What’s more, there are many unknowns about how well the thermochemical process will work when it comes to making commercial-scale quantities. Past attempts by scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to scale up thermochemical techniques showed that smaller systems that work well face problems when processing chambers are bigger. Also, plants operating at high temperatures and pressures tend to deteriorate quickly, adding to costs. The latter concern might be less of a problem now, however, says Steve Deutch, a senior research scientist at NREL, because of the more-resilient materials.
Thermochemical approaches to making biofuels, such as Range Fuels’ approach, also face competition from new biological methods that use enzymes and organisms to break down cellulose and produce ethanol. Indeed, in September, Mascoma, based in Cambridge, MA, announced that it would build a cellulosic plant in Monroe County, TN, that will make ethanol from switchgrass. At this point, it’s still not clear which approach will work best, because no commercial-scale plant of either type is operating. During the DOE’s funding earlier this year, the agency backed both thermochemical and biological approaches.
Ultimately, it’s still too soon to predict how successful early attempts like Range Fuels’ will be. “It’s hard to make money on the first one of anything,” says Lanny Schmidt, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota, who is also developing thermochemical methods for making biofuel. However, if the first plant works as well as Mandich hopes, the production of cellulosic fuel could quickly accelerate.
“Who knows how the economics will work out?” Schmidt says. “You have to build it and see what happens. It’s a wise move on DOE’s part to try different technologies, because no one knows at this point who’s going to be the winner.”