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Some Biofuels Companies Give Up on Biofuels

2011-12-23 8:31:00


US - Gevo, a prominent advanced-biofuels company that has received millions in US government funding to develop fuels made from cellulosic sources such as grass and wood chips, is finding that it can't use these materials if it hopes to survive.

Instead, it's going to use corn, a common source for conventional biofuels. What's more, most of the product from its first facility will be used for chemicals rather than fuel, reports Technology Review.

As the difficulty of producing cellulosic biofuels cheaply becomes apparent, a growing number of advanced-biofuels companies are finding it necessary to take creative approaches to their business, even though that means abandoning some of their green credentials, at least temporarily, and focusing on markets that won't have a major impact on oil imports.

Cellulosic biofuels still cost much more to produce than either corn ethanol or gasoline. One reason is that startups have had trouble raising enough money to build the large-scale commercial plants needed to lower costs. That's in part because their technology is unproven, and in part because there's no guaranteed market for cellulosic biofuels yet.

Additionally, government mandates that were meant to help create a market for cellulosic biofuels have so far been ineffective; it's typically cheaper for the fuel providers affected by the mandate to purchase credits rather than biofuels. And finally, supply chains for cellulosic materials aren't yet well developed, so companies face a challenge when they try to lock in reliable access to them, reported Technology Review.

Gevo's strategy addresses all these problems. Besides relying on corn in order to overcome supply challenges, the company is reducing capital costs by retrofitting existing corn ethanol plants rather than building new ones; the retrofit of the first plant, in Luverne, Minnesota, will cost about $40 million, a fraction of the hundreds of millions it costs to build a new plant. And rather than making ethanol, Gevo is making butanol, which can command a higher price—especially for use as a feedstock for the chemical industry. Gevo expects that it can make butanol from corn—a readily available feedstock—for significantly less than it costs to make it from petroleum.



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