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Ethanol from trash one step closer

Load of rubbish: Coskata's system uses proprietary micro-organisms and patented bioreactor design to turn trash straight from household bins into ethanol fuel.

Oz still on target to be second nation to make auto ethanol from household waste

26 Sep 2011

AUSTRALIA remains on target to become one of the world’s first nations to produce ethanol from household garbage, after domestic waste that would have headed to a Melbourne landfill was successfully transformed into the renewable automotive fuel.

Conducted in the US last month, the exercise was a crucial first test in the viability of an ambitious plan by an Australian consortium to establish a $300 million ethanol-from-rubbish plant outside Melbourne within three years.

The test was conducted by Coskata, the US biofuel company that plans to licence Flex Ethanol Australia to use its proprietary micro-organisms and patented bioreactor design to turn virtually any carbon-based waste material – including trash straight from household rubbish bins – into ethanol.

“They came over and we actually ran Australian-composed waste from Melbourne ... through our plant,” said Wes Bolsen, the chief marketing officer and vice-president of government affairs for Coskata.

“It was a very important test – for the consortium, for Coskata – because that gave us the data and information we needed to be confident on the commercial engineering design.

“The test was extremely successful. The organisms did exactly what we’ve always expected them to do, which was convert it directly into fuel-grade ethanol.

80 center imageLeft: Shots from Coskata's laboratory.

“The Coskata organism really doesn’t care what the material coming in is. We call it bug food and it’s really anything from waste – and that waste was composed from a lot of different things, from shredded tyres, wet nappies, food waste – what you’d see going into land fill.

“The great part about it is we’re not only putting out fuel that is going to be able to go into the Commodore and other vehicles, but you’re solving a waste problem at the same time.”Mr Bolsen, who spoke at the Australian Alternative Fuels Summit (AAFS) in Brisbane from August 29-31, told GoAuto that the first cellulosic ethanol plant outside North America remains on target for completion by 2014.

“That sounds about right given where we’re at in 2011,” he said.

“We now need the consortium to fully form up, and the engineering design on a project like this runs into the millions and can take as much as six months just to do the design of the plant.

“At that point, we’re running this just like you would any major capital project. There are stage gates along the way and, once you’ve completed the full engineering design and fund the entire project, it takes as much as two years to build and start up the facility. This is a multi-hundred-million-dollar refinery, so it takes time.”Mr Bolsen claimed that Victoria’s pioneering ethanol plant would be the most efficient in the world, but said its final location and cost – previously announced as $300 million – depended on the infrastructure available at one of the five sites currently under investigation.

“A lot of it is going to be site-dependent – what infrastructure and so forth is provided. We’ve got down to less than five sites that are vying for this facility, so you look at the infrastructure – the water, the electricity, the transportation – and that actually changes the capital cost.

“We expect this to be the lowest capital-cost cellulosic or non-grain-based biofuel facility in the world. Per gallon or litre, we believe we’re going to be directly competitive or more competitive than any other process.”GM Holden energy and environment director Richard Marshall would not reveal which sites are being considered for Australia’s first cellulosic ethanol plant.

“The final location depends on a range of factors and we’re evaluating those economics,” said Mr Marshall. “The evaluations we’re doing at the moment are for Victorian sites, but we can’t talk about specific sites.”However, Mr Bolsen indicated the ethanol refinery, which he said would benefit the local economy by creating an unspecified number of jobs, would likely be located in suburban Melbourne.

“It will be close enough to Melbourne to use Melbourne waste, so you’ve got to find the right sites that most effectively have the infrastructure,” said Mr Bolsen.

“In the US we even see areas of the city fighting over where the project goes. Chicago is looking to utilise the Coskata technology and the south side of the city has generally been the poorer side, so they’ve been fighting to get the project built there for that reason.”As well as presenting at the alternative fuels summit, Mr Bolsen was in Australia to meet with Flex Ethanol Australia consortium members including GM, and with governments at both state and federal level, including Australian industry minister Kim Carr and Australian resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson.

Asked whether the current Victorian government had shown the same level of support for the project, which was first announced in 2010, as the previous government, Mr Marshall said: “Funny you mention that. What we’re looking for from both state and federal governments is really just first of all some clarity, certainty, consistency and then some coordination between the various departments to ensure we don’t get one coming across the other.

“One of the things about this project is that, because it’s got so many benefits for so many different departments, you’d think it would make it easier, but it actually makes it more difficult.

“Upsides are the environment with its greenhouse gas advantage, fuel security, waste disposal and regional development because it’s a major project, so it’s going across a whole heap of different departments and that actually makes the project more complicated.

“What we’re looking for is consistency and coordination across those various departments. With any large beaurocracy, whether it’s a company or a government, with those sorts of things you’ve always got to make sure you’ve got a nice integrated approach and a clear vision of where you’re going.”Mr Bolsen said the Victorian facility would be a test-bed for a number of future non-grain-based ethanol plants to be built in other Australian states, many of which have already expressed interest.

“Queensland is very much interested in having facilities built especially for sugar cane waste (and) you’ve got the NSW government that would love to have additional biofuels being generated there, so I actually see this facility in Victoria as being a showcase.

“It will be something that the other states are going to come down to see and where the future operators of all the other future facilities will be trained, so this becomes a training ground if you will for multiple Coskata facilities that will be built in Australia.”Mr Bolsen said Coskata continued to pursue commercial projects in the US, where the government has set a biofuel mandate that includes 36 billion gallons by 2022, and where Coskata plans to open its first full-scale commercial plant in 2013.

Apart from Coskata’s Chicago pilot plant, the company has a semi-commercial demonstration plant outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and also plans to establish a 323 million-litre ethanol facility in Alabama using wood residue and biomass.

He said Coskata was also looking at partnerships in China and other parts of the globe, but that Australia’s would be among the first three cellulosic ethanol plants globally, with the first two likely to be built in the US as it strives to meet the government’s aggressive renewable fuel standard.

Mr Bolsen described the Victorian plant as a “showcase for the world” that would also have export opportunities.

“As this technology rolls out across Australia – not just here in Victoria – this could be a major exporter. Ethanol is going to be a long-term fuel, not a transitional fuel, so there will be a lot of demand around the globe for ethanol and I think we’re going to start exporting it from Australia and other places.”Asked if GM’s description of ethanol as only a near-term solution to reducing the world’s current reliance on petroleum would spell a limited lifespan for any Australian ethanol plant, Mr Marshall said: “Not at all”.

“What GM’s always said is that there are multiple solutions to the problem of petroleum dependence. It’s not about one single solution.

“I don’t believe we’ve ever said it was a near-term solution. We’ve said certainly it is the solution available right now that can make the biggest difference in the short term and that’s still true, and even in the longer-term – out to 2050 and beyond – petroleum will still be a significant chunk of the market, but there will be a whole range of other solutions, and biofuels will be one of them.”While Mr Marshall said he thought GM CEO Dan Akerson was referring more specifically to the situation in the US when he asserted recently that ethanol will “die slowly”, Mr Bolsen was more contradictory.

“I think the idea that ethanol’s going to go away is a fallacy by all means, given where the mandates are at as a renewable fuel standard, and where they’re going in terms of the vehicles.

“Even something like the Chevy Volt – that’s not an electric-only vehicle. You can drive it without a drop of gasoline for 40 miles or whatever, but its extended range is going to be biofuel-capable.

“The fuel isn’t going to go away. As a liquid transportation fuel, it depends on your definition of what near or long-term is, but 50 years is a longer-term solution. A plant like the one we’re going to build in Victoria usually has a 30-year life. We’ll be using every drop of fuel out of that plant for at least 30 years.”Mr Bolsen said the small number of E85 outlets in Australia (where just 30 have been established by consortium partner Caltex) and the declining number of E10 pumps in Queensland and Victoria has no effect on the viability of the plant because it will produce ethanol as cost-effectively as petrol.

“Our plant will be viable even with the existing (ethanol) market, because we can make fuel directly competitive with gasoline,” he said.

Major oil companies including BP and Shell are removing E10 fuel from their bowsers in Queensland and Victoria, citing a combination of factors including low demand and increased demand for diesel and premium unleaded fuel.

They also point to the NSW government mandate for E10 to account for six per cent of all petrol volume in that state as ethanol supplies decline following Cyclone Yasi and the January floods in Queensland, where two major ethanol suppliers produce the renewable transport fuel largely from feedstocks such as wheat grain, sorghum or by-products of the sugar cane industry.

Meanwhile, others including Caltex and independents like Neumann, Matilda and United are increasing their availability of E10, which other states are yet to mandate.

Mr Marshall said Holden did not support the use of mandates to increase the take-up of ethanol fuel, which have also been resisted by state motoring clubs including the RACQ on the basis that E10 fuel is not suitable for pre-1986 cars, power equipment and motorcycles.

While E10 is suitable for 80 per cent of vehicles on Australian roads and almost all new models are E10-compliant, few are E85-capable.

Saab was the first brand to offer E85-ready vehicles in Australia and has since been joined by Chrysler, while Holden became the first Australian manufacturer to introduce a locally built E85-compatible car when it launched the VE Series II Commodore range last September.

Mr Bolsen said that, although Coskata would like ethanol fuel to be available at every service station, E85 pumps did not need to be everywhere, despite the increased number of E85-capable vehicles.

“Everyone thinks you need (E85) ethanol at every pump. That’s not true at all. What you need is one in five or one in seven or so stations even in the long-term. People just need to know that they can fill up within a reasonable distance of their home.

“I think E10 pumps should be everywhere, as it is in the US, where we’re pushing E15. The EPA approved E15 in 2001 and 80 per cent of US vehicles can now take E15.

“Most of the auto-makers are starting to see that non-grain-based biofuels are going to be a leading fuel around the globe. And you have to because the Chinese government is starting to demand this as well. They know that they can’t become as dependent on oil as the US.

“The Brazilian government made a very strategic decision back in the oil crisis of the ’70s. Now every single vehicle sold can take up to 100 per cent ethanol there because of their climate, but there’s no reason why most vehicles should not be capable of taking up to 85 per cent ethanol.”

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