Officials at two companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories say they are very close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of these so-called cellulosic biofuels, and others are predicting success in the months to come.
In Columbus, Miss., KiOR has spent more than $200 million on a plant that is supposed to mix shredded wood waste with a patented catalyst, powdered to talcumlike consistency. Its process does in a few seconds what takes nature millions of years: removes the oxygen from the biomass and converts the other main ingredients, hydrogen and carbon, into molecules that can then be processed into gasoline and diesel fuel.
At such plants, the goal is sometimes to make ethanol and sometimes gasoline or diesel fuel or their ingredients. The pathways to make the biofuels are varied. But the feedstocks have something in common: they are derived from plants and trees, but not from food crops like corn kernels, which are the basis of most of the biofuel currently made in the United States.
And, importantly, customers are already lining up, including FedEx and Chevron.
The holy grail is to find a way to profitably make renewable fuels from otherwise wasted biomass, as opposed to valuable food crops.
“If we can do it with biomass, then there is no more discussion of food versus fuel; it’s over,” Mr. Ortega [CEO of a Spanish company setting up a plant in Kansas] said.