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Next-gen biofuel company KiOR has started up production of its biocrude at its plant in Columbus, Mississippi. It’s an important advancement for an industry that’s had major delays and setbacks.

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Updated: Next-gen biofuel maker KiOR announced last week that it hit a major milestone: the company has started producing its biocrude at its factory in Columbus, Mississippi, and plans to start shipping this biofuel later this month. The company released the good news in its earnings call and KiOR CEO Fred Cannon called the planned shipment “the world’s first cellulosic gasoline and diesel fuel products.”

KiOR has developed technology that allows it to convert biomass (plants and bio waste) into a bio substitute for crude oil. The Houston, Texas-based company emerged in late 2007 as a joint venture between Khosla Ventures and Netherlands-based biofuel startup BIOeCON. Khosla Ventures provided the early rounds of funding and BIOeCON provided the intellectual property for its “biomass catalytic cracking process,” a thermochemical process that’s been used in the oil industry for decades and which turns out can also produce biocrude from grass, wood and plant waste.

I attended an event where Cannon described KiOR’s technology as being able to do in seconds what has taken millions of years in nature (the natural process of how biomass has been crunched into oil). Cannon said the company’s catalyst — a fine white powder that he showed to me in a tiny see-through vial after his talk — can turn any bio feedstock into a liquid biocrude that has a 92 percent lower carbon emissions footprint than fossil-fuel based crudes and which is supposed to be able to be dropped into the current oil infrastructure. Update: KiOR now says the full lifecycle greenhouse gas profile of their gasoline and diesel fuels reduces emissions by over 80 percent compared to fossil fuel equivalents, instead of the 92 percent mentioned above and told to me by Cannon in 2010.

But, as anyone that’s followed the next-gen biofuel industry knows, many of these types of technologies have suffered delays and setbacks. A company called Range Fuels, also backed by Khosla Ventures, went bankrupt in late 2011. And BP recently cancelled a planned cellulosic ethanol plant, which would have been one of the world’s first commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plants.

So the news that KiOR is on track is a rare spot of good news from these types of firms. KiOR’s Columbus plant, at 11 13 million gallons per year, is smaller than the standard corn-based ethanol plants in the U.S., points out MIT Tech Review. But KiOR also plans a larger commercial production facility in Natchez, Mississippi, which is supposed to produce three times what the Columbus plant can produce.

Scaling up these two plans is really capital intensive, particularly because the company has no revenue. In January KiOR announced that it raised a $75 million loan from existing investors Alberta Investment Management, a fund that manages billions on behalf of the province of Alberta, Canada, and Khosla Ventures. KiOR is still in an early stage of its life. It’s not bringing in any revenue (yet), and had a net loss of $27 million for the third quarter of 2012. KiOR’s stock dropped 6.5 percent this morning to $6.91, seemingly on uncertainties about biofuel incentives in the U.S.

Read my detailed article on KiOR from earlier this year.

  1. This is encouraging progress. I still wonder how their catalyst will survive the highly alkaline ash left after the biomass has volatized off. The KiOR process is very similar to the petroleum refining process Fluid Catalytic Cracking (FCC) where catalyst consumption is a 0.1-0.5 lbs/bbl of feed. A “barrel” of biomass say 350 lbs will contain 5-25 lbs of ash which will likely adhere and fuse to the catalyst rapidly deactivating it. KiOR is circumspect about catalyst life, cost, and supply. I would be too if my process had 0.3 lbs of catalyst swamped by 5-25 lbs of alkaline ash! Looks like the real money will be in the catalyst supply! Not surprising given that the founders come from the fluid cracking catalyst world as do I.

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    1. John, you are definitely right. Catalyst life, cost are critical for the commercialization of catalytic pyrolysis.

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