Yet another woody biomass project is the recipient of a Department of Energy biofuel grant made in December 2009. Logos Technologies based in Visalia, CA proposes to use switchgrass and woody biomass for - you guessed it - ethanol production. The DOE is giving Logos $20.4 million, to which Logos must match with $5.1 million of its own money. It is apparently not a concern that other ethanol producers such as Green Plains Renewable Energy, Inc. (GPRE) are struggling to maintain profitability or that others such as VeraSun (VSUNQ: PK) have gone out of business altogether.
Coming up with its share should not be a problem as Logos also received $19.6 million from the Department of Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in April 2009 to produce fully compatible jet fuel from cellulose. At the time Logos estimated the entire project would cost $38.0 million. Adding the two grants together plus the company’s pledge, brings the total budget to $45.1 million.
Why is Logos so successful in winning government financial support? Is it exceptional technological knowhow, a cutting edge process that renders other ethanol producers obsolete? No and again no. Logos is a self-described “small business serving customers across a broad range of technologies and services including biofuel research, advanced nuclear engineering, and system design and integration.” In other words, they are good at grant writing.
To “switch” grass to jet fuel, Logos has assembled whole team of parties. EdeniQ, Inc. will provide its proprietary technologies, trademarked the Cellunator. This is essentially a mechanical pretreatment process coupled with advanced enzymes for conversion of cellulose to sugars, and high-yielding yeasts to ferment the sugars to ethanol. If this sounds familiar it is because nearly every cellulosic ethanol project involves some proprietary soup for which a key ingredient of an enzymes or two that converts the woody part of the plant to sugars that can then be put through the very same fermentation process that the God gave us all.
There are a number of other players involved. The Logos team includes Novozymes (enzymes), Ceres (switchgrass), NextStep Biofuels (pelletized corn stover), USDA Forest Products Laboratories (yeast R&D), and U. California-Davis (greenhouse gas emissions analysis). Apparently it takes a village to make ethanol.
I have grown irritable since beginning this series on the recipients of DOE renewable energy grants. I am increasingly suspicious that the DOE was not so concerned about financing any real breakthrough in renewable energy. On the surface it appears the DOE was it simply getting money out the door to whoever happened to apply and had a loud-voiced Congressman.
A few years back a very smart engineer explained to me that science alone did not put U.S. astronauts into space. It took the will to succeed and the gumption to spend massive sums of money. He explained that the country’s energy problems could be resolved with science, but that it would take the same will to succeed and gumption to spend. The DOE is spending alright, but what science is going to actually come out of these grants?