From Muppet Labs to Your Gas Tank: The Emerging Cellulosic Biofuel Industry

July 26, 2012
Jeremy Martin
Senior Scientist and Director of Fuels Policy

One of my role models, Dr. Bunson Honeydew, began each episode of the seminal series, Muppet Labs, by proclaiming, “Muppet Labs, where the future is being made today.”  Although society is still waiting for edible paperclips, electrical nose warmers, or magnetic carrots, the future is indeed being made today in the cellulosic biofuel industry.

Movin’ right along

Ineos Cellulosic Biofuel Plant, Vero Beach, FL

Once a laboratory pipe dream, companies are now ready to pump fuels made from municipal waste and fast-growing grasses into the market.  Ineos, for example, is nearing completion of a refinery in Florida that will produce millions of gallons of biofuel from yard, wood, and vegetative wastes. The picture at the right showed what it looked like in April.

Abengoa will begin producing fuel in Kansas from a mix of agricultural waste, non-feed energy crops, and wood waste in June 2013, and POET and DuPont are constructing cellulosic plants in Iowa.

UCS has created an interactive map showing where these multi-million dollar investments have put steel in the ground, created job in rural America, and are on the cusp of producing truly advanced fuels that achieve environmental benefits compared to traditional energy sources. Excited? You should be.

It ain’t easy being green

The federal government is excited too and recently highlighted this important progress at the Department of Energy’s annual Biomass Conference, which was held in Washington, D.C on July 10-11. After keynotes from Secretary Chu and Senator Chris Coons, I had the honor of being part of an expert panel on the future of the policies that are supporting progress commercializing these advanced biofuels.

There are also those (read: oil companies) who are not as excited about the commercialization of cellulosic biofuels and prefer Americans to fill our gas tanks with the status quo. Recent hearings in the House of Representatives have given trade groups such as the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute an opportunity to suggest the country forget about cleaner fuels, claiming cellulosic biofuels don’t exist – and have even sued the EPA over their 2011 cellulosic biofuel volume levels. EPA has actually been, if anything, too timid (as I explained in this blog).

Although scale-up of cellulosic biofuels has been slower than supporters had hoped when the Renewable Fuel Standard was enacted in late 2007—a delay caused by the tough economy and not, as some have claimed, by a failed technology—the drought in cellulosic production is about to end.

Which is nothing new

The problems with oil have been with us since I was rocking bell bottoms and trying to memorize the words to Rapper’s Delight during the Iran oil crisis in 1979. Transitioning away from the price spikes, pollution, security concerns, and climate change caused by oil use is not going to be quick or easy, but these problems are not going away without a commitment by industry, consumers, and the government to practical solutions. Cellulosic biofuels represent a real solution to oil use and are a major part of the UCS plan to cut projected oil use by half within the next twenty years.

We may still have to wait for Dr. Honeydew’s banana sharpener, but we don’t have to wait anymore for the commercialization of cellulosic biofuels. The future is truly being made today.