Thursday at the Platts Cellulosic Ethanol Conference saw three of the cellulosic ethanol plant builders give updates on their strategy for converting biomass to fuel and where their companies are today. The speakers were Wes Bolsen, CMO and vp at Coskata, Christopher Veit, senior marketing manager, biomass, for Novozymes, Inc., and Murray Burke, president and CTO of SunOpta. The short version of each of their speeches: we're doing amazing things, you should really take another look at our technology. The longer versions are spelled out after the jump.

First up, Bolsen (and I'll try to not get him in trouble this time). We already know a lot about the "Coskata process," which Bolsen admitted isn't really about producing cellulosic ethanol. More precisely, it's carbon ethanol where anything that contains carbon can be gassified in the plasma gassifier and then the gas is fed to the microbes who spew out pure ethanol (remember the bit about making ethanol from coal?). Bolsen's message to the attendees was that if the microbes really work as advertised, the Coskata process will be a "really disruptive" technology. Remember, Coskata claims they can make ethanol for under $1/gallon. And, while the DOE calculates that cellulosic ethanol has an 86 percent reduction in greenhouse gassed when compared to gasoline, Bolsen said that the Coskata process drives that down to an 96 percent reduction. The DOE is looking at two routes to cellulosic ethanol: either biochemical or thermochemical conversion process. Coskata, on the other hand, is in favor of a hybrid approach that uses the most efficient aspects of each process.

We'll be talking to Bolsen about the numbers behind the $1/gallon figure (which some people just do not believe) later in a one-on-one interview but one thing to remember is that the company figures it can get over 100 gallons of ethanol from each dry ton of biomass. Capital costs, estimated at $400 million U.S. for a 100 million gallon per year (mgpy) plant, are not included in the dollar a gallon number. By comparison, Bolsen had a chart that showed the enzymatic process costing $450-$700 for the plant with operating costs of $2-$5 per gallon. For a chemical process, the plant costs between $400-$700 and operating costs run $1.25-$2.50 per gallon.

To reach 36 billion gallons a year by 2022, we need to "hunt elephants," as Bolsen put it. He means we need to be building big biofuel plants. Coskata's plan is to start with 50 and 100 mgpy plants and then look at the possibility of bigger plants after these are up and running. An announcement about Coskata's first commercial plant will be made in the coming weeks. Listen (30 min):

Christopher Veit from Novozymes, Inc. was up second. His company's tagline is "making more with less." Novozyme is the largest supplier of enzymes to the "starch" fuel ethanol industry (i.e., corn ethanol), which is mostly a U.S.-based industry. But the company realizes that that there are other ways to make ethanol (they're at the cellulosic ethanol seminar, after all) and is looking at ways to turn some of the many types of biomass available around the world – bagasse, citrus peels, municipal waste streams, to name three example – into ethanol or "other value-added products." Novozyme's DECREASE project (that stands for Development of a Commercial-Ready Enzyme Application System for Ethanol) is a $25 million, two-and-a-half year project that uses $12.3 million in matching funds from the DOE. Novozymes is also researching how hemicellulose, the part that covers the cellulose in plants, affects ethanol production. If Novozymes can make the hydrolysis of hemicellulose easier and cheaper, that would help move cellulosic ethanol closer to commercial production.

Listen to Veit (22 min):

Finishing off the segment was Murray Burke of SunOpta. SunOpta has been making ethanol plants for three decades, so they're somewhat familiar with what's required to turn biomass (Burke kept calling the input material "fibers") into biofuel. Burke said that SunOpta has built ethanol plants in Europe that have a 1.5 mgpy capacity, and smaller ones in China (~300,000 gpy). The company's U.S. plants sit mostly in the middle. Larger plants (Bolsen's elephant hunters) need to be built near where the fiber is available and producers should contract current and future pricing for best effect. One challenging issue that Burke identified was organisms that work fine in a beaker but just can't cut it in larger, industrial-scale applications. So, to anyone out there who's working in a lab with dreams of using some newfangled bugs in a huge ethanol plant, have someone with great analytic skills double-check to make sure they'll work. Looking toward the future, things like new plant designs, simplifying the production process and increasing the scale of the plants will be ways to reduce costs. SunOpta plans to have a 10mgpy plant operational by 2010, with a 25-40 mgpy facility ready by 2012. That's not the upper limit, either. The final size is really only determined by the biomass that is available in the area where the plant is located.

Listen here (21 min):

Our travel and lodging for this event was provided by GM.

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