GM and Coskata Highlight Cellulosic Biofuels Opportunity in China; Estimates of 45-49 BGPY Market by 2030

Jose Michael

China biofuel potential: technical, economic and business-as-usual scenarios. Click to enlarge. Source: GM, Tsinghua University

China has the potential to produce about 45-49 billion gallons per year (BGPY) of cellulosic biofuels by 2030, given appropriate supporting economic incentives, according to presentations by both General Motors and Coskata at the 4th World Biofuels Symposium at Tsinghua University in Beijing, 19 - 21 October, 2008, organized by BBI International and with COFCO as the title sponsor.

Coskata, a thermo-biochemical cellulosic ethanol company (and a strategic partner of GM, earlier post) based a 49 MGPY estimate on data from the USDA, UN FAO and its own production experience, said Wes Bolsen, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer and VP of Business Development. The 49 billion gallon number does not include landfill gas, municipal waste, steel mill gas, or any coal gasification that could add billions more, Bolsen added.

GM’s Dr. Andreas Lippert, director of Global Energy Systems for GM (earlier post), in his presentation adduced research by Prof. Xiliang Zhang at Tsinghua University, showing that while the technical potential existed for approximately 360 Mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent) of biofuels in China with 60% derived from agricultural residue, 20% from grasses, 10% from forest residue and 10% from other, the amount that could be produced to be cost-competitive with other fuels using incentives and considering societal benefits is around 100 Mtoe (roughly 45+ BGPY ethanol). In a business-as-usual scenario, without incentives, the amount produced is less than half that—but still a significant amount.

By comparison, the US Department of Energy’s Billion Ton Study estimates the annual biomass potential in the US at 1.33 billion tons by 2030 with an ethanol potential of 97.5 B gallons. A separate GM-University of Toronto study referenced by Lippert concluded that the US potential is 0.625 – 1.2 billion tons, enough to produce 50 – 134 BGPY of ethanol. The current US Renewable Standard mandated by EISA 2007 calls for 36 billion gallons of all biofuels by 2022, at least 16 billion gallons of which needs to be cellulosic biofuels.

China fuel ethanol plants in 2008, and provinces/cities with E10 blend mandates. Click to enlarge. Credit: Coskata

China is currently the world’s third-largest producer of ethanol. Chinese grain-based fuel ethanol production has grown from 100 million gallons in 2004 to about 500 million in 2008, spurred by E10 mandates in major provinces and cities. China had been targeting a major increase in its fuel ethanol output by 2010, a target that now is in doubt due to the country’s restricting ethanol production from grain, while not yet relaxing control over non-grain feedstocks, according to a recent Reuters report.

To save on refined fuel, China has approved 10 percent blending of ethanol in gasoline in six provinces and regions, with a target of blending 2 million tonnes of ethanol in gasoline by 2010 and 10 million tonnes by 2020. But its ethanol production capacity is about 1.5 million tonnes a year, of which 1.32 million tonnes uses grains as a feedstock. Cassava is currently the only realistic feedstock for new ethanol projects in China, and high cassava prices were also partly to blame for missing the target, Ren [Dongming, a deputy director with Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission] said.

The timing, suggested Bolsen in his talk, is right for the introduction of second-generation biofuels into China—an opportunity Coskata would like to tap with local partners. Despite the potential, Bolsen says, the Chinese market is in a very different stage that the market in the US, in which everyone is “fired up” about making something happen soon.

China is more about making decisions now that will affect them for the next two decades on not driving down the path to be as dependent on oil as the US.

—Wes Bolsen
Coskata reports that the productivity of its fermenting bacteria (measured in grams of ethanol/liter/hour) have well surpassed its initial best case ($lt;$1/gallon). Inset chart shows data from January 2008. Click to enlarge.
Coskata. At the Platts Cellulosic Ethanol and Biofuels Conference in Chicago earlier in October, Coskata reported significant recent gains in the output (grams of ethanol per liter per hour) from its microorganisms that take it well below its early commercial target of an operational cost of <$1.00 per gallon. The company declines to publish the actual production numbers for competitive reasons.

The Coskata process takes a thermo-biochemical pathway via a three-stage process. It first gasifies the feedstock, then uses microorganisms to ferment the syngas into ethanol. In the final stage, pervaporation technology separates and recovers the ethanol. Depending on the feedstock and with the cogeneration of bioelectricity or steam export, the Coskata process can result in up to a 96% reduction of CO2 in the production of the fuel and is up to 7.7 times more energy positive compared to conventional gasoline, according to an evaluation Dr. Michael Wang at Argonne National Laboratory.

Coskata originally licensed its technology and microbes from Oklahoma State University (the work of Dr. Ralph Tanner) and has subsequently optimized the microbes for the production of ethanol via strain management, assisted by a genomic analysis that helped identify optimal nutrients for the microbes. Coskata is now moving on to a phase of further optimization via mutagenesis—a process in which a mutagen is introduced to numerous cultures, and then Coskata screens for results. To enable this process, Coskata developed a high-throughput screening technique for anaerobes that allows the company to run some 100,000 experiments per year.

Coskata is also working on different bioreactor designs to optimize ethanol output. Although Coskata can in theory use a number of different front-end gasification technologies, the company is currently working with plasma gasifiers. Plasma syngas, said Coskata CEO Bill Roe, doesn’t contain tar (a usual outcome from biomass gasification), and the Coskata process doesn’t handle tar.

Its Lighthouse commercial demonstration plant will come online early next year, and the company remains on track for a full commercial plant (the Flagship plant) for the first quarter to 2011.) (Earlier post.)

GM is working on multiple pathways to solutions. Click to enlarge. Source: GM

GM and Biofuels in China. GM is pursuing a global energy strategy that includes improving the energy efficiency of existing motor fuels and developing alternative energy and alternative propulsion systems. The development and commercialization of sustainable biofuels, particularly non-food based, next-generation cellulosic ethanol, is an important and leading component of GM’s overall strategy. (Earlier post.) GM also identifies China as being among the first markets and production sites for alternative propulsion systems.

(GM is not alone in that assessment. Earlier in October, the head of Johnson Controls Inc’s battery unit told the Reuters Global Environment Summit that he believes China could adopt electric cars faster than elsewhere because of its size and comparative lack of reliance on gasoline for transport.)

In conjunction with the Beijing conference, GM held a workshop to outline its R&D and commercialization efforts of sustainable biofuels worldwide, along with Coskata and Tsinghua University. GM has established a collaborative bioenergy research center at Tsinghua University as part of its larger Global Energy System Center work.

At the workshop, David S. Chen, vice president of GM China Group, said, “According to the China Automotive Energy Research Center, GM has already begun successfully validating the automotive energy resource potential for sustainable biofuels in China.” The research center officially opened this April at Tsinghua University. GM will continue to advance its strategy of “in China, with China, for China” to help China develop diverse automotive energy solutions and commercialize such energy solutions, Chen said.

The development goal of CAERC is to provide support for China’s policy making on automotive energy strategies, technology roadmaps and management mechanisms. At the same time, CAERC is working with various organizations in academia and related industries in China to accelerate the development of the new energy automotive industry.

GM said that it will continue to share with China the R&D results in the area of new energy from its research centers and partners around the world, including the R&D and market applications of next-generation, non-food based cellulosic ethanol. Chen said China can produce cellulosic ethanol on marginal lands from wood waste, energy crops such as switchgrass and even garbage, and China is in a good position to benefit from the development of such sustainable biofuels.

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