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Range Responds

I just became aware that BiofuelsDigest wrote a story on my recent blog on Range Fuels, and got some comments back from Range Fuels’ CEO David Aldous:

Battle of the Falling Timbers

Aldous said pretty much what I would expect the CEO of Range Fuels to say. He defended his company, and complained that the funding includes money for future phases. That may be, but it is true that Range recently went back to the DOE for more money. If they are already funded for future phases, then why not show us what you can do before asking for more money now?

The truth is that the early public statements from those involved with Range – prior to them getting taxpayer funding – don’t remotely reconcile with what they are now prepared to deliver. The costs have escalated, the capacity has been ramped down, and production went from “cellulosic ethanol” to “cellulosic biofuels” to “mixed alcohols” to “methanol.” Those are the facts, and I think Aldous is trying to put the best possible spin on a bad situation that he inherited.

In fact, left unsaid in my original blog is that things have obviously gone horribly wrong from the days of Range’s early claims. Reading between the lines, I think the capacity downgrades are an indication that the gasifier didn’t scale up as expected. Gasifiers are tricky, and one that works fine at one scale and with one feedstock may not work at all at a different scale. I also think Range found out that producing ethanol from syngas is much more difficult than they expected, and they couldn’t get a catalyst to do what they had hoped.

One interesting comment from Aldous was that their methanol would be a qualifying fuel because they will put it into biodiesel. Imagine that. Biodiesel is already struggling to compete, and now we are going to pay a subsidy on the methanol that is used to produce biodiesel, and then we will probably end up reinstituting the subsidy on the finished biodiesel.

That is going to be some expensive biodiesel (from a taxpayer perspective). Methanol presently trades at about $1.10 a gallon, so if we subsidize that as a cellulosic biofuel we would presumable pay a subsidy of $1.01 per gallon on top of the market price. In a nutshell, the real cost of that methanol going into biodiesel would be double what it should be. It all begs the question, of course, of why you wouldn’t just use the methanol directly as fuel.

There was a comment left following the story that allows me to finally tell a funny story that happened at the Pacific Rim Summit last November (here are my slides from my presentation). Alan Propp wrote the following:

Dear Editor,

My comment is this: you describe Mr. Rapier at the outset of your article with these terms, “Noted and widely respected energy writer…” I have met Mr. Rapier, and my description of him would have been, “Controversial, highly opinionated and frequently misinformed energy writer…”

His lack of knowledge or understanding of the Range Fuels project is indicative of his blog and other writings.

Sincerely,

Alan Propp, Ph.D., P.E.
Merrick & Company

That comment is priceless on several levels. First, while Propp is smearing me he conveniently doesn’t mention that his company is the engineering firm for the Range Fuels plant. His company has made a lot of money on all the hype, and his fingerprints are all over the project. Think he might have an axe to grind?

But here is the really priceless part. At the Pacific Rim Summit, I was having a bite with a colleague at an evening conference event. Joining us was David Bransby, a professor from Auburn (and advisor to Range Fuels) who gave a presentation that I really enjoyed. His wife was also present, as well as some members of the Hawaii Science and Technology Council. We were having some interesting discussions around logistics, energy density, and the problems of scaling up biomass-based solutions.

Up walks Alan Propp, Ph.D., and he immediately began to berate me. Shortly thereafter, one person got up and left the table (telling me later that Propp’s behavior was the reason he left the table), and two more later asked “What was that guy’s problem?

We were talking about the difficulties with scaling up biobutanol (which I have blogged on here) and Propp said “You are wrong. They now have a new process which can get butanol titers above 10%.” I looked at him with a puzzled look, and said “That’s impossible. Butanol phases out of water at 7.7% concentration. You can’t have a 10% solution.”

Propp was undeterred. He said that a certain company had given a presentation that day, and if I had attended it “I might have learned a thing or two.” (I would have attended but had a conflict). I was really puzzled, and couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. I decided I would investigate later, but I knew one thing: He was wrong about butanol titers above 10%. That’s like saying “Our water freezes at 40 degrees.”

The conversation turned to energy balances, and Propp’s position was “Energy balances don’t matter.” We were discussing a municipal solid waste project for converting trash into fuel. I said that if the energy inputs into the project were higher than your outputs, then in most cases you don’t do the project (unless you are using non-fungible fuel like coal as an input to produce a liquid fuel output). Propp said (paraphrasing) “If the biomass is free, then usage of those BTUs is what matters.”

I knew that we were looking at this problem in two very different ways. I was looking at it from the long-term viability of an energy project. Propp was locked into the idea that because the BTUs are free, then any usage of them is an improvement over the status quo. I couldn’t get it through his head that if the usage involved consuming more BTUs than you could extract from the free biomass, you don’t do the project. So we had a very fundamental disagreement. For an energy project, I won’t consume more than 1 BTU of fungible fuel to produce 1 BTU of fuel unless there are some really special circumstances (e.g., if the project is really a waste disposal project and energy would have been consumed regardless).

The evening went on like that. Propp was extremely arrogant and condescending. Had I known then of his involvement in some of these biofuel projects, I would have had a better grasp on why he behaved as he did. But then I went back to my hotel and looked up the company he had been talking about. It turns out that the good Dr. Propp was actually confused and had been talking about iso-butanol, a fundamentally different compound than normal butanol (which is almost always shortened to just “butanol”).

From a biological perspective, it is true that i-butanol is less toxic to microbes than n-butanol, but the phasing concentration for i-butanol is also higher. What is needed to crack open the economics of producing butanol biologically (which used to be the case before the much cheaper petro-route came along) would be to get butanol concentrations above the phasing level, so it could be skimmed off instead of having to distill it all. From that perspective, the lower toxicity of i-butanol is offset by the higher phasing concentration.

Further, in the chemical industry the chemical properties of n-butanol are generally preferred over i-butanol. Therefore, butanol production is shifted to the greatest possible extent to n-butanol, and i-butanol almost always trades at a discount to n-butanol. There is still a market for i-butanol, but it is unclear if i-butanol would be an attractive renewable fuel. The published test results I have seen were all of n-butanol.

So I chuckled at the thought that Alan Propp, Ph.D., didn’t know the difference between i-butanol and n-butanol, yet berated me for not knowing about new technology that produced “butanol titers above 10%.” I sent him a note later that night and said “I think you meant iso-butanol.” He responded back “Yes, that’s correct.” (In fairness to Merrick, Propp did have a colleague with him – Steven Wagner, VP from Merrick – who I found to be much more reasonable and more interested in simply have a conversation about technology).

The next day, I saw Propp and his demeanor had changed entirely. Gone was the arrogance from the night before. (I presumed he was feeling pretty sheepish). He had promised to show up for my presentation later that day and put some tough questions to me, and I said “By all means, show up and give me your best.” He was a no-show.

So it is with an extreme sense of irony that I read Propp’s comment above. It is a classic case of projection. Of course the sort of pseudo-knowledge displayed by Propp that night is a big reason that Range is in the position it is in. The initial promoters failed to distinguish between cellulosic ethanol and biomass gasification, and therefore made certain representations that many of us knew were incorrect.

Second, they didn’t understand the chemistry of alcohol production well enough to know that the production of pure ethanol via this route is problematic, and that a mixed alcohol is what they would produce. Pure ethanol would only be produced at a very high cost. As reality began to settle in, we have seen the statements from Range evolve a very long way from the initial claims of what they would do.

So despite comments from Aldous and Propp, the verdict on Range is the same. What they are proposing to deliver is a far cry from the technology (and cost) that they initially went out and hyped. The public statements are there for anyone to read, and don’t need any particular interpretation from me to see that things have not gone according to plan. So whether I understand Range’s grand plans isn’t the issue. I understand what they have said publicly.

March 2, 2010 Posted by | butanol, ethanol, hype, methanol, range fuels | Comments Off

A Day Late on the Bloom Box

I wasn’t going to write anything on the Bloom Box, but people keep writing to ask what I think. My initial reactions were “What a lot of hype” and “I have seen this all before.” I also wondered why it is that people keep falling for these kinds of stories.

But fuel cells aren’t my specialty, and as such I won’t weigh in on the relative technical merits of this design over another. I know that fuel cells have been very expensive for many years, and the initial projections I have seen over the Bloom Box are that they will be very expensive.

Lots of people with expertise in fuel cells have weighed in on the matter, though. If you want a more technical assessment, see the National Geographic story:


Bloom Box Launch Is “Big Hype”–Invention Nothing New?

The Bloom Box—an as yet unbuilt in-home “power plant” designed to be about the size of a mini-fridge—could provide cheap, environmentally friendly electricity to U.S. households within ten years, according to Bloom Energy. Or not.

But fuel cell experts say that, based on the information the company made public today, the Bloom Box technology is not revolutionary, nor is it the cheapest or most efficient fuel cell system available.

“It’s a big hype. I’m actually pretty pissed off about it, to be quite honest,” said Nigel Sammes, a ceramic engineer and fuel cell expert at the Colorado School of Mines. “It really is nothing new. Go to any [solid oxide fuel cell] Web site and you’ll see the same stuff.”

Those were my initial feelings as well, and here is why I say we have seen this before. The year was about 2001, and I was younger and a bit more subject to being influenced by massive hype. There was a company called Plug Power (still in existence today; stock symbol PLUG, but they are flirting with getting themselves delisted) and they came out with pretty much the same story.

In fact, if you go back into Google’s news archives on Plug Power, you can see a histogram that shows the news stories on Plug Power spiking in 2000, remaining fairly strong until about 2005, and then falling to lower levels in the past few years.

The buzzwords used to describe Plug Power were the same as those used to describe the Bloom Box. The technology was called revolutionary, disruptive, and a real game-changer. There was a prediction made that most people would have Plug Power’s fuel cells in their homes by 2010 and we would all be locally producing and using our electricity in a refrigerator-sized box.

What happened? Plug Power’s stock soared to $2 billion on the hype at a time when investors would bid up companies that had no earnings but incredibly high growth projections. It just so happens that hype can lead to those growth projections (a hard lesson for me that permanently changed my investing style), and what happened was that reality eventually caught up with the hype.

Plug Power, like Range Fuels from my previous essay, could not deliver on the hype. They couldn’t deliver cheap fuel cells, and so they didn’t get the market penetration many had (unreasonably) expected. Their valuation came crashing back down to earth. Today Plug Power is worth about $70 million, or about 96.5% less than it was when I was following the story.

Bloom Energy looks like both Plug Power and Range Fuels to me. It is a company that is attempting to produce energy cheaper than all those who came before using known technology – and using hype to attract investors. And if Bloom Energy fails to deliver, they will learn just like Range Fuels that hype is a two-edged sword.

March 2, 2010 Posted by | Bloom Energy, hype, investing, range fuels | 3 Comments

   

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