Puncturing the myth of 14X improvement in biofuels

Jim Lane was demonstrating some of his usual skepticism when he took on the story of a 14X improvement in the production of biofuels last week.

The story began with an item in Renewable Energy World, Green Car Congress and several other publications. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a report on its website stating that a bacterium had been discovered that processed biofuel from cellulose material at 14 times the rate of previously used bacteria.

Lane starts with an apology as to why Biofuels Digest didn’t get too excited about this announcement.

You may have wondered why the discovery was not also hailed in The Digest this week, and on the topic there’s good and bad news, friends.

The good news is that such an enzyme exists, though it doesn’t quite perform at the 14X level and isn’t out of the lab yet. The bad news is that the research that inspired the article actually was published in Science in 2013. Sorry, folks, not a new breakthrough.

First, Lane takes these publications to school for a little elementary arithmetic. The articles said that the new microbe “revealed twice the total sugar conversion in two days” that the present microbe “usually produced in seven.” But as Lane points out, that means it’s 7X as effective, not 14X. But “What does it matter,” he says. “Two of the stubborn problems in converting cellulose to fuels have been the cost of enzymes and the capex [capital expenditures] associated with the technology.” Neither problem is really addressed by the new enzyme.

Actually, the new enzyme – caldicellulosedisruptor bescii, which was discovered in a region of hot springs and land on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula — does hold some promise. Because they are so tolerant of heat (up to 193 degrees F), they promise to eliminate the pretreatment of cellulosic material, which would mean a huge saving in processing. Almost half the cost of reducing cellulosic material to sugars comes in pre-treatment. The trick will be getting the process that has been demonstrated in the lab to be repeated on a commercial scale. “Let’s locate all of this where it is, which is in the lab. Which is about 10 years from appearing in an at-scale process somewhere, you average out the timelines for bringing processes based on other microbes to full commercial scale.”

Which is to say, no one has shown that these results can be achieved in a 500 liter fermenter, much less a million liter monster as we see in commercial scale operations. There’s going to be, lime, zero knowledge at this stage about the behavior of these microbes in a fermenter under the incomplete mixing conditions that almost invariably are found at scale.

So, let’s keep the risks in mind, and the timelines, too – even as we hail a genuinely promising and fascinating scientific advance.

Lane has some quiet optimism about the process itself. He isn’t as entirely cynical as he would let on.

There has indeed been some research showing that the CelA bacteria can handle large quantities of cellulosic material in a commercial setting. As BioDigest reported last year, “a group of researchers led by the University of Georgia’s Mike Adams demonstrated that caldicellolusiruptor could “without pretreatment, break down biomass, including lignin, and release sugars for biofuels and chemicals production.” The group wrote in Energy & Environmental Science that “the majority (85%) of insoluble switchgrass biomass that had not been previously chemically treated was degraded at 78 °C by the anaerobic bacterium Caldicellulosiruptor bescii.)”

Digesting switchgrass and other cellulosic material into sugars — which can easily be converted to ethanol — would be a huge advance, even if it took ten years to bring into play. Even if it’s not the miracle that some have touted, it’s a huge advance. The question of which publication broke the story first will fade, and we’ll soon know if the new bacteria really can help us turn seemingly intractable vegetable material into a useful fuel.

Ruminations on oil donations, foreign nations and replacement fuels

The “Old Gray Lady,” The New York Times, did it again….its recent article indicating the extent of government funds from foreign countries supporting so-called independent think tanks and universities in the U.S. was enlightening and was also clearly in the public interest. Most of us policy wonks suspected or knew what the Times indicated on September 7. “More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities…” The money is transforming the once-staid, think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign government’s lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom — some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government that is financing the research.” In this context, NATO, European, Middle East and Asian nations (e.g., Norway, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Japan, etc.) have been visible funders according to the Times and other media..

Before readers become holier than thou about the perception of perversion in foreign governments that link their support to what they want done regarding research and lobbying (implicit, if not explicit), they should know that the grant system in the U.S., in general, is not free of, at times, donor efforts to influence and/or sometimes pressure, whether it involves foreign governments, all levels of government in the U.S, business or foundation grants. Both have been and will remain the way of doing business.

I suspect attempts to influence or pressure research institutions or scholars are sometimes worse in social science research than in the sciences or engineering, where data, analysis and results can often claim at least some visible and quantifiable correlation or causation relationships. A donor’s ideological commitments also may predetermine and lessen the need for donors to try to negotiate the outcomes of grants or gifts. Not many liberal academics will apply for research money from the Koch Family Foundations, not many conservatives will likely go to the George Soros Open Society Foundations (OSF) for money.

Life is complicated for donors and recipients. Free speech and the free flow of ideas are embedded in the U.S. creed and the nation’s constitution. Truth in advertising in research grants and their products, a mythological spin-off, is often muted by the overwhelming influence and importance of money and the need for it, in light of fund shortages. However, the American public, for the most part, cannot easily separate the respected status of the Brookings Institution, the University of California, the Center For Global Development, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, etc. from their willingness to accept what seem clearly donor advocacy grants and subsequently to participate in what appears, to many, to be advocacy research and lobbying. The involved leaders, not always the researchers, of recipient institutions will deny the fact that research money sometimes comes with a price concerning legal, moral and often spoken words in grantor testimonials or contracts concerning obligations to search for the truth and increase wisdom concerning policy and program options.

Oil and oil-related companies and Middle Eastern nations seem now to be among the biggest givers and perhaps receive the biggest “take back” benefits. They fund schools and centers as well as analyses in and at major universities and independent think tanks, both within and outside universities. They have also funded “independent” scholars, chairs and specific RFPs (Request for Proposals) describing general and sometimes relatively specific areas of energy or transportation and fuel-related research. Significant oil and foreign money for policy-related research is also funded through third-party groups, which often mask the source of donations. Donors, understandably, expect benefits from supported research — at least consistency with and, in some cases, advocacy for their economic, social welfare and environmental objectives.

Perhaps one of the more egregious relationships concerning policy or program research involved the Coordinating Research Council (CRC), generally a mouthpiece of and also funded by the oil and automotive industry. Its relatively recent study debunking of E15 reflected the views of their sponsors — again the oil and auto industries. It indicated that E15 significantly harmed engines of many vehicle classes. The study was legitimately criticized by the EPA and others concerning methodology and content. Indeed, it and its implications concerning use of E15, was refuted in part or whole by the EPA’s more extensive analyses, by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and by other respected groups and individuals, some even associated with the auto industry. CRC’s efforts stimulated analyses and similar findings by groups like AAA— again based on even weaker methodology and unknown funding (likely mostly membership dues). Critics have pointed to AAA’s tenuous policy links to members and its long-time support by and of the auto and oil industries. Remember, more cars result in more gasoline use and increased ownership secures more AAA memberships.

Forget the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the proponents and critics of research concerning E15, or for that matter E85. At most times, policy choices and behavior are not based on perfection concerning data and analysis.

What concerns me the most is the predominance of oil and its friends’ money and the lack of transparency concerning funding sources and grant and gift requirements or constraints — both informal and formal.

Like the Times, I am also concerned about the dividing line between education and lobbying concerning grants and gifts provided by oil companies and, foreign nations. Lobbyists are required to register as such. Most think tanks and universities do not see themselves as lobbyists and do not register.

Industry, some foundation and even government-supported research grants sometime come with strings attached. Even if they didn’t, the results of paid research into complex issues are generally not conclusive and can be helpful in stimulating dialogue, if it’s matched by research initiatives funded by donors with different perceptions. Bad, or mediocre research funded by advocates, like speech, shouldn’t be countered by censorship, but by efforts to execute better research and by initiatives to provide to policymakers and the public with countervailing views and analysis to generate dialogue and debate.

I am not a purist. There is no chance in hell that the basic system of what I call advocacy grants and gifts now in existence will end. But public policymakers should insist on transparency as to funding sources and research methodology. Key advocacy studies likely to affect public sentiment and decision maker views concerning replacement fuels and gasoline should be granted, at least some form of even informal refereed reviews. If I could figure out an easy way to do it, I would define alternatives that would provide some reasonable equivalency concerning research funding. They would assure Americans that all key replacement fuel options are examined fully and are compared to gasoline. The research on replacement fuels should not be submerged by foreign nation or internal U.S. oil interest funding. But I don’t get paid enough nor am I smart enough to think this one through, at least until the next column. Maybe you can help me? Paraphrasing my favorite oil scholar, Socrates, unexamined studies funded without independent review, only by the oil industry or its Middle East friends and colleagues, are often not worth having or debating. Peace.