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Published July 27, 2010, 08:52 AM

Some biofuel supporters question ethanol’s future

Ethanol soon may be a relic, surpassed by other, better biofuels, some in the biomass industry say. Brian Jennings thinks that view is misguided.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Ethanol soon may be a relic, surpassed by other, better biofuels, some in the biomass industry say.

Brian Jennings thinks that view is misguided.

“Don’t try to trash ethanol made from corn,” Jennings, executive vice president of the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based American Coalition for Ethanol, says to those who think the future belongs to biofuels other than corn ethanol.

Unless corn ethanol succeeds on a broad scale, other biofuels will struggle to catch on, he says.

Jennings was among the speakers at Biomass ’10 July 20 and 21 in Grand Forks, N.D. In attendance were about 300 scientists, engineers, businesspeople and government officials from across the country and overseas.

Biomass is organic material made from plants and microorganisms. Biomass fuels, or biofuels, can come from a wide range of materials, including corn and other crops, wood and garbage.

Biofuel consumption in the United States is expected to increase, in part because of government mandates.

“We’re in good shape to see growth,” says Chris Zygarlicke, deputy associate director for research at the Energy & Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks.

America’s most prominent biofuel today is ethanol, virtually all of which comes from corn grown in the Midwest.

Biodiesel, which derives from vegetable oils such as soybean oil, also are a major biofuel.

Objections to ethanol

But there are major problems with ethanol and biodiesel, says Christopher Marshall, director for the Institute for Atom-Efficient Chemical Transformations, Chemical and Engineering Division, Argonne (Ill.) National Laboratory.

Those problems include the food vs. fuel issue — using corn and vegetable oils for fuel instead of food, he says.

America needs to turn to other, still-being-developed biofuels instead, he says

Sources of those other biofuels could include switchgrass and hybrid poplars, Marshall says

People who want to advance the next generation of biofuels, or the fuels that will follow ethanol and biodiesel, are hurting their cause by criticizing those two fuels, Jennings says.

“Guess what? Corn ethanol is going to pave the way for you to succeed,” he says.

Americans, long accustomed to petroleum, can be reluctant to use other fuels, he says.

Unless a viable market for ethanol is established, the next generation of biofuels won’t succeed, he says.

Jennings says the ethanol industry “spent way too much time and attention and resources on trying to figure out how to improve the production side of the process, and we neglected to work on the market access side and the demand for the product.”

“If you want to learn a lesson from the ‘inferior’ ethanol industry,” he says, “pay attention to the market. Pay attention to who’s going to use your product and how they’re going to use your product.”

The ethanol industry hopes the next generation of biofuels is successful, Jennings says.

“We don’t want to fight you. We want to work with you. But we need you to work with us, too,” he says.

Jennings’ remarks twice drew applause from the conference audience.

Many challenges

There are major challenges in establishing large-scale biofuel operations, says Mark Warner, vice president of Process Industries, part of Harris Group in Seattle.

The Harris Group is involved in a wide range of biofuel projects.

Warner, a registered professional engineer, says his viewpoint on commercializing biofuels is that of “an engineer in the trenches.”

Financing is one of the “cold, hard realities” facing proponents of large-scale biofuel operations, he says.

Difficulty in obtaining a consistent, affordable feedstock, or the raw material such as corn or switchgrass that’s turned into biofuel, is another big challenge, he says.

“Commodity markets can kill,” making long-term supply agreements crucial, he says.

The cost and level of difficulty in collecting various feedstocks and preparing them for conversion

into biofuel also need to be examined carefully, he says.

Advocates of various conversion processes often claim that their particular technology is “feedstock agnostic,” which means it works equally well on different types of raw material, Warner says.

But those claims can be overemphasized, he says.