There's much excitement about second generation biofuels made from cellulosic feedstocks and algae, be they cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, biocrude, or electricity from biomass. There will be winners, but they may not be the technology companies.
At the 2009 Advanced Biofuels Workshop, there were two major themes: developing new feedstocks, especially algae, and the development of new pathways to take biomass into products such as biocrude, which can be used in exiting oil refineries.
The current federal Renewable Fuel Standard requires the use of 36 million gallons of biofuels, including at least 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2022. Advanced biofuels are defined as fuels other than corn-based ethanol and with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions half that of the fuel they replace. This creates a gigantic market, so large that some industry observers doubt if it can be met.
Many of these fuels will not be ethanol, a fuel which poses problems with the current fuel transport and distribution infrastructure. Even for cellulosic ethanol, there are several different processes that different companies are pursuing: Acid hydrolysis, Thermochemical conversion, Biochemical conversion, and Consolidated Bioprocessing, and combinations of these three used in various combinations by various companies.
Potential products not only include fuels such as ethanol, butanol and higher-carbon alcohols, but biocrude which can be fed into existing refineries. Other potential products include plastics, and many other products currently produced by the petroleum based energy industry.
The bewildering array of potential pathways and products make for a very challenging investment landscape. An investor in any company would need a lot of confidence that the company they are investing in will be able to take their chosen feedstocks to a potential salable product at lower cost than all the competitors out there. Unsurprisingly, nearly every company feels it has the best process.