EDF’s Innovators Series profiles companies and people across California with bold solutions to reduce carbon pollution and help the state meet the goals of AB 32. Each addition to the series will profile a different solution, focused on the development of new technologies and ideas.
The vast majority of Californians put ethanol in their car – it makes up about ten percent of every gallon we buy at the local filling station (not including diesel). This means that every year, drivers in the Golden State use about 1.5 billion gallons of this alternative fuel. Such widespread use of this fuel begs the question: What is ethanol’s environmental profile, and is everything being done to produce it as efficiently as possible?
Over the years, a great deal of effort has gone into answering the first part of the question, and the answer is: it depends on many factors. Water use, land use, and fertilizer use are all factors associated with growing ethanol feedstocks (typically corn) that can influence whether the fuel is an environmental winner. Aquifer depletion, unsustainable land clearing, and fertilizer run-off are just a few of the potential problems that can emerge when ethanol production is performed in a short-sighted manner. Similarly, feedstock type, biorefinery efficiency, and ethanol yield per ton also matter and can impact whether ethanol helps from a climate change standpoint. Cumulatively, each of these factors can influence the environmental profile of California’s third-most widely used fuel.
While minds may differ on how the total environmental costs and benefits of ethanol stack up, there are some companies like Visalia, California-based Edeniq who are stepping up to answer the second part of the question, delivering innovative techniques to produce ethanol as efficiently as possible.
Historically, corn ethanol production was accomplished by fermenting the starch part of the corn kernel, with the ancillary biomass byproducts – the remaining protein, fat, fiber, and other nutrients – often getting processed into livestock and poultry feed.
Today, however, through products like those offered by Edeniq, more of the corn can be used, making it possible to produce ethanol that requires less corn plantings and could prove to be a lower carbon fuel. And, if breakthroughs being developed by Edeniq are fully realized, the company might just crack the code on the next big California-based innovation to transform the transportation fuel industry.
Take, for example, the Edeniq Cellunator – a specially designed, industrial-grade grinder that is integrated into existing corn ethanol plants and chews up corn biomass (starch and fiber) to allow ethanol plants to process a larger percent of the corn plant. The Cellunator often works in conjunction with the company’s PATHWAY enzyme platform, which can convert corn starch and corn fiber into useable ethanol. Finally, Edeniq’s bolt-on cellulosic technology (currently in pilot form) can allow existing ethanol plants to be modified into facilities that can also produce cellulosic ethanol – breaking down biomass like corn stover and turning it into cellulosic sugar for further processing into fuel.
What does all this technology and innovation add up to? Edeniq’s technology looks to be an incremental, yet major step towards breaking open a market for cellulosic ethanol – one that fuel producers have long sought. If ethanol producers can take advantage of more parts of the corn plant and earn accreditation by the California Air Resources Board – the process of producing ethanol can also be certified as lower carbon and earn credits under regulations like the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS).
In addition to reducing the need for new land to be planted to increase yield, Edeniq’s technology enables ethanol companies to increase production volumes without the high cost of building additional infrastructure. According to Brian Thome, CEO of Edeniq, this is a key solution to what is often seen as an insurmountable problem. “Over the past ten years, capital cost has been the largest barrier to adoption of next generation fuels. Our customers want to operate profitable and sustainable biorefineries, and we think this will require innovative, capital-efficient technologies like PATHWAY. Producing cellulosic ethanol in California doesn’t require hundreds of millions in investment. It can be accomplished with the infrastructure that we already have in place.”
Edeniq isn’t going it alone however, and partners with companies like California-based Pacific Ethanol (which has used the Cellunator and is planning to add PATHWAY) to produce alternative fuels. After full installation, Edeniq predicts that Pacific Ethanol will be able to produce an additional 1.8 million gallons of ethanol, using less feedstock.
“We have installed the Edeniq Cellunator at our Stockton, California plant to increase efficiency and production yield,” says Paul Koehler,* Vice President of Corporate Development at Pacific Ethanol. “With the addition of specialty enzymes such as the PATHWAY we soon expect to begin producing cellulosic ethanol from the fiber portion of the corn kernel. We are pleased that Edeniq has obtained an approved low carbon cellulosic pathway from the EPA. The ethanol produced will meet increasing low carbon fuel standards and RFS obligations.”
As California transitions to a cleaner fuel system, given the impending expansion of the cap-and-trade program to include fuels, as well as the LCFS, innovative companies like Edeniq will see an increased role in the market as they facilitate what could prove to be a low-cost and lower carbon way to increase biofuel production with less waste.
Please note that EDF has a standing corporate donation policy and we accept no funding from companies or organizations featured in this series. Furthermore, the EDF California Innovators Series is in no way an official endorsement of the people or organizations featured, or their business models and practices.
*Despite having the same, undeniably great last name, Mr. Koehler is no relation to the author.