Biofuels continue to attract the attention of entrepreneurs and scientists (often they are impressively one and the same!). With the rise in fuel prices, pundits can expect what was once a trend to become even more of a surge.
Biofuels have their issues: the dilemma of devoting land to crops for fuel instead of food; the pollution that can result, such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico thanks to corn grown for ethanol; and their price is often relatively high. Cellulosic ethanol from feedstocks like switchgrass is one option, but that technology is ready for prime time–and it is difficult to compete with the subsidies given to corn farmers here in the United States. One start-up in Washington state, however, promises that it can develop biodiesel cost effectively with a wide range of feedstocks: everything from wood chips to waste from the pulp and paper industry.Mercurius Biofuels is a start-up based in Ferndale, WA, north of Seattle and close to the British Columbia border. The company uses two fuel processing techniques that can convert wood and other plant-based materials into biodiesel: one is specifically from the pulp and paper industry, the other similar to petroleum refining. Instead of using enzymes or microbes, the process involves acid hydrolysis, almost identical to a process that the pulp and paper industry uses. In plain English, acid hydrolysis converts cellulose into a non-sugar compound. The result is a fuel efficient product with a high cetane number and what Mercurius claims is at a lower cost.
While the processes that Mercurius uses can result in various fuel products like kerosene for jet fuel, ethanol, and green chemicals, the company has chosen to focus on the US diesel market. The strategy is a nimble one, considering that most investment and production of biofuels is concentrated on the US gasoline market. American trucking and shipping fleets, however, rely on diesel supplies. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires that 2 billion gallons of advanced biofuels be blended with fossil-based transport fuels by 2012, and that mandate ramps up to 21 billion gallons by 2022.
According to Mercurius, a biorefinery using its technology could produce biodiesel at US$0.90 a gallon; that is almost two-thirds less than the cost to make a gallon of cellulosic ethanol, which currently runs about US$2.40 a gallon. Fuel efficiency is also in the company’s favor: Mercurius claims that 0.08 joules of energy are needed to create 1 joule of fuel. The capital expenditures to operate such a refinery, which Mercurius’s executive team explained in an interview, is about one-third the cost of a refinery that is dedicated to cellulosic ethanol production.
Mercurius could be in a position to help revive some pulp and paper mills within and beyond the Pacific Northwest if its fuel product can truly scale. With the number of trees that have been lost to the mountain pine beetle and other pests, an opportunity exists to complement our current fuel supply while clearing forests of waste that is otherwise a fire hazard.