Vinod Khosla Scoops Me

Some people think I am anti-ethanol. That is an oversimplification, and a misrepresentation of my position. I have nothing against ethanol as a fuel. It isn’t as good a fuel as butanol, but then again we can’t make butanol as efficiently as we make ethanol.

My objection is that I think the way we make ethanol in the U.S. is a big mistake, and we will recognize this eventually. It may happen following a drought in the Midwest that causes corn crops to fail. That may be what it takes before we recognize that recycling natural gas into ethanol via food was a terribly bad and short-sighted idea.

I also dislike the incredible hype associated with cellulosic ethanol. Promising too much lulls the public into thinking we have a solution ready to go in case of an energy crisis. Not so. But underneath that hype is a lot of potential. I don’t think cellulosic success will come from an expensive hydrolysis/biological process. This is simply too inefficient, and requires very high fossil fuel inputs. Rather, I think success will come from a thermochemical process.

Lately, I have spent an awful lot of time studying this:

On paper it is deceptively simply to turn that cellulose biopolymer chain into hydrocarbons or alcohols. In practice it is a different matter. If you know your organic chemistry, you can see sites that should be amenable to chemical attack. I have sketched out pathways that seem like they should work, but you never know until you take them into the lab and try them.

One of the things we do in oil refineries is to crack very complex molecules like this. So, for a long time I have wondered about the implications of using various refining processes on cellulose. For instance, can it be cracked in a hydrocracker? How about a catalytic cracker? How would cellulose behave it co-fed into a coker? (There are obvious mass transfer constraints that would have to be addressed).

Imagine my surprise today when I was trying to determine if anyone has ever done this, and I ran across this:

Khosla Ventures and BIOeCON form KiOR to commercialize cellulosic ethanol

A technology called the “Biomass Catalytic Cracking Process” could be the key to breaking material like wood, grass and corn husks down for ethanol production.

Catalytic cracking is a process already used in today’s petroleum refineries. Simply put, chemicals are used to break down complex organic molecules. The trick is making the reactions between specific chemicals and molecules efficient and controllable, in order to come up with a desirable product like cellulosic ethanol.

The biofuels industry is highly interested in that type of ethanol, but the process of “cracking” the molecular structures of woody plants, whether with chemicals, heat or other methods, has not yet become cost-effective. KiOR is Khosla Ventures’ and BIOeCON’s bet on commercializing a process.

Khosla Ventures provided the new company’s seed funding, but the amount was not disclosed. BIOeCON’s investment is its intellectual property, which includes the catalytic cracking process.

Doh! Looks like I am not the only one who has been thinking hard about this. Clearly I need to stop letting these ideas percolate indefinitely in my head, and write up a business plan and get to work testing them.

I will be the first to admit that Khosla and I haven’t always seen eye to eye. But I think his most recent ventures – from Range Fuels to his investments into LS9 to this latest venture – have a much greater chance of success than some of his earlier ethanol investments. Note that none of these processes require an energy intensive, wet-distillation, which has been one of my biggest complaints about ethanol production. I still say that he is overpromising on the potential, but I think he is now heading into more promising waters.

21 thoughts on “Vinod Khosla Scoops Me”

  1. i would never claim the smarts/background to enter into the technical arguments posed by any proponent.

    however, my comments offered in previous blog on e85 road test[logistics better…?] and harvard professor today[…trip may be difficult/untimely] are appropriate here.

    i will remain alert to info/arguments, bob and weave as best i can, enjoy the blog. thanks.


  2. i would never claim the smarts/background to enter into the technical arguments posed by any proponent.

    Don’t ever let that intimidate you here. It is my intent that when things aren’t clear, I will explain it more clearly. I want my arguments to be understood by everyone.

    Incidentally, Vinod Khosla and I have already exchanged e-mails about this essay. He said he can hook me up. 🙂

  3. There are some types of biofuels which I think are interesting. Conceded, first-gen corn-ethanol plants look like a loser. E3’s second-gen plant, using corn stalks and cow dung for energy, might make sense.
    But, follwing RR’s lead, I am beginning to think the act of tilling, planting, fertilizing, watering a biofuel – all of which consumes gobs of energy – is just too much.
    However, there are some trees out there, jatropha and Chinese tallow, which grow readily (even invasively) , and which require little or no maintenance. I suspect the tree-biofuel route is much more promising, due to the lack of annual tilling etc. You just pick the fruit every year.
    A 1 million-hectare jatropha plantation can provide 2 days annual US oil consumption (at current profligate rates). There are a couple million-hectare plantations underway in Indonesia (China-funded), and India is talking about planting 60 million hectares of jatropha. They have been talking about it for years however, and nothing seems to really happen. It is interesting to note that jatropha has never been selectively bred for oil content. Corn used to be the size of your pinkie. It was bred for size.
    I am not ready to rule out serious contribution to our energy needs from biofuels. However, switching to PHEVs would radically reduce our need for fossil oil, and would likely plunge the pruce of crude down. Then these huge plantations would be worthless.
    It may be we could reach near energy independence with PHEV-diesels and biofuels, with some fossil.
    Given the thug state nature of nearly all th world’s oil producers, I think energy independence make sense, even if it violates the tenants of free trade.

  4. I wonder if the paper industry could be of help. “Virgin” fiber mills use chemicals to break down the lignin binders in wood to transform it into pulp. One of the waste products (black liquor) is burned to power the mill.

    Put some paper chemists to work on the problem!

  5. robert–

    have engr. background[EE] retired from industy 20 years. i require no more tech detail explanation from you. if i did, i would ask. i don’t know/want to know detail at chemist’s level, not at my age. i get knowledge/understanding on macro/global issues. i follow a lot of books, blogs, other sources to remain aware of + and – factors. your blog helps in that way. thanks.

    any comment i make are with that background/intent–more general/integrated on what i observe/think/question at the time.

    all i ask is good/timely info presented with content, enthusiasm, integrity.

    keep it up. don’t forget the family in the process.


  6. My best wishes for overcoming technical hurdles, but I would like to inject a little realism here that I think is being overlooked. Has anyone here except me farmed organically? If you don’t use chemical inputs, getting together enough organic material to maintain soil quality and fertility can be a challenge. Even if I return all crop residue to the land, I still need to add organic amendments.

    What’s this have to do with cellulosic ethanol? you ask. I see a lot of talk (including mention here) of using crop residue and animal dung as ethanol inputs. But as chemical fertilizers rise in price, farmers are going to be forced to rely more on crop residue and animal dung as fertilizer, and will be loath to give it up. In the near future, ethanol makers can kiss this input goodbye. This has to be taken into consideration. In fact, farmers will be looking for more organic inputs, which will put them in competition with ethanol makers. I guarantee it.

    You can figure out the chemical process and build a plant, but inputs are going to come at an increasing premium in the future. If you don’t believe me, grow your own food 100% organically for a few years and see how much organic material you will need for soil amendments. You’ll be surprised.

    Like Robert, I am not against ethanol per se, but we need to be realistic about the availability of feedstock.

  7. Has anyone here except me farmed organically?

    Me. Not because we were trying to market organic food, but because it was much cheaper for my parents to send me out and shovel up cow manure and spread it. Not on a big scale, but enough to feed a family of 5 plus a little left over.

    see how much organic material you will need for soil amendments.

    That was one big eye-opener in my composting experiment. It takes a tremendous amount of organic material to build soil. If we deplete it via erosion in a massive effort to produce ethanol, we are going to be very sorry when we find out how long it takes to replenish it.

  8. Organic … only as a suburban gardener (but I learned from my dad who learned from his dad, who was a farm boy and gardener).

    We bought composted manure and mushroom compost because it was cheap an easy, but the ‘yard waste’ was a pretty huge stream.

    I think if food prices climb we’ll see productive suburban gardens again, and they’ll be able to tap the huge stream of green wastes that are currently a problem in that environment.

    … I suppose farmers near suburbs must be able to tap into city composting programs.

    (I did have a 6hp sears shredder that was converting fuel to fertilizer in its own way.)

  9. I can’t find a link … we had a guy out here in California who started gardening on a spare lot. He gathered yard wastes from the neighborhood, and started a compost pile. He got to be a hero (when it filled the lot to about 5 ft high and produced lots of vegetables), but got to be a concern when it got to be 50 ft high.

    He went a bit overboard. I think he was ultimately evicted.

    Compost good. Compost compulsions, bad.

  10. Benjamin Cole said: “I suspect the tree-biofuel route is much more promising, due to the lack of annual tilling etc. You just pick the fruit every year.”


    I’ve wondered why cellulosic proposals overlook one of the biggest sources of feedstock available: Dead leaves.

    I just spent most of this afternoon raking the yard, and probably have three cubic meters of dead leaves from just my two oak trees and three maples.

    This time of year there are billions of tons of dead leaves in the U.S. just east of the Mississippi.

    The logistics and energy needed to pick up all those leaves and transport them to a cellulosic plant would be a major enterprise, but the feedstock is there for anyone who wants it.

    Logistics at Range Fuels

    I like what I see about the processes at Range Fuels and wish them luck, but I bet that the logistics of keeping their plant supplied with feedstock will turn out to tbe the long pole in their tent, and not the chemistry of the process.

    Semi-truck loads of wood waste from 50-75 miles around will have to be continuously making trips to keep their plant supplied.

    It may well turn out that collecting and transporting all the wood waste required, will use more energy than the processing at their plant, not to mention what their neighbors will have to say about the continuous stream of trucks that will be traveling the roads near the plant.

    I’m wondering if they have taken that into account in their EROEI calculations?


    Gary Dikkers

  11. As I look over subsequent comments it seems that perhaps we are coming around to realizing that ethanol is going to face bigger challenges than, for example, developing a good process for making cellulosic ethanol. One, as Gary Dikkers points out, is that rising fuel costs could doom the industry because it will cost too much to haul feedstock and ethanol (and we know this cannot be done with ethanol itself because the industry wouldn’t be self-sustaining).

    The other is a point I made but want to emphasize because of its importance: ethanol businesses will find themselves going head-on in competition with anyone who grows food, be they farmers or backyard gardeners, because as food gets more expensive, more and more people are going to be growing food. They will all be looking for organic inputs, and taking whatever they can get their hands on. Old-timers in this village tell me that before the advent of chemical fertilizers, there were no weeds growing anywhere, because they were constantly being cut for fertilizer. In autumn, fallen leaves were scooped up immediately. And it’s going to come to that again.

    So I predict that ultimately the large-scale ethanol business will be a bust, and ethanol will be made primarily in back-yard distilleries by people who know how much organic material they can spare, and for their own use.

  12. So I predict that ultimately the large-scale ethanol business will be a bust,

    Without a doubt, it would make much more sense for Range Fuels to make diesel. Once you gasify biomass, there is no compelling reason to produce ethanol over diesel – unless that’s what the subsidies are pushing you to do.

    This biomamss gasification process is essentially the same thing that Choren is doing – except they are producing diesel following gasification.

  13. As my chemistry background is a little weak, I’ll put it as a question: I’ve read that a lot of the conversion processes (be they biochemical or thermochemical) result in char (“biochar”) or other by-products that can be used as fertiliser. Aren’t they high enough in volume or how come this can’t replace the residues?

    In general, I presume it’s about finding the right plant for the right climate.


  14. It may be that you can break down cellulose to monomers in a “cracking” process. How do you propose to separate the cellulose from lignin and hemicellulose to feed to the cracker in the first place? Current pre-treatment methods serve to make these carbons more available to enzymatic breakdown. Does a cracker require cellulose purification as a pretreatment?


  15. Continuing where thomas left.

    Is there a possibility for a process where at least a big chunk of the carbon output of the whole biofuel production cycle is tied to a “biochar” produce?

    And do this without huge energy losses for the CHBf process (combined heat and biofuel)?

    If this were possible, it would perhaps be possible to introduce a temporally carbon negative biofuel process (at least in theory), where much of the carbon would be stored back in the soil and only released back to atmosphere relatively slowly.

    I’ve only read some layman biogas/pyrolysis/biochar articles, but they seem to imply something this direction:

    Comments anyone?

    Is this an avenue already explored or something under active research?

  16. Does a cracker require cellulose purification as a pretreatment?

    I think it would handle hemicellulose just fine. Instead of a 6-carbon end product, you would end up with a 5-carbon end product. Gasoline already contains a mixture of both. I wwould have to think a bit more about the fate of lignin.

  17. Do not underestimate the inventiness of the human mind. Break throughs are on the horizon. Propulsion Logic has a patent that allows for a substanial increase in ethanol per acre at a far lower cost. What other break throughs are out there waiting for some help to get them realized.

  18. I’ve wondered why cellulosic proposals overlook one of the biggest sources of feedstock available: Dead leaves…

    This time of year there are billions of tons of dead leaves in the U.S. just east of the Mississippi.

    I’ve wondered about this from a slightly different angle… In India, people are setting up small-scale biogas plants that take sugary/starchy food waste and convert it into biogas (mostly methane, I presume) which households can use for cooking (saving wood, time and lungs):

    Ever since I read about it, I’ve wondered: could you do this with leaves? Could you have one of these sitting just outside your kitchen (or in a corner of the basement if you live in a cold climate), and feed it leaves (as well as food waste) and get a useful supply of gas from it? Does this sound feasible to any of you (bio)chemists?

  19. And apparently the leftover sludge from the biogas plant is a useful fertilizer, which would allow you to close the loop somewhat, and return nutrients to your trees/land:

    I think about setting one of these up as a possible hedge against some of the more doomer-ish scenarios out there…

  20. Doug M,

    The black liquor that is produced in the pulp mill is only 20% solids, and 80% water. After the evaporators it ranges from 75%-85% solids, but half of those solids are inorganics such as sodium-(carbonate/hydroxide/sulfate/sulfide). You would need to find away to separate those from the dissolved organics first.

    The big thing in the industry now is to pre-treat the wood to dissolve a portion of hemicelluloses first, extract them and use them to make ethanol. After pre-extraction the chips would go on to normal pulping. Thus ethanol is a co-product of pulp manufacture.

    Unfortunately if every pulp mill converted to this system it would only supply 2% of our current gasoline use (by volume).

Comments are closed.