From Cole Gustafson, Biofuels Economist at NDSU Extension Service comes a story in the Western Farm Press that a US Department of Agriculture-funded study is developing new pricing and trading standards for cellulosic biomass feedstocks. A first step in the study is to identify the most promising feedstocks and the technologies employed to produce cellulosic biofuels.

The TDSU Extension Service has developed a database of current and planned biomass projects using commercial data published in several biofuel industry publications and by the U.S. Department of Energy. Projects were reviewed to assure progress was being made and the activity wasn’t just hype. In total, more than 100 different projects were included. Of these, there were more than 25 alternative technologies employed and as many feedstock sources.

The top five feedstocks and their production goals for 2015 were:

  • algae — 857 million gallons
  • palm, rapeseed oil and waste fat — 572 million gallons
  • palm waste — 316 million gallons
  • corn — 263 million gallons
  • municipal solid waste — 233 million gallons

Leading with respect to production and conversion technologies:

  • hydroprocessing  — 772 million gallons
  • algae fermentation — 750 million gallons
  • fermentation of feedstocks other than algae — 678 million gallons

Gustovsen and his researchers note that several interesting points can be made with this data:

  1. 2015 isn’t that far away, and production in their totals falls short of renewable fuel standard (No. 2) national goals for cellulosic biofuel production. Firms are going to have to accelerate research development, technology deployment and commercialization to achieve these goals. A significant hurdle is capital, which is only now starting to thaw.
  2. Economic reality is going to sort out the winners from the losers. While algae is at the top of the list, the feedstock recently has received several negative reviews, though perhaps not well informed, with respect to commercial viability and affordability. Trade policy also is going to have a huge effect on economics, especially for feedstocks such as palm, which are imported. NDSU’s view is that waste fats and solid waste offer a competitive advantage because of the low delivery cost.
  3. With technology alternatives ranked so closely, it is premature to anoint a winner. Continued refinement easily could result in reshuffled rankings
  4. The apparently low relationship between feedstock and technology implies that most feedstocks have potential, regardless of which technology evolves.