Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Biofuels Company Without a Bioprocess - Range Fuels

Image :

Range Fuels likes to shine a spotlight on itself. With a tag-line of "Inventing the New Oil" you are bound to garner some attention. Even better is the statement that its most important client is "our planet" - not you the consumer, but good old Mother Earth. An entire section of the company's web site is dedicated to awards that Range Fuels has won. And that's not all. The web site quotes Albert Einstein and seeks to educate the masses about the virtues of ethanol with a tutorial called "Ethanol 101." Broomfield, Colorado-based Range Fuels is certainly comfortable with hyperbole. The question is whether they will be able to back it up with results.

Range Fuels has been able to raise substantial sums of money: approximately $200 million combined from venture capitalists like Khosla Ventures and loan guarantees from the USDA. So, what is all the excitement about? Range Fuels has a technology similar to that of fellow biofuels high-flyer Coskata. Cellulosic waste is converted into synthesis gas using existing technology involving heat, pressure and steam.  Then, the resulting synthesis gas is then converted into ethanol using other chemical catalysts. There is no bioconversion involved at any stage of the process. In other words, there is nothing biological about Range Fuel's process for generating ethanol. In this case, the only part that is "bio" is the feedstock. Raw materials include wood, sawdust, corn stover (the stalk left after the corn is harvested), paper pulp, hog manure, switchgrass, eucalyptus-in short, most any agricultural waste product or even energy crops grown specifically for producing fuels. But what happens to all the waste that does not end up as ethanol? The company doesn't say anything about that.

We will have some idea about the potential for Range Fuels' technology soon. The first pilot plant establishing feasibility of its fully integrated thermo-chemical conversion to ethanol has been operating at the Colorado-based development center since Quarter 1, 2008. The first demonstration plant is scheduled for completion in Soperton, GA later in 2009, using cellulose as the feedstock.  Full-scale production is planned to start up in 2010. The company's business model calls for designing, building, and operating its plants, so Range Fuels will need to capture a healthy percentage of the fuel ethanol market and be cost competitive to earn a reasonable return on the already substantial investment. With fuel prices already substantially lower than they were a year ago, the technology will need to be very good just for Range Fuels to survive.

David Rozzell maintains a web site and blog dedicated to the latest developments and news in biofuels, biocatalysis, and industrial biotechnology. For informative, sometimes amusing, always opinionated analysis go to Contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment