[Biofuel] Dr. John Benemann on Cellulosic Ethanol

2007-06-11 Thread Keith Addison
http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/2006/08/guest-post-on-cellulosic-ethanol.html
R-Squared Energy Blog: Guest Post on Cellulosic Ethanol
Thursday, August 24, 2006

Guest Post on Cellulosic Ethanol

The following is a guest post by Don Augenstein and John Benemann. 
They have many years of expertise in biomass conversion. This essay 
is in response to Vinod Khosla's recent posting on ethanol. In my 
opinion, it is an excellent essay. First is the introduction by Don 
Augenstein.

Introduction

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. As you 
can tell from our paper (abstract at the end of the essay) to the 
solid waste people (which remains rather obscure, to a limited 
audience), we think that there is desperate need for more airing of 
the reasons for skepticism and warning the energy community of the 
obvious barriers. We are astonished and stupefied that the hype has 
gone as far as it has.

Better late than never. I present John Benemann's statement below.

Dr. John Benemann on Cellulosic Ethanol

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, copied below. This is RD, 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 RD (is there any other?) for hydrogen is being terminated 
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 associated 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 
RD 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 RD 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 

Re: [Biofuel] Dr. John Benemann on Cellulosic Ethanol

2007-06-11 Thread MMBTUPR
   to   Biofuels listfromLewis L Smith

The sender is a semiretired energy economist operating out of Puerto Rico 
since 1961, with extensive biomass-energy experience.

For a long time, some of us with cane experience have been looking for an 
economic   way to separate the cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin in bagasse 
fiber, because if you can do that, then there are a whole lot long-proven 
commercial processes which can turn these components into a whole slew of 
commercially valuable products. In fact, I think I first heard about this idea 
in a 
report by Lipinsky for Battelle Labs, probably dated in the late 1960's

At last count about 1996, I had run across 12 or 15, some of which actually 
worked, although they wouldn't make you any money !   Then head of our 
consulting corsortium accidentally walked into a buglary and was killed,  the 
Sugar 
Administration took away our latest project site and our major client tried 
stiff arm the survivors on billing matters. So I gave up on biomass in Puerto 
Rico. It reminds me a little of the old Appalachian poem about a chain of 
frustrations,  I came to a river and I couldn't get across, so I paid five 
dollars 
for an old grey horse ...

Then in 2005, we heard some encouraging words   from NREL about new work in 
enzyme decomposition, which NREL said was  the way to go  since there were 
prospects of a breakthough within a few years. 

However, now it appears from Dr. Benemann's statement that some of these same 
enzymes are going to be used to make ethanol from switch grass, only that 
isn't going to make any money either, at least not for the foreseeable future.




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Re: [Biofuel] Dr. John Benemann on Cellulosic Ethanol [CONTINUATION]

2007-06-11 Thread MMBTUPR
   to Biofuels list  from   Lewis L Smith

Clunky AOL dispatched my post this subject before I had finished. Following 
are my parting shots.

So I very much agree with Dr. Benemann that we ought to place our bets on 
some other cards and not on cellulosic ethanol. Personally I like gasification 
of 
grasses because it lends itself to decentralized [  distributed  ] 
generation very nicely, has minimal water requirements and can use arid-land or 
saline-land grasses as well as those grown say, on irrigated lands.

In this energy matter, getting results soon is vital, because time is of the 
essence. There are enough good and mediocre numbers in an oil industry full of 
errors, omissions and bald-faced lies to state with a high probability that 
world crude oil production is going to peak on or before 2020. And the 
probability that the subsequent decline will be steep rather than shallow is 
about 60 
% or three to two, as the racing fans say.

[Anyone who fixes the exact year, however, has probably been making secret 
visits to his or her friendly, neighborhood astrologer !]

Meanwhile a report commissioned for the US Army estimates that the supply of 
natural gas from conventional sources will be too uncertain and/or the price 
too high for the Army to use this product after 2025.   Since any energy 
program must include some mega projects, these dates are  just around the 
corner  
for planning and operating purposes in the energy world.

So let's do something that will give us a fast payoff.

Cordially. End of message.


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