Notes from Biofuels Talks at the EUEC Conference

I’ve just returned from the EUEC 2010 conference in Phoenix, where I presented my paper on the prospects for use of biotechnology in biofuel production. Slides from my presentation are posted at www.slideshare.net/djglass99. I’ll soon resume my blog postings of more detailed discussion of the topics I presented at the talk, beginning with company profiles and industry sector analyses. But for now, I’m writing with brief summaries of some of the other presentations I attended in the Biofuel Track of the EUEC conference.

The talks I attended on Monday, February 1, the first day of the conference, all dealt with the use of algae in biofuel production. Dr. Joel Cuello, a professor at the University of Arizona, spoke about research conducted by one of his graduate students, Michael Mason, in designing photobioreactors that are optimized for large-scale culture of algae. This talk addressed the significant problem that biological production processes that are feasible at laboratory (“bench”) scale are often difficult to replicate under economical conditions when scaled up to the much larger volumes needed for commercial production. Dr. Cuello outlined several of the factors that must be taken into consideration when scaling up, including supply of carbon dioxide, availability of light, supply of nutrients for the algae, but his research has shown the critical factor to be the rate of hydrodynamic mixing – that is, that at larger scale, it becomes more of a challenge for the nutrients and algae to diffuse through the growth medium to a sufficient extent so that they can come into contact with each other. His research involves defining the optimum conditions for hydrodynamic flow at the desired scale and evaluating how well existing reactor designs meet those conditions. He has used this research to create several optimized designs for larger-scale algae photobioreactors.

Stanton Barnes of Bioalgene spoke about his company’s work in designing and operating algae ponds that made use of carbon dioxide from dense industrial waste streams as a feedstock for algal growth. Barnes said that the company gave considerable thought to the economics of using algae to produce biofuels, and came to the conclusion that cost savings or enhanced revenue recovery needed to be sought at all stages of the process. They first concluded that the cost of building and operating contained photobioreactors was too high to enable profitable operation of the plant, and so the company instead decided to use open ponds, a common method of cultivating algae for various industrial purposes. Cost-saving approaches were implemented at a plant the company operates in Boardman, Oregon. This facility has been sited near an industrial plant, enabling the company to pipe high-density flue gas from the plant directly in to the algae pond. The company also uses waste products from a nearby cattle feeding operation as nutrients for algal growth, and seeks further economic gains from reaping financial return from commercial use of certain byproducts of the process (e.g. using the algal biomass for fish feed). The company’s economic calculations also factor in the carbon credits that would be available from capturing carbon dioxide waste streams.

In other talks in that afternoon’s session, Professor Mark Edwards of Arizona State University gave a good overview of many of the potential industrial uses for algae, over and above biofuels. He too recommended locating algal production facilities near a source of carbon dioxide, even a facility where biomass is burned for energy production. He also stressed that, in his view, the rate limiting nutrient for algal growth is phosphorus, rather than any of the other nutrients. I was glad to see at least these two speakers discuss the possibility of combining algal biofuel production with carbon capture strategies in order to make use of carbon dioxide waste streams as a feedstock for the algae, because I feel this is one of the more intriguing “diversification” strategies I’ve seen in the market, and perhaps one of the better approaches to enable algal-derived biofuel production to be cost-effective and profitable.

The final talk of this session was from Klaus Ruhmer of BDI-BioDiesel International of Austria, a company which has designed and/or built 30 biodiesel plants since the early 1990s. In his talk, Ruhmer provided a historical overview of biodiesel approaches that have included use of what he called “lower quality feedstocks” such as used cooking oil or trap grease, and he also discussed current state-of-the-art technology for biodiesel production. Ruhmer also discussed several issues he felt were critical for the next generation of biodiesel plants, including the need for plants to be flexible enough to utilize multiple feedstocks (which he dubbed the most important issue), the need to pay attention to the quality of the fuel produced, and the importance of obtaining economic value from the byproducts of the production process.

The talks in my session on Tuesday morning, February 2, touched upon a wider range of topics in biofuel production, primarily relating to use of biomass as a feedstock for production of ethanol or other fuels, and with particular emphasis on the commercial and economic factors affecting such uses. Mark Riley, a professor at Arizona State University, discussed his research on the use of sweet sorghum as a potential feedstock for ethanol production. This species was originally developed as a sugar source, and Dr. Riley’s research has focused on the use of the sugar-containing juice from this plant as a direct feedstock for ethanol production. Use of the juice, as opposed to the plant biomass, has the advantage of not requiring degradation of starch and other complex molecules from the plant biomass, and in addition the juice is potentially easier to transport than harvested biomass. Kate Elliott of DNV Climate Change Services gave an interesting presentation on the market and economic trends that affect the growth of cellulosic biofuels in the major world markets of the U.S., Europe and Brazil, including the impact of governmental policies in these markets, various technological and other challenges arising at various points in the biofuel value chain, and the need to fully document the benefits of biofuel use, including impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Dr. Vance Morey of the University of Minnesota spoke about the use of biomass for combined heat and power generation at ethanol plants, comparing the outputs and carbon footprints of different technical approaches. And finally, Shahrzad Badvipour presented research from her Master’s thesis at Arizona State University on life cycle assessment analyses of processes for biodiesel production using waste cooking oil as the feedstock.

Although I had to leave the conference shortly after my session, I enjoyed the interactions with others in the Biofuels Track, and I appreciated the opportunity to make my own presentation.

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