Advancing Biofuels

Michael McAdams, Jason Quinn , Susan Hager and Graham Noyes work under the same advanced biofuel and chemical umbrella, but all have different motivators and visions for the future.
By Sue Retka Schill | March 25, 2014

The emerging advanced biofuels and chemicals industries are full of people with dreams, people who imagine multiple means for making a biobased economy a true replacement for petroleum. Looking back at 100 years of oil development history, we focus on the titans of the industry that built the success stories that made petroleum products ubiquitous. We don’t know yet who the winners in the advanced biofuels and biochemical space will be. But regardless which companies ultimately succeed, that success will be built on the efforts of many people.

Michael McAdams is well known for his advocacy work on behalf of the emerging industry as the president of the Advanced Biofuels Association. His desire to work in the policy arena goes way back, to around the dinner table as a boy where public policy was part of the daily conversation. “My father came to Washington, D.C., to work for a senator as a very young man,” he explains. “Since he was my hero, I thought that what he did for a living in public service was a great calling.” His dad helped him get a job as a page in the House of Representatives when he was 15. Working alongside him in the House mailroom was none other than Bob Dinneen.  “Fast forward 35 years and here we are,” McAdams says. “Bob leading the Renewable Fuels Association and me leading the Advanced Biofuels Association.”

Earlier in his career, though, McAdams was on the other side of the table, representing an oil company. He sees his 14 years of experience with BP as giving him a solid foundation for his work today. “I worked directly for the CEO Lord John Browne the last five years, I was his policy guy in the U.S.,” he says. He worked at BP on the “Beyond Petroleum” effort and during the time that BP delivered the first low-sulfur gasoline in the United States. “What I worked on for the last five years I was with BP was the cutting edge of cleaning up hydrocarbon fuels. I literally sat down and negotiated with Bob Dinneen in 2000, and BP became one of the first companies to support a mandate for ethanol.”

Working in the oil industry gave McAdams an understanding of the transportation market, how fuel markets work and capital is allocated, as well as how complicated and costly transportation infrastructure is. And, it gives him a different attitude towards Big Oil. “If we’re able to develop this [advanced biofuels] industry, it’s going to be through our sweat and tears and our own innovation,” he says. “If we develop reasonable processes and deliver the goods, they will be the first people to be investing in it. At the minimum, [the oil companies] are going to be the customers we sell to.” It is a mistake to paint the companies in the oil industry with a broad brush, he says, they are highly competitive and far from monolithic.

Besides working for BP, McAdams has worked on the staffs of two members of Congress as well as other advocacy groups before helping to organize the Advanced Biofuels Association and working as its lobbyist. “Anybody in this business has to have an eternal optimism. They have to wake up every morning believing they are doing the right thing for the world,” he says.  “You’ve really got to have a thick skin in this business, because you’re going to take a lot of shots and you’ve really got to do your homework. I tell all the young people who work for me that this is not easy. You will have to read and work and continue to do that throughout your career.  When you line up across the line of scrimmage across from someone, whether it’s the American Petroleum Institute or someone else, you better bring your best game. This is not unlike a professional game. You’ve got to bring your A team, if you’re going to play at the big leagues of the federal policy arena.”

The rewards for the effort are significant, he adds. “When you accomplish something, it lasts for a long time and you make a difference in lives. For me, I’m trying to help those innovative second generation biofuels companies. That’s my dream, before I retire, to see it become a real industry.”

Jason Quinn

In his mid-30s, Jason Quinn is among the group of researchers who will shape the development of renewable energy in the decades ahead. As an assistant professor in mechanical engineering at Utah State University, he is teaching students about the principals of mechanical engineering such as fluids, energy and mass transfer as applied to a range of renewable energy systems, including wind and solar. A second class he teaches is focused on biofuels from a systems engineering angle looking at life-cycle analysis and tech economics. “I enjoy the class on the metrics,” he says. “We do what I call first-order calculations.” With his roots in the Midwest, Quinn has his students call farmers to ask how much diesel they burn when planting or combining soybeans. The farmers’ numbers are factored in with other data gathered in a similar fashion to develop a life cycle-analysis on soy-based biodiesel. “We basically start in a very grassroots style, get an answer and look at others who have done the work and compare,” Quinn says. The student calculations are within 10 percent of the experts’ results.

Quinn’s research delves deeper into the world of advanced biofuels systems. He is in the first year of a three-year research project funded by the National Science Foundation to look at heavy metals and their effect on microalgae growth. “Most plants take CO2 from the atmosphere but microalgae grow at such a fast rate you have to supply CO2,” he explains. Integrating microalgae culture with coal-fired power plants could utilize flue gases, helping solve several issues for that industry. His research will look at the effects that the heavy metals contained in the flue-gas waste stream may have on algae growth, and whether the heavy metals are being concentrated in a final product like biodiesel.

In other research projects, Quinn is broadening his examination of algae. “One project is taking a growth model we’ve developed and looking globally,” he says. There have been multiple assessments of the third-generation fuel’s potential in the U.S., he says, but not of the global potential. Another project is making a life-cycle and economic analysis for a third-generation microalgae-based biorefinery that would produce not just biodiesel, but also bioplastics and electricity.

When asked about his goals, Quinn replies, “If it were easy, it would already be done.”  He doesn’t expect microalgae-to-fuels to be commercialized for another decade, but its promise makes it a worthwhile endeavor. “Microalgae’s biggest strength over anything else is its productivity potential. When you look at yields of traditional crops, microalgae yields are orders of magnitude larger today,” he says, albeit the systems are not yet economically viable. Currently, algae systems are yielding between 2,500 and 5,000 gallons per acre per year, compared to first- and second-generation biofuel yields that number in the hundreds of gallons per acre per year.

The work to be done to make such tantalizing yields economically viable will include engineers working on the systems and biologists working with the microorganisms at small scale, all generating data to be used for scale up. “We’re trying to develop experiments that enable us to scale and draw data into large-scale modeling,” Quinn says, “trying to tie everything together and bring the rubber to the road.”


Susan Hager

As senior vice president for corporate communications and government affairs at Myriant Corp., Susan Hager says she has the best job in the world. “Not only do I work in the most exciting industry, but my function in the organization is the best. So much of what I do focuses on understanding what is happening internally and then leveraging that to communicate externally with customers, partners, investors or the government. It’s a very dynamic position, but one that lets me interact with everyone in the organization in everything from finance to engineering. It’s a lot of fun.”

A biologist by training, Hager started her career doing benchtop research on immunology and cancer treatments. But rather than continuing on for a doctorate in immunology, she decided to pursue an MBA. “I was very interested in the business aspects of biotech,” she explains. A few years later, she was at a crossroads again when a friend became CEO at a development-stage advanced biofuels company and invited her to join his team. “I had no experience in clean energy or biomass,” she says, but after reading up on all sectors of clean energy she became enthusiastic. “The clean energy sector is probably the only other industry as altruistic as trying to cure cancer.”  It was an industry she could rally around, she says. “I started to get passionate about the technologies I was reading about. The company I joined [Qteros] had this really cool bacteria—biology at the core with really slick engineering.”

At Qteros, Hager cut her teeth on energy policy and was involved in getting the Advanced Ethanol Council established to raise awareness of advanced cellulosic fuels in Congress. Shifting over to Myriant’s focus on bioproducts and biobased chemicals was not a heavy lift, she says. Similar to Qteros, Myriant’s technology harnesses the ability of a microbe, in this case to produce succinic acid, used in the manufacturing of a broad range of plastics and foams. The contrast with her earlier career, where her primary focus was on the Food and Drug Administration, was much bigger. “I really thought, what could be more challenging than working with FDA trying to get drugs approved and on the market? And then I came over to clean tech. Trying to establish consistent energy policy is actually harder than getting a cancer drug approved.” 

Hager hopes that within five years, biobased chemicals will be entering the mainstream, “and that the big manufacturers and packaged goods companies are seriously looking at making products more sustainability for the benefit of the environment. Sure, it’s great for all the companies trying to scale their technologies, but there is a bigger mission here—to be able to find renewable, sustainable feedstocks with lower carbon footprints, where the processes are carbon neutral or environmentally friendly and they contribute to products that are ecofriendly. I hope in five years, we’re not just talking about two to five success stories. I hope there are so many success stories it’s hard to keep track of them all,” she says, “but a lot needs to happen for that to happen.”

“The biggest change is going to be when the generation that’s in elementary school now comes up and enters the workforce,” she continues. “I have a 10 year old; and I’m always amazed, happily, at how environmentally aware her generation is and the things they consider to be wasteful, that they would never consider doing, whereas our generation says ‘whatever.’ They’ve been brought up with the mindset of recycling and doing good, not wasting precious resources and mindful of petroleum as a finite resource. They understand what renewable biomass is, even at the age of 10. They get it. It will be that generation that is inquisitive enough to ask the questions about how you can do things differently. And they’ll be the generation that can affect change from a policy perspective.” Education is going to take a big role in keeping those students, and young women in particular, moving towards that future. “Schools need to focus on STEM—science, math, technology and engineering, particularly—if, as a country, we want to maintain a competitive edge and be a country that fosters innovation and IP creation.”

Graham Noyes

Though today Graham Noyes is one of the most well-known attorneys in the bioenergy space, the road to the sector was long and winding. 

The Dixbury, Mass., native attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as an undergraduate, and then traveled to the University of California-Davis for law school.  “While at UVA and in law school, I planned to pursue a career in politics,” Noyes says. “To explore the possibility further, I interned in Washington, D.C., after my second summer in law school.”

From that experience, Noyes realized that Capitol Hill was not for him. “My summer [in D.C.] convinced me to return immediately to the West Coast,” he says. He went on to graduate from law school and took the California bar exam, but struggled deciding what to do next. “I had never intended to be a corporate lawyer, had decided not to pursue politics, and was reluctant to enter environmental law with its maze of regulations,” Noyes reflects. “I meandered around Central America for a few months waiting on bar results and pondering my next move.  Upon my return to the U.S., I decided that given my uncertainty, the best way to start my legal career would be to try cases.”

Still a long way from bioenergy, Noyes worked his way into a position as an association public defender in Sacramento County, which he did for two years, then started a private practice in San Francisco, where he continued to do primarily criminal defense and expanded into civil rights litigation. “While I learned a great many interesting and disturbing things during my eight years as a public defender, I became increasingly convinced it was time to find a new line of work,” he says. “The natural progression for a criminal defense attorney is from juvenile and petty offender cases toward serious felonies and capital cases. While I have great respect for my colleagues who continue to represent the indigent accused, I grew weary of studying police reports, interviewing clients in holding cells and prisons, and trying to sort fact from fiction.”

After becoming captivated by “From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank” by author Josh Tickell, who proposed biodiesel as a tool of environmental and economic change, Noyes met Tickell through mutual friends during his Veggie Van campaign. “I had always been fascinated with engines, energy and the environment, and biodiesel touched all three issues,” he says, “so I began exploring business models for a start-up biodiesel business. “

 After performing a competitive analysis of the industry, Noyes decided a more financially sound plan of action was to pursue a position with World Energy Alternatives LLC, a biodiesel company that had financial backing from Gulf Oil LP, and was based in Chelsea, Mass. “I tracked down Gene Gebolys, the CEO of World Energy, when he was visiting San Francisco,” Noyes says. “It took me several months to overcome his skepticism about the sense in hiring a criminal defense attorney to introduce biodiesel to the West Coast market, but, eventually, my persistence paid off.”

After working for World Energy six years, Noyes moved on run the company’s U.S. sales. “This work gave me exposure to the petroleum distribution network, feedstock supply and cost issues, quality control, federal and state policy impacts, public relation battles, and all things biodiesel,” he says. Beginning in early 2007, he began leading sales and business development for Imperium Renewables, which was building a 100 MMgy biodiesel plant on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington.  “Imperium was positioning itself as a “pure-play biodiesel IPO” with plans to build three more 100 million gallon plants,” he says. “Unfortunately, before we could bring the IPO to market, the IPO window began to close, due to the onset of the recession.”

When Imperium’s Board decided not to pursue the IPO, Noyes decided it was time to return to the law.
Today, Noyes practice is focused almost exclusively on bioenergy. “Most of my work involves incentives like the renewable fuel standard and California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard. I counsel companies developing new feedstocks, establishing new pathways, registering new fuels, dealing with renewable identification number (RIN) contract disputes, and responding to Requests for Information and Notices of Violation from the U.S. EPA.  I work on the full range of transactions from feedstock agreements, to offtakes, to joint ventures and acquisitions, and I assist advanced technology bioenergy companies who are pursuing and developing strategic business relationships.”

Most of Noyes’ time is spent reviewing regulations and agency guidance, drafting contracts and letter briefs, discussing issues with clients, and negotiating with agencies and counterparties. “Now that I have joined Keyes, Fox & Wiedman LLP (from Stoel Rives LLP) I am looking forward to becoming more active in rulemakings, and in leveraging the firm’s policy tracking capabilities to supply regulatory and legislative updates to clients,” he says.

While biodiesel industry has been his area of expertise, Noyes is increasingly involved in other bioenergy technologies, and says he is enthusiastic about projects that convert waste into fuels, energy and coproducts. “These projects deliver multiple benefits,” he says. “I am convinced that state and federal policies are providing value for the positive benefits that could not previously be monetized, and that longer-term the market will provide this value directly.  Based on the same trends, I am observing forward-thinking corporations that integrate sustainability into their business models, become very good global corporate citizens, and succeed because of it.

Some free legal advice? Complete a diligent review of fundamentals including feedstock availability, permitting issues, off-take certainty, and sufficiency of working capital. “I would also encourage developers to continue to be persistent and innovative and to maintain a long-term perspective,” Noyes adds. “The U.S. is ideally situated to lead the world in sustainable bioenergy…the world’s growing population needs developers to continue evolving the efficiency and sustainability of their projects and increasing the energy, economic and environmental contributions of bioenergy.  While there will be resistance and economic setbacks, we are in the early days of advanced bioenergy, and there are many accomplishments in the industry’s future.”

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Senior Editor, Biomass Magazine