Articles, Blog

Bioenergy: America’s Energy Future

August 13, 2019

Bruce Nelson: We are the new kids on the block
and somebody has to be the first. Sara Volz: People think of algae as pond scum,
but algae could potentially be part of the solution to our
energy crises. Jonathan Wolfson: The world is addicted to
oil. I think we are really at that breaking point right now. Bruce Nelson: My grandpa came here in 1942.
I’m the 4th generation. I came back from playing ball, did
not know exactly what I wanted to do. I kind of came back here to figure it out. When you
get that dirt under your finger nails it’s hard to get it
out. It is true you know. Right now it’s a farmed with my dad
and my uncle. We farm about 2,800 acres. Anne Marie Nelson: Anytime when you’re in
an industry like we are, you are always looking for a way to
make more money. To have your cornstalks turn into a money market for you, that’s always
good. Bruce Nelson: About six years ago the local
ethanol plant was looking for farms to run this whole project
of corn stover, and harvesting it, and making it into cellulosic ethanol. So we were one
of the lucky ones that had a chance to tryout. Jonathan Male: As one looks at the supply
chain for bringing biofuels to fruition, you have at the
beginning the growing of the crops, and then the harvesting and preprocessing, and getting
them ready to go to a biorefinery such as Poet. There
is an enormous amount of logistics in gathering in the amount
of biomass that one needs to do a monthly consumption of a large biorefinery where you
have 20 million gallons per year capacity at that
plant when its fully on stream. Daron Wilson: So inside here are the grinders
that grind those bales that you see earlier. They grind it
into smaller pieces and then that conveyor brings the ground biomass up to what we call
the pretreatment process. That pretreatment process,
through temperature, time, water and PH, starts to
break down the biomass. These tanks you see here are called sacrification tanks. We take
the biomass that’s been ground and pretreated and enzymes
added at that point. That’s where the sugars start to
breakdown to a point where the yeast can start converting it to ethanol. Matt Merritt: The challenge has always been
how do we crack cellulose so we can get access to that
sugar and make it into energy. And through DOE we got a pretty significant grant to bring
this technology to commercial scale. Once these
first plants get going we really think that cellulosic ethanol
is something that is going to be able to expand to all part of the country and really all
parts of the world. The opportunity is there, the market is there,
we need to keep this momentum going. Bruce Nelson: We have a massive amount of
stover on our farms. It’s going to be here weather we are
producing cellulosic ethanol or not. We’ve been harvesting biostover in a renewable and
a sustainable way. Now we have a second cash crop. It’s
more jobs for the young farmers that are coming back to the
farm, and so I think there is going to be even more people getting on board. And that’s
what has to happen with this whole process. Sara Volz: I grew up in Colorado Springs.
I’ve lived here my whole life. Most of my friends, they were
into sports which I was not very good at. But in high school I was able to join the
science Olympiad team and the science bowl team, and I got really
involved in my research. I was basically looking for an idea
that had to do with chemistry or biology. And I also wanted an idea that addressed a
major global issue. I actually heard about people who were making
biodiesel that could go straight into diesel engine and
they were doing that all in their garage. And that idea fascinated me. A big problem
with biofuels is where are we actually getting this oil from.
That’s why I started looking at algae as an alternative oil
source. This is actually, we are under my bed right now. This set up, this lab was something
that I made the summer after my sophomore year of high
school with some supplies I borrowed from a local school.
I would spend all night doing some experiments on algae with a flashlight and a book if my
parents would let me. Sometimes they caught me. There
is a lot of really interesting new research into how we
can possibly increase algae’s oil production and make it a more feasible source of these
oils to be converted into fuel. That’s really where my
interest was. I wanted to see if there was a way that I could
impact the metabolism of the algae to try to make them over produce oil. Dr. Donald Veverka: There she is. How you
doing? Welcome back. It’s good to see you. She came to us
as a STEM student. There was very little ramp up or spin up time for Sara. She had done
her reading. Sara Volz: Here I work with some stress experiments.
The idea being that if you can stress these cells out
they can actually start produce more oil as a response to this environmental stimulus.
So I was looking at that effect so that I could compare it with
some of the research that I was doing at the lab setup I have
at home. Sara Volz: My senior year of high school I
won the top award at the Intel Science Talent Search for my
work using artificial selection to improve the oil content of algae for applications
in biofuels. Jonathan Male: She had a 200 percent increase
in productivity for algae species by doing selection
through the different species. It’s very exciting to see new scientists and engineers who care
passionately about the area of bioenergy. I’m sure there are hundreds, thousands of
other Sara Volz out there, and are on the cusp of finding out
how they can have a profound impact in the field of bioenergy
now and in the future. Dr. Donald Veverka: I had one young man who
told me when he got done with his research work here at
the Academy he said “Wow I am actually working with the stuff that I may one day I might
be placing in my jet that I will be flying.” That really
captured the whole idea and the essence of what we are trying
to do to promote this intellectual curiosity. Get these young men and women, interested
very early on in science, so that they have these opportunities
to go on, go onto college and learn the types of things
they need to advance these technologies. Sara Volz: I just finished my freshman year
at MIT. I really love it there. I think it’s a really great fit. I’m
doing some really cool research there. I really can’t think of a better fate than never leaving
school. Jonathan Wolfson: My cofounder and I have
been talking about how we can use biotechnology to
improve the planet and the environment since we were freshmen college in the late 80s.
After a lot of years and few degrees, and some other fits
and starts, we came out here in the early 2000s to build a
disruptive company. There were quite a few bumps along the way and our very original
technology , the way we were trying to grow algae to make oil,
didn’t really work well. Todd Pray: Making a project commercially viable
is a risky proposition. So we are here as a resource to
industry. Companies come to us with a test tube, with an idea, and we really help them
move on a tech- to-market trajectory. Department of Energy
invested over 20 million dollars in this facility. It’s flexible.
It’s state of the art. This is something that not every company can invest in, early on
especially. Jonathan Male: it’s important for public-private
partnerships to drive down the costs. Then once it’s
competitive, once it’s sustainable, set up for long term, it’s process control, it’s
robust. Then it can have a profound impact. Then it can have consumer
confidence. Jonathan Wolfson: What we realized is that
you can have a great idea, but the science may not follow
your great idea. Ultimately, you need to learn from what the science tells you and you need
to try, fail, make a change, try again, probably fail, make
a change, and then you start to make improvements because finally you find something that works.
Then you make a change and it gets better. Todd Pray: These are new technologies. You
really have to give yourself the time, the resources to
develop the technology to a point where you can integrate it, you can understand all the
variables and really reduce the risk of your project. Jonathan Wolfson: One of the great things
about being in California and Silicon Valley is that this is a
place where people follow the technology. We attract people who are looking to be out
there on the edge of innovation and are willing to fail
on a path to very big success. We’ve over the last more than
decade now managed to scale up the process of producing oils from micro algae to massive
scale and large volumes. We’ve been partnered with the
U.S. Navy since 2007, 2008 delivering larger and larger
quantities of fuels that meet there specifications to run their planes and their ships. Stephen Mayfield: We know that we can make
fuel from algae. We simply have to get algae cheap
enough that we can use it to fuel our cars and our trains and our planes. Jonathan Wolfson: People understand that there
are technologies that reduce their environmental footprint, but they don’t know where they
can get them. Women: I just like that it is saving the environment.
It’s made here and it’s 50 cents less than what the
regular gas is here. I’m sold. Jonathan Wolfson: When you can drive into
a gas station and fill your car up and drive around on it and
tell people about it. It’s probably the single best thing that can be done. Stephen Mayfield: The big picture is that
fossil fuels are a finite resource and climate change is real. And
those two things are overwhelming drivers for the world going forward. So we have to
have a sustainable solution that allows us to use
a fuel in a world in a way that we don’t just completely trash
the environment so the planet becomes unlivable. And then we need to continue to do the research
both on the biological side to make better strains and on the engineering side to make
that whole process more efficient. And I think all of
those things are going to come together in the next 4 or 5 years.
But they will only come together if people demand that we have low carbon fuels. Scott Atherton: Around 2005, 2006 we realized
that there was an opportunity here to introduce biofuels
into the united sports car championship to build a whole green racing platform. All of
the cars competing from Chevrolet, corvette, porche,
ferari, bmw, srt, dodge viper they are all competing with
that cellulosic E85. When you think about the source of our biofuels this is a domestic
product. This is putting people to work in our communities.
It is utilizing largely waste products that would otherwise be
filling up our landfills. All of those examples are good for our economy, for our environment,
for our communities, and really for the whole United
States. The small role we are playing in that gives us a lot
of pride. Branden Weaver: Underneath me here we have
a large amount of biomass. We push the wastewater through that. The biomass is cleaning the
wastewater and giving off this beneficial byproduct called
biogas that we push into these big balloons behind me here. About 12 or 13 hours a day
we are producing about 500 kilowatts of energy. On
an annual average we are producing about 14 percent of
New Belgium’s electrical demand with this byproduct from wastewater treatment process. Jonathan Male: Bioenergy is on the cusp of
greatness. We are beginning to see the first plants come
online, shake down, and produce significant volumes. We are seeing technologies come to
fruition. Jan Thijssen: We are making our plants small.
We are making them cost effective. We are making them
produce a fuel that can be used in any car in this country. Our investors include large
oil companies like Conaco Phillips and BP, General Electric,
Google. They have seen the promise of this technology. Taking
a waste biomass, turning it into a conventional fuel that can be used in conventional vehicles
and at a scale that doesn’t require the infrastructure. Jonathan Male: That’s jobs for manufacturers
who are harvesting up that biomass. That’s jobs for
scientists and engineers. And it’s home grown jobs and its new jobs. And it’s maintaining
the U.S.’s competitive advantage driving ultimately to
billions of gallons of biofuels.


  • Reply followthefleet1 September 6, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    I think all renewables have an important contribution to make to the whole greenhouse strategy, for each watt that they produce is a watt that doesn't need to generated, at the end of the grid. And kudos too, for efficiencies. But if we wish to eliminate greenhouse gasses altogether…which IS the prescription of climate scientists…then we must reconsider the plentiful, sustainable energy, of 4th gen, new-nuclear.

    The waterless, low pressure, sodium moderated, Integral Fast Reactors, can not melt down; recycle more than 99% of the own waste as fuel; and can not be used to make a bomb. Whatever renewables, like bio, and efficiencies, can NOT bring to the table, can be generated by these new-nuclear reactors. Humanity need to build 100 IFRs a year until 2050, to replace all fossil fuels….less, if they are bigger. And less, if any of the renewable energies, seriously pick up part the slack.

    The problem is, that on a growing planet with 70%, of a nine to ten billion world population, to be living in cities…and tens of millions entering the middle class for the first time…global energy usage is expected to double,..or even triple…by 2100.

    Realize this: We need to eliminate 80% of TODAY'S emissions by 2050. Let's get real. Cut the hype. Be a little humble. This will never get done with a policy of "renewables only". It's dangerously delusional to think this to be possible. Sad to say, the numbers just do not work for such a policy.

    Environmentalists like myself, are changing their minds on nuclear….4th gen, new-nuclear that is. The hard numbers show that we all must reconsider it. As Mark Lynas writes, and James Hansen supports, a green future needs nuclear power. 

  • Reply IndiaRockLovers September 30, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    the problem of energy is beyond profits its a necessity we need clean energy even if its EXPENSIVE.

  • Reply justwright021 December 18, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    This company has created a truly sustainable fuel. Check it out!! They need your help.

  • Reply Brad Steeg October 11, 2015 at 5:10 am

    Sara Voltz convinced me. Bioenergy is going to rule the world. I'd bet on algae hydrocarbon based rather than ethanol crop based.

  • Reply Jose Rodriguez November 20, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    Y haces

  • Reply Dave December 22, 2015 at 1:42 am

    Lame. By now, lots of people already know about the study by Alan Haney and Benjamin B. Kutscheid. 8,500 lbs of seed per acre will render 300 gallons of hemp seed oil twice per year. Since the US has around 194 million acres of currently subsidized lands just sitting idle, millions of farmers could create enough non toxic bio diesel to transition away from ground petroleum.

  • Reply Dave December 22, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    After thinking more about it, I believe there is one key question to ask:
    Why does humanity still allow energy production to remain under the control of a connected few?

  • Reply Justin Gamino January 13, 2016 at 4:25 am

    we can only hope that we can save the planet

  • Reply Alfredo Daniel Matias August 21, 2016 at 3:12 pm


  • Reply Talltrees84 December 8, 2016 at 2:57 am

    OPEC can undercut this. As short sighted as American politicians and the public is they will go for the short term benefits of lower cost gasoline and diesel. Short sighted being that this helps fund Middle East governments and billionaires that fund terrorism. I think ultimately the way to go is electric vehicles charged by solar energy.

  • Reply Justin Parrish November 16, 2017 at 3:19 am

    It would suprise me if it would be profitable once you figure the fertility removed through the organic matter leaving the field through baling the corn stover. It would have to be replaced through conventional fertilizers. It sounds unprofitable, but it might pencil out. Mark me down as a pessimist. The algae route sounds like it might be worth while from what little I've looked into it.

  • Reply Atlas Tobin March 19, 2018 at 4:01 am

    Biofuels and the meat industry are all a waste… it takes 600 pounds of grain to make a pound of beef…
    similar to biofuels…

  • Reply Van Vibhag May 29, 2018 at 6:07 am

  • Reply Google User July 19, 2018 at 12:06 pm


  • Reply KEV September 15, 2018 at 1:06 am

    Well that sucks! Solazyme has already changed their company name and given up bioenergy, and other bioenergy companies that aim to replace oil has struggled since 2012.

  • Reply Calvin Hutcherson October 14, 2018 at 11:34 am

    bitch chau i fuck ur mother

  • Reply christine cornish November 10, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    GMO algae? what are you fucking with now?

  • Reply Amedia November 25, 2018 at 3:43 am

    Canadabis eger to sell you crude oil what is your view on it

  • Reply Bolt XD February 20, 2019 at 4:57 am

    We should start saving fossil fuels RIGHT NOW!

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