- Despite extensive research, biofuels are still not commercially competitive. The breakthroughs needed, revealed by recent science, may be tougher to realize than previously thought.
- Corn ethanol is widely produced because of subsidies, and it diverts massive tracts of farmland needed for food. Converting the cellulose in cornstalks, grasses and trees into biofuels is proving difficult and expensive. Algae that produce oils have not been grown at scale. And more advanced genetics are needed to successfully engineer synthetic microorganisms that excrete hydrocarbons.
- Some start-up companies are abandoning biofuels and are instead using the same processes to make higher-margin chemicals for products such as plastics or cosmetics.
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Range fuels was a risky but tantalizing bet. The high-tech start-up, begun by former Apple executive Mitch Mandich, attracted millions of dollars in private money plus commitments for up to $156 million in grants and loans from the U.S. government. The plan was to build a large biofuels plant in Soperton, Ga. Each day the facility would convert 1,000 tons of wood chips and waste from Georgia’s vast pulp and paper industry into 274,000 gallons of ethanol. “We selected Range Fuels as one of our partners in this effort,” said Samuel Bodman, then secretary of energy, at the groundbreaking ceremony in November 2007, “because we really believe that they are the cream of the crop.”
That crop has spoiled in the ground. Earlier this year Range Fuels closed its newly built biorefinery without selling a drop of ethanol. Turning biomass into a commercially viable, combustible liquid is tougher than anticipated, the company has found. As expensive equipment sits idle, the firm is searching for more funding to try to solve the problem.
This article was originally published with the title The False Promise of Biofuels.