (or an iridium reactor!) to demonstrate
progress toward solving problems that have been recognized for
decades.problems that are magnified at commercial scale. But even if all of
the process problems were solved tomorrow, a host of logistical problems
could still make any particular project a loser.


Thanks to Don for reminding us once more: "If it seems too good to be true."




From: gasification-bounces at lists.bioenergylists.org
[mailto:gasification-bounces at lists.bioenergylists.org] On Behalf Of
Iemdon at aol.com
Sent: Monday, January 24, 2011 10:17 PM
To: gasification at lists.bioenergylists.org
Subject: [Gasification] Re The Range fuels failure. Observations from a lon,
long term skeptic



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

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 <http://www.theoildrum.com/tag/cellulosic_ethanol>
, ethanol <http://www.theoildrum.com/tag/ethanol> , lignocellulosic
<http://www.theoildrum.com/tag/lignocellulosic> , vinod khosla
<http://www.theoildrum.com/tag/vinod_khosla>  [list all tags
<http://www.theoildrum.com/special/tag_listing> ] 

[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

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

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

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

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
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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