Sunday, January 13, 2008

GM aligns with Coskata on cellulosic ethanol; good plan or Exxon's Reliance re-visited?

James R. Healey of USA TODAY reports: General Motors (GM) says it is investing in a fledgling company that claims its secret process could be able to make ethanol from waste in large quantity as soon as 2010 for $1 a gallon or less, half the cost of making gasoline.

Bill Roe, CEO of 18-month-old ethanol maker Coskata, says the company's process uses bacteria developed at the University of Oklahoma and existing gasification technology to generate 99.7% pure ethanol, plus water. He says the method should leapfrog cellulosic production, which has been seen as the next step from today's ethanol production using corn.

GM won't disclose its investment, but Roe says it's enough to make Coskata "a speed-to-market play. I don't think most people saw this coming," he says. "Most talk about cellulosic ethanol is futuristic."

IPBiz: secret process? Other reporters [below] determined that the process involved
gasification of a feedstock (containing carbon and hydrogen) to form carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which bacteria convert to ethanol.

A pilot plant is coming -->

Roe pledges to be operating a 40,000-gallon-per-year pilot plant this year and to line up partnerships with other companies to build $400 million facilities that each could produce 100 million gallons a year as soon as late 2010. The USA uses 140 billion gallons of gasoline a year.

There is controversy over a study from Stanford University [remember the awful Baker study on stem cell research?]-->

A study from Stanford University's civil and environmental engineering department, updated last year, says E85-fueled vehicles increase ozone levels, and a shift to 100% E85 fuel could boost U.S. respiratory deaths by about 185 per year. The author, professor Mark Jacobson, says "E85 may be a greater overall public health risk than gasoline."

GM spokesman Alan Adler says the automaker believes the report is wrong and says it has joined some environmental, pro-ethanol and health groups to call for a working group to seek consensus on ethanol health effects.

GM says it also has asked Jacobson to revise the work. Jacobson says he's never had such a request: "What they're saying is absolutely false." He says his conclusions, partly based on data from GM and other automakers, are conservative.

AP reported on the matter in the following way:

Coskata's three-step system — sending feedstock through gasification, a bioreactor and an ethanol recovery process — uses proprietary microorganisms and patented bioreactor designs that it is fine-tuning in its offices and laboratories in a Warrenville office park. It says the process is more energy-efficient than existing methods and will enable fuel to be made from a variety of non-food sources, even old tires.

The company says it can make more than 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of dry material, uses a third to a quarter the amount of fresh water for ethanol today and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 84 percent compared with conventional gasoline.

"We think that the Coskata process brings the first practical cellulosic opportunity to the market," said GM's Mark Maher, executive director of powertrain integration.

BusinessWeek got more into the details of the chemistry:

GM and Coskata think they can change the economics of ethanol. The company's process cooks agricultural waste, old tires, wood, and household garbage at 1,800 degrees. Then bacteria eat the carbon monoxide and hydrogen to make ethanol, says Bill Roe, Coskata's president and CEO.

He claims that one unit of energy can produce 7.7 units of energy, which is far more efficient than using corn. The cost for production is about $1 per gallon.

Coskata is located in Warrenville, Illinois. Healey noted: Coskata was founded July 2006 with backing from Khosla Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures and Great Point Ventures.

The Detroit Free Press noted:

GM unveiled a deal at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit today [Jan. 13] with Coskata Inc., saying it would take an undisclosed stake in the firm and help develop its ethanol process. Coskata plans to have its first ethanol plant running by the end of the year, with GM as its first customer.

While the ethanol industry hit a record output of 6.2 billion gallons, it also faced its first political backlash. Ranchers blamed the industry for boosting the price of corn to record levels and driving up food costs. Activists in many cities fought new or expanding plants over environmental concerns such as water use, air pollution and safety.

The energy bill signed by President George W. Bush last month reflects those politics. It sets a new target for ethanol production of 36 billion gallons by 2022 – but requires that 21 billion gallons come from sources other than corn.

Coskata is a tiny firm of about 35 people in Warrensville, a suburb of Chicago. Founded in 2006, the company was funded by several venture capitalists who have focused on ethanol and other new energy sources, including tech billionaire Vinod Khosla.

Its process is built around synthesis gas or syngas, a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen emitted when plants, wood or other carbon-containing materials are broken down at high temperatures. That type of gas has been used for centuries as an energy source – it powered gas streetlights in many cities – before natural gas became widely available.

The real trick at Coskata comes from bacteria, specifically, five varieties the company calls its “thoroughbreds.” Found by researchers from Oklahoma and Oklahoma State universities from muck in a waste lagoon, the bacteria naturally generate ethanol and similar chemicals from syngas.

The bacteria are grown on a series of straws as thin as a human hair, made from a filter fabric. The gas flows through the inside of the straws, while water is pumped along the outside, and the straws allow the bacteria access to both. The bugs convert the syngas to ethanol, keep a little for themselves to reproduce, and the water carries the fuel away.

Coskata engineers say their bacteria are about 90% efficient at converting gas – a rate that leapfrogs the firm over its competitors. The final product costs less than $1 per gallon, about half that of gasoline, including the capital costs of building a full-scale plant.

The system can convert one ton of raw material into more than 100 gallons of ethanol, while competing firms struggle to get 70 gallons a ton, and the U.S. Department of Energy doesn’t expect the industry to hit 100 gallons before 2020.

The process has several other benefits. While corn ethanol plants use roughly four gallons of water for every gallon of ethanol, Coskata uses less than a gallon of water. The E85 fuel derived from Coskata’s ethanol releases 84% less carbon than a gallon of gasoline. And because its filters are held in large plastic cylinders, the company believes it can easily scale its system to 100 million gallons a year or more.

Coskata plans to have a 40,000-gallon a year pilot plant open by the end of the year, with the first fuel powering vehicles at GM’s proving ground in Milford. Before the end of the year, Coskata also plans to break ground on a full-size 100-million gallon plant that it wants to open by 2010. Locations for both plants have not been determined.

GM engineers said Coskata’s process has worldwide appeal. Because it can easily adapt to different raw materials and can run cheaply, GM could help the company expand into emerging markets such as China and Russia where growing auto industries are confronted with global warming worries and energy scarcity.

Of relevant patent applications, note published US application 20070275447, based on filed US application 11/441392, to inventors Randy S. Lewis, Ralph S. Tanner, and Raymond L. Huhnke which is titled: Indirect or direct fermentation of biomass to fuel alcohol. Note within the application -->

This invention was made using funds from grants from the United States Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service having grant numbers 2001-34447-10302, 2002-34447-11908, 2003-34447-13162, 2004-34447-14487, and 2005-34447-15711. The United States government may have certain rights in this invention.

The first claim of the application states:

A biologically pure culture of the microorganism Clostridium carboxidivorans having all of the identifying characteristics of ATCC No. BAA-624.

The fifth claim states:

A system for producing ethanol, comprising a vessel in which a source of CO is combined with Clostridium carboxidivorans; anda controller which controls conditions in said vessel which permit said Clostridium carboxidivorans to convert said CO to ethanol.

An IDS was filed on 3 July 2007.

***Of bioreactor design -->

Clayton B. Cornell notes:

Coskata’s other key technology is a proprietary bioreactor system. Their patented organisms live in a colony called a ‘biofilm’, which coats the surface of a thin, semi-permeable membrane likened to Gortex. Each membrane is about the width of a human hair and shaped like a straw, which allows syngas to flow freely through the hollow interior. The hair-thin straws are clumped together into several-inch thick tubes, and are housed in large, water-filled cylinder. Water can’t flow into the straw, and syngas can’t flow out unless it interacts with part of the biofilm. This design is extremely effective, because it prevents dilution of syngas and increases bacterial surface area. Bacteria don’t have to work to ‘find’ syngas, as they would if they were floating in an unstructured mixture.

Clayton also says that GO Media Writer Philip Proefrock is writing about the reactor.


Gigaom has a piece Ethanol Startup Coskata Comes Out of Stealth Mode which includes a link to other info:

Coskata was founded in July 2006 with a Series A investment of $10 million from Khosla Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures and Great Point Ventures. GM’s recent equity stake in the company comes as part of the company’s Series B round. The companies won’t disclose the size of GM’s investment but they say it is not a controlling stake.

Coskata’s methods, surprisingly enough, aren’t that revolutionary — they’re mostly a smart combination of techniques that have been used before. But its secret sauce is the micro-organisms it has developed that produce ethanol, as well as the bioreactor where the organisms live and get the work done. [IPBiz: the "secret sauce" is disclosed in a published patent application]

The bacteria live on the inside of hollow fiber membranes in a long tube filled with water. (See photo). The company recovers the ethanol when it reaches a certain level in the water. Different rooms in the demo facility were dedicated to sustaining the bacteria at different levels of its life, from “incubation” to “geriatric phase” as Dick Tobey, vice president of R&D/engineering, explained on the tour (in the photo).


Like Range Fuels, the company is also getting close to producing at a commercial scale. They plan to finish their pilot project at the headquarters by the end of January, and scale up to a 40,000-gallon demonstration facility by the end of the year. They are also working on a 100 million-gallon-per-year facility somewhere in the U.S., which they hope will go online by early 2011.

As far as cleantech startup launches go, this was a big one — the company and GM put a lot of effort into getting journalists out to the headquarters (we paid for our own trip). The flashy launch could be due to the major news that GM is involved or the fact that it’s a Vinod Khosla biofuel investment.


The i r squared blog writes:

My guess is that unless they found someone to pay a steep tipping fee to get them to take biomass, there is nowhere in the world that they will be able to make ethanol via gasification for under $1/gal.

I am not trying to be a naysayer - and I wish them all the luck in the world - but we heard all this before with TDP - and we know how that turned out. Often if you haven't built a plant, you tend to underestimate your costs. My prediction is that this is what they will discover as they scale up. But even if they can produce ethanol from gasification at $2/gal, in the long run that will be pretty good.


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