Energy & Resources

Corny tale

COFCO recycles vision for biofuel

Waste not, want not, Mrs Li

You know fears about the long term price of oil are serious when you hear talk of relying on corn stalks to keep car engines running.

It’s no longer such a distant prospect. New technology from the corn fields of northern China aims to turn ‘agricultural waste’ – the parts of plants that humans and animals can’t eat – into ethanol for fuel. In this case, that means using corn husks, stems, leaves and cobs.

We’ve written before about biofuel diesel projects (see WiC52). Leading the latest demonstration project in Zhaodong, Heilongjiang province is state-owned grain trader China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO). The food-processing giant was the largest manufacturer of ethanol fuel in China last year. COFCO has been searching for an affordable way to turn cellulose (the fibrous part of a plant) into fuel ethanol since 2006. The new facility will be the largest of its kind in China. When the plant is completed near the end of next year it will be able to churn out 13 million litres (roughly 10,300 tonnes) of ethanol annually.

Sinopec and Danish enzyme-maker Novozymes are partners on the project. “We forged this partnership in China to develop biofuel from agricultural waste,” said Michael Christiansen, president of Novozymes China, “Today, we are one step closer to producing commercial quantities.”

The project also brings China one step closer to a resolving a long-running internal debate over ethanol fuel, which began when it first adopted the technology back in 1998. China imports half of its petrol and policymakers had hoped that using domestically produced ethanol would improve the country’s energy security. There was only one problem: it meant burning food.

Initially ethanol was produced from corn and wheat – two important grains. At the time China’s granaries were full, and there was plenty of aging corn to spare. Converting excess supply into fuel was supposed to prevent waste, and cut fuel bills. Several cities in China already use ethanol fuel for public transport.

But as fuel production ramped up the grain stockpiles soon ran down. And when food prices shot up in 2007, supply of basic foodstuffs became even more of an issue.

Forced to choose between aggressive food price inflation and ethanol production, policymakers were only going to go one way. So the National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Finance stepped in to suspend construction of all new ethanol plants.

The restriction was relaxed a year later to allow non-grain plants to be built – using less important foodstuffs like sorghum, sweet potatoes or cassava.

But the real goal was still to find a way to make fuel ethanol without competing for foodstuff resources at all – especially as more farmland was lost to urbanisation and infrastructure projects. That makes developing the technology to get fuel from cellulose much more important.

The government’s current five-year plan sets a biofuel target of 2 million tonnes (1.5 million was produced last year). The total is supposed to reach 10 million over the next decade.

But one challenge is that ethanol factories may struggle to get their hands on a full quota of requiredwaste supply. Robert Earley, a low-carbon transport expert, told the South China Morning Post that farmers often use waste for fertilising lands.

However, there should be more than enough agricultural waste to meet those government targets. It takes 4 tonnes of waste to produce each tonne of ethanol fuel (versus 3 tonnes for fuel made from corn itself). China produces an estimated 800 million tonnes of agricultural waste each year (according to Novozymes) – so theoretically that’s enough to support 200 million tonnes of biofuel, many times the official goal.

No wonder that COFCO’s management sees a sweet corn opportunity ahead.


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