Advanced biofuels could remove blend wall, Senate panel told

Continued support of developing next-generation transportation biofuels could create alternatives that existing engines and distribution systems can safely handle, two federal government witnesses suggested.

This would eliminate the blend wall that the US has hit with growing amounts of corn-based ethanol required under the Renewable Fuel Standard amid reduced gasoline demand, they told the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and its Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee.

The US Department of Energy and the bioenergy community are using cellulosic ethanol research, development, and demonstration successes to accelerate cellulosic and algal “drop-in” biofuel technologies that can be used to displace petroleum-based gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, said Steven Chalk, DOE’s deputy assistant secretary for renewable power.

“Successful RD&D investments in cellulosic ethanol have provided foundational knowledge and capability at national laboratories, in industry, and at universities to develop the more challenging bio-based gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels,” he testified.

Five biorefineries are in the early stages to commercially produce cellulosic ethanol, “and we expect a very fast ramp-up,” Chalk said. “We’re committed to the RFS, and the process and checks and balances Congress provided. We think the long-term predictability of the RFS is vital to encourage investment.”

Advanced biofuel focus

“For most of the growth in the future, it’s mostly about advanced biofuels,” added Chris Grundler, who directs the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Transportation and Air Quality Office. “Our cellulosic standard will be based on what can be produced in the coming year. As for market conditions that would incentivize more infrastructure, we are seeing progress.”

He said EPA believes its proposed framework for determining appropriate total renewable fuel and advanced biofuel volumes under the RFS would simultaneously address the ethanol blend wall and limitations in availability of qualifying renewable fuels. “Our proposal envisions more E15 and E85 being sold next year,” Grundler said. “We got a variety of views at our public hearing last week, where we asked for updated information on sales and infrastructure.”

Some of those views were restated at the committee’s Dec. 11 hearing. Wesley K. Clark, co-chairman of Growth Energy, which originally petitioned EPA to increase the allowable ethanol limit in gasoline from 10% to 15%, said the RFS has succeeded and does not need to be reformed. American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers Pres. Charles T. Drevna said it’s not working properly and needs to be reworked and possibly repealed.

Jim Collins Jr., senior vice-president of industrial biosciences at DuPont Co.’s Performance Polymers and Packaging & Industrial Polymers Division, said the Wilmington, Del., chemical manufacturer strongly supports the RFS based on its experience in corn-based ethanol and the significant potential it sees in cellulosic ethanol.

Iowa cellulosic facility

“For the past 4 years in Iowa, we worked closely with farmers, equipment makers and academia on corn stover harvest trials to build and manage a cost-effective cellulose supply chain,” he testified. “All this work culminated in the groundbreaking of a 30 million gal/year facility 1 year ago in central Iowa, approximately 40 miles north of Des Moines. I am happy to report that the construction is progressing on track and the facility is scheduled to begin producing its first gallons of cellulosic ethanol in the second half of 2014.”

Collins said DuPont also is working with BP PLC on a joint venture to develop and extensively test biobutanol, a higher alcohol fuel that is produced much like ethanol but has higher fuel qualities and better mileage. “It also reduces the volatility of fuel blends, and so can be used where summer air quality concerns persist,” he explained. “It can be distributed by existing gasoline infrastructure, including pipelines. Lastly, biobutanol is more compatible with existing equipment, including small engines and marine engines.”

Scott Faber, vice-president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said, “Our view is we need an RFS. It’s critically important to reduce the carbon intensity of our fuels, but we believe it’s not working as the 2007 legislation intended.”

He suggested that the corn ethanol mandate be modified so producers have to meet greenhouse gas control requirements comparable to those for advanced biofuel producers. “Reducing the amount of corn ethanol we blend into gasoline would send a powerful signal to the investment money to put money into the second generation of technologies,” Faber said. “The way we’re managing it now has created a climate of likely litigation that has increased uncertainty.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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