We all had to know it was coming, right? Perhaps both OPEC and the US oil companies caught wind of this and that was the genesis of their saber rattling lately?
With U.S. biodiesel production at an all-time high and a record number of new biodiesel plants under construction, the industry is facing an impending crisis over waste glycerin, the major byproduct of biodiesel production. New findings from Rice University suggest a possible answer in the form of a bacterium that ferments glycerin and produces ethanol, another popular biofuel.
"We identified the metabolic processes and conditions that allow a known strain of E. coli to convert glycerin into ethanol," said Ramon Gonzalez, the William Akers Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. "It's also very efficient. We estimate the operational costs to be about 40 percent less that those of producing ethanol from corn."
Gonzalez said the biodiesel industry's rapid growth has created a glycerin glut. The glut has forced glycerin producers like Dow Chemical (DOW) and Procter & Gamble (PG) to shutter plants, and Gonzalez said some biodiesel producers are already unable to sell glycerin and instead must pay to dispose of it.
"One pound of glycerin is produced for every 10 pounds of biodiesel," Gonzalez said. "The biodiesel business has tight margins, and until recently, glycerin was a valuable commodity, one that producers counted on selling to ensure profitability."
Researchers across the globe are racing to find ways to turn waste glycerin into profit. While some are looking at traditional chemical processing -- finding a way to catalyze reactions that break glycerin into other chemicals -- others, including Gonzalez, are focused on biological conversion.
In biological conversion, researchers engineer a microorganism that can eat a specific chemical feedstock and excrete something useful. Many drugs are made this way, and the chemical processing industry is increasingly finding bioprocessing to be a "greener," and sometimes cheaper, alternative to chemical processing.
In a review article in the June issue of Current Opinion in Biotechnology, Gonzalez points out that very few microorganisms are capable of digesting glycerin in an oxygen-free environment. This oxygen-free process -- known as anaerobic fermentation -- is the most economical and widely used process for biological conversion.
"We are confident that our findings will enable the use of E. coli to anaerobically produce ethanol and other products from glycerin with higher yields and lower cost than can be obtained using common sugar-based feedstocks like glucose and xylose," Gonzalez said.
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Annual consumption of glycerin in the United States has ranged between 400 million and 450 million pounds for the past three years (2003-2006). Domestic production figures show that approximately 400 million pounds per year was produced heading into the turn of the century.
The U.S. biodiesel industry is expected to produce an estimated 1.4 billion pounds of glycerin valued at $289 million between 2006 and 2015, according to an economic study by John Urbanchuk, director of LECG Inc. According to projections gleaned from NBB estimates, the industry could produce as much as 200 million pounds this year alone. Crude glycerin that once fetched between 20 and 25 cents per pound is now edging closer to 5 cents and lower. This is down from the high of $1.08 in 1996. The glut and pricing pressure have led Dow to close it's 150 million pound per year facility in Freeport, Texas.
Ethanol giants like Archer Daniel's (ADM) had previously put glycerin facility plans on hold at the turn of the century as prices collapsed. ADM will produce an estimated 250 mmgpy of biodiesel in the US by the end of 2007 which equates to 25 mmgpy of glycerin. At ethanol production costs of 40% less than corn, anyone want to bet the glycerin facilities plans that are on hold will be jump started?
More information when I get it as I have requests out.