I recently attended the first day of the 2012 International Biomass Conference and Exposition held at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, along with Esteban from the third IGERT cohort. Below are some thoughts about the meeting for any of you IGERTers who were interested but couldn’t make it.
- Local companies make good: Apparently both Gevo and Sundrop Fuels are supposed to break ground on >10 million gallon/year advanced/cellulosic biofuel facilities this year- go Colorado companies! Too bad that both biorefineries are going in out-of-state in areas where their biomass feedstocks of choice are cheaper and more plentiful…
- RIN fraud: The opening panel featured the heads of all the biofuel and biomass lobbying organizations speaking about their priorities for the year. I found it somewhat ironic that some of them could pointedly criticize the EPA permitting process for clean air/water compliance but then laud EISA/RFS2 in the same breath, but I guess that’s the nature of lobbying. The head of the National Biodiesel Board also brought up the issue of RIN fraud as was recently reported in the Washington Post. While incidents like this perhaps reflect the growing pains that might be expected with any set of new regulations, they are nonetheless very damaging by providing ammunition for the opponents of current biofuel policy, and threatening to destabilize the nascent US RIN market and thus the broader RFS.
- Biochar work: I was very surprised at how well represented biochar was at this conference. I was glad to hear that people are doing detailed multi-year field trials in temperate Great Plains systems, though I can’t help but wonder if the enthusiasm of some of the small startups is overblown given the current state of scientific understanding of the product.
- Algae LCA work: Probably the best talk I went to was given by Jason Quinn of the CSU Department of Mechanical Engineering. Jason did his dissertation on growth modeling and lifecycle assessment of algae produced in photobioreactors, working closely with Solix. His talk was all about generating regional estimates of potential algal biofuel production based on detailed growth models accounting for local climate, land use, and concentrated CO2 availability (punchline: current real-world growth rates are on the lower end of the range reported in the literature, and when you constrain production to land that is not currently farmed, relatively flat, and in close to CO2 sources the potential supply gets real small real quick). Anyone interested in this topic should take a look at his papers at the link above, and give him a call sometime before he starts an assistant professorship at Utah State in Logan this summer!
- Industry expos versus academic conferences: For me the most striking thing about this event was how different it was from a traditional academic conference. The main exhibition hall was full of booths representing companies hawking pelletizers, gasifiers, or consultation services, and those few of us presenting posters were delegated to a shady little space at the back. The talks were all over the map- as you might expect, the more science-y talks were part of the ‘advanced biofuels’ program area, while the program areas dedicated to pelletized biomass, thermal applications, electricity generation, etc. seemed much more focused on nuts-and-bolts topics such as equipment, logistics, and project financing. Glad I went this year just to see what it was all about, but not sure I’d spend the time and money to go again next year.