Hybrid business models emerge

By Ron Kotrba | January 12, 2011

As a bush pilot years ago, John Plaza, CEO of Imperium Renewables, commanded the six-and-a-half hour flight between Anchorage and Tokyo countless times.

But he wanted more.

Each journey consumed more fuel than was needed to run his personal car for 42 years.

At some point he said to himself, I want something more meaningful. “I wanted to make a difference,” he said to the audience at the Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show.

And he did.

Plaza founded one of the largest biodiesel production facilities in the country, Imperium Grays Harbor. At 100 MMgy, the plant was a megalith. Outfitted with tri-modal logistics—rail, marine and truck—the methyl ester refinery broke the mold, and ushered in a new era for biodiesel.

Then things changed: feedstock prices swelled, export markets shrunk, domestic incentives expired, and the Grays Harbor plant, like many U.S. biodiesel refineries, curbed production.

Now, after riding the highs and the lows of the biodiesel market, Plaza said his company is looking for ways to sustain biodiesel production at its huge plant while taking advantage of its $70 million infrastructure.

As a result, Plaza said Imperium is investigating renewable diesel processes.

Biodiesel has its purposes, its uses, but it’s not a drop-in fuel, Plaza said. It’s closer than ethanol in that regard, he said, but biodiesel is not drop-in—especially for aviation.

Plaza said the U.S. middle distillate demand will double by 2050, and only so much of that particular fuel cut can be squeezed from a barrel of oil.

One pathway the company is looking at is upgrading alcohol to renewable jet fuel.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is currently researching this.

Surplus ethanol production capacity coupled with the so-called blend wall has led to opportunities otherwise not thought of.

Another route to biojet fuel is utilizing industrial carbon monoxide streams as partial syngas feedstock.

Regardless of which technology Imperium latches on to, there are certainties in this world: the sun rises in the east; the taxman and the reaper must always get paid; and, lastly, according to Plaza, a solar-powered airplane will never exist. 


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