The concept of using waste products and bio-mass for the generation of energy is gaining wide popularity in order to decrease mankind’s dependency on petroleum. After corn distillation into ethanol, researchers are now working on a variety of other models.
Just a few weeks ago, a new alternative energy start-up company based in Pasadena, Texas called KiOR produced its first volume of cellulosic diesel fuel from pine wood chips. As opposed to corn distilled ethanol that requires a different set –up of pipelines and car machinery to function adequately as a fuel, the development of cellulosic diesel fuel is part of a developmental effort to replace gasoline without changing the fuel-supplying infrastructure or discarding all existing automobiles.
In addition, it is believed that KiOR will cross all other physical and economical hurdles that are faced by other bio-fuel start-up projects. The KiOR plant uses heat and chemicals to break plant matter or bio-mass as part of its Biomass Fluid Catalytic Cracking technology. Moreover, the process also conserves water during the process (that is again an environmentally beneficial factor, especially when it has already been estimated that the need for water will be doubled by the end of 2035).
The U.S. government estimates that if the supply of fuel is up-scaled, it is expected that the cost per gallon can be decreased up to $3. Researchers, producers and investors believe that bio-fuels will be in tremendous demand after 2030 due to an expected spiking rise in the cost of petroleum at that time.
Fred Cannon, Chief Executive of KiOR suggested:
“Globally, we’ve invested trillions of dollars into our transportation infrastructure—our refineries, pipelines and distribution systems, our cars—so we need biofuel solutions that ‘drop-in’ to this infrastructure. And today that infrastructure is made for hydrocarbon-based fuels. So what that means is that drop-in biofuel must be a hydrocarbon—molecularly indistinguishable from the gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel making the world mobile today.”
Some previous bio-fuel start-ups:
Previously, bio-refining specialists utilized soybean to generate bio-fuels for automobiles that utilize the process of transesterification (a process that helps in the separation of glycerine from vegetable oil or fat).
Another popular process that was used by South African companies to make fuel from coal (also known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis) was also fairly successful.
Lately, the start-up project initiated by Royal Dutch Shell using the licensed process of developing exotic micro-organisms that are capable of feeding on bio-mass to excrete hydrocarbons has also gained wide popularity.
Although these concepts are highly innovative and inspirational, unfortunately, the cost of set-up and risk of potential environmental hazards out-weigh the benefits.
What are some challenges faced by bio-fuel producers?
Besides producing bio-fuels at an affordable rate and in sufficient volumes without spending a lot of energy, there are a number of other environmental hurdles that are faced by producers. This includes purported changes in the physical atmosphere due to emission of carbon as a result of burning of bio-fuels. Critics also support the idea of electric cars that will be operational via renewable energy sources as an alternative and much more environment friendly path as compared to bio-fuels.
Nevertheless, since almost 40% of the U.S. electricity requirements are met by Carbon-rich coal, environmental hazards like greenhouse gas emissions persist as a potential problem in the way of electric cars. The biggest limiting factor of the soybean bio-fuel is the high cost compared to other fuels tracked by U.S. Department of Energy (30 cent higher on every gallon when compared to the price of conventional diesel).
The renowned investor Vinod Khosla, owner of Khosla Ventures that is one of the share-holders of KiOR commented:
“One of the things we have to do is get real. Biofuels . . . even with [today’s] inefficient engines, can do something like an 80 to 85 percent reduction in carbon emissions with very little increase in cost. It’s the cheapest way to get carbon reduction in transportation at scale.”
He also suggested:
“Clearly, it’s the winning technology and very, very soon I expect if we build three, four, five plants, it will be cheaper, unsubsidized, than deep offshore drilling projects or oil sands projects. We can return all those paper mills that have been shut down back into business in thriving communities and replace our gasoline with something that’s 80 percent lower carbon or more while not paying more.”
KiOR bio-fuel startup has been approved by EPA’s life-cycle analysis as cellulosic fuels that suggesting a 60% reduction in the greenhouse gas emission is expected compared to diesel or petroleum when cellulosic fuels will be used for energy. Currently the company is utilizing wood chips from large southern yellow pine plantations in its mega plant at 213 million in Columbus, Mississippi, and another biorefinery in Natchez, Mississippi.