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Biobased Chemicals


December 12, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 48


Letters to the editor

Repurposing garbage

I would like to provide my insights on the Range Fuels entry in the table titled “Not So Easy” of Marc Reisch’s article in the Oct. 28 issue of C&EN (page 21). The table states that Range Fuels’ project was focused on making methanol and was canceled in 2011. Range Fuels’ stated goal was not methanol but the production of mixed alcohol fuels, such as C2 to about C6 alcohols, with methanol being only a small portion of the product. The feedstock for the Soperton, Georgia, commercial demonstration plant was intended to be forest waste of various kinds. Range Fuels was essentially dead by the end of 2009. It is true that its Soperton demo plant did produce some methanol—that was to fulfill at least one of the key loan guarantee provisions and was basically its last official technical endeavor before being shuttered.

Why did Range Fuels go belly up? There are several answers, in my opinion, including (1) reliance on a flawed technoeconomic analysis that severely underestimated the feedstock costs (the reality was at least twice what Range used), (2) gross underestimates of the useful lifetime and product space-time yield of the chosen catalyst, (3) underestimation of the challenges in scaling the Denver pilot plant gasifier design to a workable commercial scale, (4) reliance on the overly optimistic claims and hype presented in reports by the original catalyst developer and also reports by a US government agency, and (5) too many highly paid executives (vice presidents) as opposed to “worker bees.”

Of course the business model did not foresee or account for the changes in US petroleum production and the market. Critical hindsight at today’s perspective says Range Fuels’ failure was preordained. The demise was very sad, as I witnessed it happen. There were a lot of good technical and R&D folks at Range, and I hope they have all landed softly and well.

James F. White
Richland, Washington

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