GM Developing Global Advanced Biofuels Program

Jose Michael

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A portion of the current biofuels component of GM’s roadmap to improved energy diversity and reduced emissions. Click to enlarge.

GM has been steadily building a global advanced biofuels program as one element of its efforts to reduce the use of petroleum and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The company’s approach goes beyond simply trying to generate support for flex-fuel vehicles (“Live Green, Go Yellow”, earlier post) and fostering an E85 refueling infrastructure in the US. The more aggressive focus on advanced biofuels has resulted in its investment in two emergent lignocellulosic ethanol companies—Coskata (earlier post) and Mascoma (earlier post)—as well as the establishment of a collaborative bioenergy research center based at Tsinghua University in China as part of its larger Global Energy System Center work.

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GM’s biofuels program is primarily driven by three groups within the company: Policy, R&D, and Powertrain. Click to enlarge.

GM’s shorter-term focus on biofuels is on improved first-generation fuels, such as corn ethanol in the US and sugarcane in Brazil, with a rapid move to second-generation lignocellulosic fuels via a variety of pathways. GM’s current cellulosic ethanol partners represent two different production pathways: Coskata uses a thermochemical process; Mascoma uses a biochemical process.

As a bridge, said Dr. Candace Wheeler, a GM Technical Fellow and the Biofuels Lead in the GM Global Energy Systems Center (part of GM R&D and Strategic Planning), at the Platt’s 3rd Annual Cellulosic Ethanol and Biofuels conference last week, the company is also looking to what it calls “generation 1.5” ethanol, produced from feedstocks such as cassava.

(GM was the premier sponsor of the Platt’s conference. GM is also a platinum sponsor of the upcoming 4th World Biofuels Symposium at Tsinghua University, 19 - 21 October, 2008, organized by BBI International and with COFCO as the title sponsor.)

Beyond the ethanol activity, GM is also evaluating and considering the potential for higher alcohols such as biobutanol, as well as algae-derived biofuels and ultimately the direct synthesis of bio-hydrocarbon fuels, Dr. Wheeler said.

The key point on biofuels is that they are the most significant near-term solution to offset rising energy demand. Our focus is on next-generation biofuels. These are fast approaching, with cellulosic ethanol nearing commercialization in the 2010-2011 timeframe.

Sustainable biofuels made from non-grain sources could offset up to 35% of future vehicle energy demand by 2030, but the infrastructure needs to be in place for commercialization to be realized.

—Candace Wheeler
Corvette Wins ALMS Green Challenge Running on Cellulosic Ethanol
Corvette Racing, Chevrolet’s factory team, won the recent inaugural Green Challenge at the American Le Mans Series’ (ALMS) Petit Le Mans sports car race at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia, running primarily on cellulosic ethanol.
The cellulosic ethanol in the E85R fuel used by the Corvette race cars is made by KL Energy in Wyoming from wood waste collected in the Black Hills National Forest as part of a wildfire prevention program. Dead trees, broken branches and undergrowth that would otherwise be burned are converted to cellulosic ethanol. The conversion plant is energy self-sufficient, and supplies surplus electricity to the power grid.
The Green Challenge formula considers the overall well-to-wheel environment impact of the fuel used. Using second-generation cellulosic ethanol in the Corvette race cars’ 7-liter GM small-block V-8 engines was decisive in the Green Challenge victory, according to Tom Wallace, GM Global Vehicle Chief Engineer for Performance Vehicles. The greenhouse gas emissions for the winning Corvette was 170% better than the first non-E85 finisher in the GT class.

An internal GM study done with one of its university partners, the University of Toronto, mirrored the results of the earlier US Department of Energy (DOE) billion-ton study, concluding that there was sufficient biomass available to offset more than 30% of petroleum consumption. (Earlier post.) Realizing the potential, Wheeler said, is a timing issue, based on technology improvement and implementation and economics.

Technology is game changing, Wheeler said, noting that hybrid genetics and biotechnology have helped drive a five-fold increase in average US corn yields since 1940 to more than 180 bushels per acre. Seed companies are targeting average yields of 300 bushels per acre. Even after the unseasonable cold, heavy rain and flooding earlier this year (earlier post), the US is having its second largest harvest of corn in its history, according to the USDA.

Projected energy crops for cellulosic fuels production have yet to benefit from the dedicated focus on increasing yield and other attributes such as drought resistance and pest resistance as corn has. Application of those type of technology to energy crops, Wheeler suggested, will further improve the economics and viability of cellulosic fuels. (Earlier post.)

The US will hit an E10 “blend wall”—the point at which there is enough ethanol produced to support a universal 10% ethanol blend across the country—in just a few years, given the current rate of ethanol production and growth. Since the Renewable Fuel Standard specified by law now has a 36 billion gallon target by 2022, automakers need to push beyond E10 in their vehicles.

One way is to increase the percentage of E85 flex-fuel vehicles; another is to support the use of higher intermediate blends (e.g., E15, E20), although those may have issues for the legacy fleet such as catalyst degradation due to hotter operating temperatures. With one interim report on intermediate blends recently published by NREL and ORNL, studies on different aspects of the problem are continuing through 2010. (Earlier post.)

Another is to incorporate the use of more advanced molecules such as biobutanol, which could in theory take the blend wall up to 16% (Bu16)—about 22 billion gallons annually—for use with the legacy fleet. The use of direct bio-hydrocarbon fuels would eliminate legacy fleet restrictions altogether.

Biorefineries of future, Wheeler said, may likely see a combination of technologies, with some regional specialization. Combining thermochemical and biochemical cellulosic technologies, for example, could optimize the use of the biomass feedstock, along with generating high-value co-products.

One of the great strengths [of cellulosic fuels] is to use locally grown biomass. Use what you have in the region, then convert it into fuel. You don’t have to send it far away—use it locally. There is real potential for using the fuels in the area in which we actually make them.

—Candace Wheeler

The GM biofuels program is driven by a collaboration between three primary groups: Environment, Energy and Safety Policy, headed by Beth Lowery; Powertrain, headed by Tom Stephens; and R&D and Strategic Planning, headed by Larry Burns. GM’s Global Energy Systems Intelligence Center is part of the R&D organization, and has the relationship with Tsinghua University for the Automotive Energy Research Center, which also incorporates the China bioenergy center.

The R&D group also has the contracts with GM’s university partners, of which there are currently four in this area: Ben-Gurion University in Israel; Michigan Tech and Michigan State in the US; and the University of Toronto in Canada. R&D also has the biofuels relationships with Sandia and Argonne laboratories in the US.

GM serves on the Industrial Advisory Boards of several consortia directed at ethanol development, including:

  • DOE Joint Biofuel Energy Institute
  • DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (U of W and MSU)
  • Colorado Consortium for Biofuels and Bioproducts
  • Iowa State University Center for Biobased Products
  • South Dakota National Science Foundation Center for BioEnergy Research and Development

General Motors has produced more flex-fuel vehicles that run on either E85, gasoline or any combination of the two than any manufacturer, with nearly 3.5 million in North America and more than 5 million globally. In Europe, GM’s Saab brand offers the E85-capable Saab 9-5 BioPower. The 9-5 is also sold in Australia. In Brazil, more than 95% of GM’s vehicles are FlexPower-enabled, allowing the vehicles to run on 100% ethanol or a mixture of 22% ethanol and 78% gasoline.

To promote the installation of an E85 infrastructure, GM has helped bring more than 300 E85 pumps on line in 15 states since 2005. Under a partnership with the National Governors Association, GM will expand its role in offering technical and networking assistance to states seeking to add E85 locations.

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