Green Biz Roundtable Highlights Biofuel

Tim Erdman, board member of CAPCO program company Virent, spoke about biofuels development at this month’s Green Biz Roundtable:

Nearly 50 people packed into the Wilkinson Library’s program room Friday morning for December’s Green Biz Roundtable. This month’s talk, delivered by Virent, Inc. board member Tim Erdman, focused on biofuels development. Erdman, who has a long history of renewable energy development in Telluride and elsewhere, excitedly related the possibility of producing a fuel cheaper, more efficient and more environmentally friendly than anything available today.

The kicker: He believes Virent is poised to produce the sugar-based fuel on a large scale soon.

“What makes [our fuel] better than gasoline?” he asked the audience. “Any molecule you can make from petroleum, short of the heavy tars and asphalts, we can make out of sugar.”

Erdman said that Virent, which until now has functioned mainly as a research and development firm, started out using sugar beets as a feedstock, but has expanded its saccharine repertoire to include a wide variety of simple sugars. The Madison, Wis.-based company can now process conventional feedstocks — such as sugar beets, corn starch, sugar cane, and sweet sorghum — and cellulosic feedstocks made from post production sugarcane and cornstalk waste and wood from trees removed during forest management, into diesel, gasoline, jet fuel and plastic.

When the Department of Energy tested Virent’s jet fuel at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio, recently, Erdman said the agency counted it as one of the best fuels it had ever tested. But in order to buy the fuel, DOE requires that Virent has the capacity to produce the fuel in volumes of hundreds of thousands of gallons.

“Shell [Oil] got very excited about our [plant-based gasoline] when they tested it and it came back at 102 octane,” Erdman said, explaining that the company’s Formula 1 cars could benefit from the biogas’s higher energy coefficient. Since 2008, Formula 1 has required that its competition cars be run on a fuel mixture containing at least 5.75 percent biofuel. “With this gasoline, they can use fewer gallons of fuel to achieve the same amount of power.”

As far as renewable energy goes, Erdman is an old hand in Telluride, having served in the late ‘70s as an energy consultant for the Telluride R-1 School District. In 1978, DOE awarded him a National Solar Demonstration Grant for construction of the district’s passive-hybrid solar unit on the former middle/high school.

Although former President Ronald Reagan scrapped his predecessor’s rooftop solar panel array when he moved into the White House in 1981, Erdman’s array on the Telluride school lasted until the late ‘80s. Erstwhile, Erdman hasn’t lost his passion for solar projects, and along with a group of whom he said are very methodical engineers, has developed a type of prism making spectral separation of light more precise. The result has been a more efficient solar panel that, as tested by a NASA laboratory, can produce 50 percent efficiency, or about 100 BTUs per square foot per hour. He estimates the total cost of energy from the new technology to be about 31 cents per watt, compared with a 2 or 3 dollar per watt cost on today’s solar technology.

But where Virent hopes to gain a lot of its revenue is through production of a plant-based plastic called para-xylene. Made from plant aromatics normally used in bio-gasoline manufacturing, the material has caught the attention of Dasani Water, a mammoth distributor of bottled water products. Erdman said that Shell Oil had originally expressed interest in backing Virent’s plastic production scheme, to the tune of a 100 million gallon per year plan. They ended up retreating from the potential deal, but Erdman said they’re still negotiating with the multinational giant.

“What Shell really wants is cellulose diesel fuel,” Erdman said. “We are playing in an arena that’s full of behemoths, and we’re not naïve about it.”

He was quick to point out that Virent is steering clear of government subsidies, in an attempt to right some of the wrongs inherent in the oil and plastics industries today.

“The issue in this country is that we’ve got no energy policy to speak of,” Erdman said. “Our energy policy is a farm and oil subsidy, and does nothing to help biofuels and renewable energy.”

Erdman estimated Virent’s per-gallon cost for its bio-gasoline to be in the 3-dollar range, but said that large-scale production could bring the price down.

“It has to be competitive with oil,” he said. “People aren’t going to pay a dime extra for a green-based product.”

Read the original article on Telluride Daily Planet.