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The False Promise of Biofuels

The breakthroughs needed to replace oil with plant-based fuels are proving difficult to achieve
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Photograph by Levi Brown

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.

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