Tackling the Challenges of Producing Biofuels from Cellulosic Biomass

New York Times
September 27, 2011

A Way to Make Motor Fuel Out of Wood? Add Water
Matthew L. Wald

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) adopted very ambitious targets for producing the “next generation” of biofuels, or advanced biofuels, which use cellulosic biomass (wood chips, switchgrass and the nonedible parts of crops) rather than corn as the feedstock. The purpose of EISA is to reduce the nation’s dependence on oil imports for gasoline in favor of cleaner-burning and less expensive sources of energy, and to promote development of renewable fuels, unlike corn-based ethanol, that do not involve diverting resources away from food production (or result in increased food prices). While the mandates in EISA provide the guaranteed market to promote the development of advanced biofuels, it has been very difficult to develop the technology to achieve the levels of biofuels production required by EISA. This article by Matthew Wald of the New York Times describes a process being developed by a company, Renmatix, which treats the cellulosic biomass with compressed water heated to very high temperatures. (Renmatix is moving from Georgia to King of Prussia, PA, to put the company closer to the heart of the U.S. chemical and refining industry.) Renmatix transforms the wood waste into useful sugars, which would be converted by other companies into motor fuels. The challenge now is to see if the process can be scaled up to achieve commercial quantities, and at a reasonable cost.