Demand for biofuels has returned to levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but that does not mean a full recovery has occurred in the industry.
“The demand is pretty close to where it was,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “The fourth quarter of 2021 was very good for the ethanol industry, but this comes after three, four, five years of us hanging on by our nails.”
Rising fuel prices have helped ethanol industry margins, Shaw said, but margins still come and go. To maintain sustained demand, refineries are always looking for more ways to create more products and find more places to use them.
In February, Hasan Atiyeh, a researcher at Oklahoma State University, received a patent for a new method that could increase biofuel yields while reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The new process adds bacteria to the fermentation process used in the production of biofuels. This bacteria captures carbon dioxide to limit the environmental impact of production and uses this CO2 to create more biofuels.
“The United States produces over 15 billion gallons of biofuel per year and is expected to increase that to 22 billion gallons per year,” Atiyeh said. “This process creates more environmental benefits, while increasing refinery throughput and profitability.”
Atiyeh estimates that yields could increase by more than 15% with this new fermentation process. He said research has shown that using 2,000 dry metric tons of biomass per day in this process can increase a biofuel refinery’s revenue by $33 million per year.
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“More than 50% of the carbon in sugars is lost in the production of hydrogen and carbon dioxide during traditional fermentation methods,” Atiyeh said.
The Oklahoma State team is working to commercialize the method, which will initially be marketed to the corn and cellulosic ethanol industries. They also note that the impact could reach the jet fuel industry if the method is widely adopted.
“The increased efficiency of converting renewable feedstocks into biofuels makes the process viable,” Atiyeh said.
Shaw said there hasn’t been much change in the types of demand for biofuel by-products in recent years, but the industry continues to invest in new ventures.
He said high-protein distillers grains are the focus of many plants in the Midwest region, trying to achieve something on par with soybean meal. As this process develops, the market will also grow, but there could be a lot of competition in soybean meal.
“It opens up new markets for factories investing in these types of technologies,” Shaw said. “It will be interesting to see with all the new crushing facilities, to generate more soybean oil for renewable diesel, it’s going to put a lot of soybean meal on the market. So I think we’re going to enter an era of more affordable protein as long as the renewable diesel boom continues.
He said factories have also been looking to generate more corn oil lately and while it’s not necessarily a new use, demand is growing. He said margins for corn oil were high, with selling prices between $64 and $70 at the end of July.