Obama Bets Big on Biofuels

 

Ben Mack | Wired

Plug-in hybrids and electric cars get all the love in Detroit these days, but Washington isn’t giving up on biofuel. Uncle Sam is spending millions of dollars to find ways of turning everything from algae to lawn trimmings into fuel as President Obama promises to invest heavily in alternative fuels.

The departments of energy and agriculture will award $25 million to advance development of “technologies and processes” to produce so-called “next generation” biofuels that aren’t refined from food crops like corn. The announcement follows an agriculture department  promise to loan $80 million to Range Fuels, a Colorado company that produces ethanol from wood chips, so it can build a refinery in Georgia.

“A robust biofuels industry – focused on the next-generation of biofuels – is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing our addiction to foreign oil and putting Americans back to work,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.

The $25 million will finance projects focused on feedstock development, biofuel and biobased product development and biofuel development analysis. The goal is to create a wide range of “economically and environmentally sustainable” sources of renewable biomass that can be turned into fuel and cut greenhouse gas emissions at least 50 percent compared to fossil fuels, officials said.

“These grants will help support the development of a sustainable domestic biofuels industry by broadening the nation’s energy sources as well as improving the efficiency of renewable fuels,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

The production of ethanol derived from corn, soybeans and other crops has been blamed for everything from spiraling food prices to clear-cutting in the Amazon. But there is great hope for cellulosic ethanol and other fuels refined from non-food biomass because they nullify the food vs. fuel debate and other criticisms. Several airlines are developing algal fuels, each of the Big Three automakers offers “flex-fuel” cars that can run on ethanol and even super-luxury automaker Bentley is promising a biofuel-burning car.

Washington is funding more than R&D, however. During the last days of the Bush Administration, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced an $80 million loan to help Range Fuels build a new refinery. It is the first time the agency has guaranteed a loan to a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol refinery.

Range Fuels, which Obama visited in October, uses a thermo-chemical process called gasification to convert cellulose to ethanol. Production is slated to begin next year and will be ramped up in three stages, company CEO David Aldous told Ethanol Producer magazine. During the first stage, the refinery will convert 125 tons of woody biomass into fuel each day. That will climb to 625 tons daily and then 2,625 tons – at which point the refinery will produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually. All of the biomass will come from the surrounding timber industry.

“It’s located in the Milion Pines area of Georgia,” Aldous said of the refinery. “There is a very significant supply of wood waste in that area, hundreds of years supply for our plant.”

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