The renewable fuels industry changes constantly.
Because the field is affected by politics, commodity prices, and high-tech research, it’s difficult to make long-term predictions about ethanol and other “renewable fuels,” but Omaha seem likely to be at the center of those developments.
Ethanol is a chemical produced by the fermentation of sugars found in grains and other biomass. According to local producer Green Plains, ethanol can be created from grains that include corn, wheat and sorghum, as well as from waste products from agriculture, forestry and paper making.
Currently, most ethanol is produced from corn because it contains large quantities of carbohydrates and is produced in such vast quantities. Corn-based ethanol is controversial, because it takes corn out of the food system and a perception that it can contribute to food price increases.
However, many companies are now attempting to create “second-generation” renewable fuels from other materials.
Biomass must be broken down into starch before it can be turned into ethanol. Industrial enzymes are used to create this process.
Novozymes is a Danish multinational corporation and controls about 50% of the industrial enzyme market, according to Fred Reikowsky. Reikowsky is the general manager for Novozymes’ production facility in Blair. Novozymes broke ground on this facility in 2009, at a ceremony attended by members of the Danish royal family. It is scheduled to open in July, with about 100 employees.
“We will produce enzymes for conventional biofuels, made from corn,” Reikowsky said. “We’ll also be able to produce enzymes for second generation biofuels, such as cornstalks, corncobs, and wheat straw. In addition, we are looking at municipal waste that can be broken down into a starch.”
Reikowsky said breaking down these newer sources of biomass is more difficult than for corn, and has required 10 years of research and development. Novozymes will be ready to grow if this new market takes off. “We have space to expand five times the current size, if necessary,” Reikowsky said. “We can quickly add on capacity. We are prepared for the future.”
Green Plains is an Omaha energy company with nine ethanol plants nationwide. In 2008, Green Plains partnered with several other companies to create a joint venture called BioProcess Algae.
The Rhode Island-based BioProcess Algae will “operate commercial scale bioreactors that enable efficient conversion of light and CO2 into high value microbial feedstock,” according to its web site. At the present time, this means the company is using carbon dioxide (CO2) from Green Plains’ ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa to produce algae.
“Think about a kernel of corn,” BioProcess Alge president Tim Burns said. “Ethanol production takes about one-third of that grain. That next one-third is used as animal feed, and the last one-third of the kernel is burned as CO2 waste. Now it’s about monetizing that last one-third.”
Algae are single-cell organisms that use the carbon from CO2 in order to grow. According to Burns, algae are used in producing pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals (food products providing health benefits), along with animal feeds.
Eventually, Burns hopes that algae can be also used as a low-cost biomass in energy production.
“Algae produce lipids, and those lipids produce oils that can be sold into the fuels market,” Burns said. “Algae can be the lowest cost, highest yielding feedstock for biofuels.”
The company currently sells all of the algae it can produce, and Burns believes there are large untapped markets if his company can increase production over time.
BioSyn is a small LaVista company that hopes to build the world’s first advanced biorefinery complex in Bellevue.
“There has not been a refinery built in the U.S. in 35 years,” said BioSyn chief executive officer Deo C. Reloj, Jr. “We are building a full-blown refinery, creating fuels such as gasoline and jet fuel.”
This refinery could use traditional crude oil, but could also use natural gas, biomass, or vegetable oil. The goal is to produce 6,500 barrels of fuel per day.
However, uncertainty surrounds his ambitious plans. BioSyn still needs to obtain approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Reloj said his company also needs a federal loan guarantee to proceed, but the U.S. Congress has failed to provide funding for a 2008 law that would make this guarantee possible.
“Unfortunately, we have to adjust to realities of politics,” Reloj said. “We’ve had a setback because of Congress.”
In the meantime, BioSyn has hired contractors to produce new fuel products, which the company is selling in Europe.
One product is DM-X 95G, which BioSyn calls a “Hi-Mileage UltraClean Multi-Purpose Green Gasoline Analogue.”
“It is being used by motorcycle drivers and some boat owners,” Reloj said. “You don’t need 2-stroke oil, so there is no smoke. In Europe, some are willing to pay more to use it.”
One day, BioSyn hopes to produce similar ultra-clean fuels in the metro area. Reloj believes this will be one step toward a new energy production system.
“We have the technology to address this issue,” Reloj said. “Natural gas is now cheaper than ethanol. The US has hundreds of years of natural gas. Between natural gas and biomass, Midwestern states can be the leaders.”