Game-changing pathways to advanced biofuels

By Ron Kotrba | June 15, 2010
Posted June 15, 2010

The one-day Advanced Biofuels Workshop, a co-located event at BBI International's 26th annual Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, took place June 14 in St. Louis. The conference's first panel-Game-Changing Pathways: Exploring New Roads to Tomorrow's Advanced Biofuels-demonstrated the wide range of products from, and process techniques for, advanced biofuels production.

Today the advanced biofuels industries are in the "let a thousand flowers bloom" mode, said Gregory Pal, senior director of corporate development with LS9 Inc. "Over time there'll be a shake-out and others will fall by the wayside," Pal said, referring to the questionable feasibility of some products and processes now under investigation.

LS9 has made headlines in recent months for its novel one-step approach using designer microbes to convert sugars, not lipids, into various diesel fuel substitutes. The microbes, what some have referred to as "magic bugs," ferment sugars into either methyl ester biodiesel or a renewable hydrocarbon fuel the company trademarked UltraClean Diesel depending on the desired end product. "There are no miracles required," Pal said.

The company is focused on diesel fuel substitutes because it rightfully recognizes that diesel is the dominant fuel outside the U.S., and in years to come diesel applications are expected to gain significant ground in the U.S.

Pal told the audience that LS9's pilot plant has been operating in South San Francisco for nearly two years, and mentioned the demo-scale plant in Florida expected to come online next year. LS9 also recently gained U.S. EPA registration to sell its fuels into commercial markets.

While LS9 is focused on diesel fuels, Virent Energy Systems Inc. is focusing on biogasoline-and the company has big names backing it up. Cargill is invested in Virent and is helping arrange feedstock supply; Royal Dutch Shell is also deeply financially invested as its development partner while opening up market channels; and Honda is testing its fuels and providing performance feedback.

The company's vice president of business development, Greg Keenan, said that LS9 and Virent share similar objectives, but the conversion pathways are different. "While LS9 is going biological route, we're using a solid state catalyst, the goal is to reduce oxygen to carbon ratio and increase the hydrogen to carbon ratio," Keenan said.

Virent's process, called BioForming, uses the sugars released in hydrolysis at 100 degrees Celsius, and is less severe than pyrolysis at temperatures between 400 and 700 degrees, or gasification at around 1,000 degrees. In one to two hours, Virent's process moves from sugar in to drop-in product out.

The Btu content of Virent's biogasoline comes in at around 120,000 Btu per gallon compared to petroleum unleaded gasoline at about 115,000 Btu, and ethanol at 76,000 Btu. The Reid Vapor Pressure of biogasoline is similar to that of fossil gasoline, Keenan said.

Keenan said the company is looking at beet and cane sugars, in addition to corn syrup, as feedstocks.

Another panelist on the Game-Changing Pathways panel at the ABW was Randal Goodfellow, senior vice president of corporate relations for Ensyn Technologies Inc., one half of the Envergent Technologies joint venture with UOP.

Envergent's process utilizes oxygen-free fast pyrolysis in a circulating fluidized bed in which the ultra-hot sand heats bits of biomass and vaporizes them. Goodfellow joked that even though the Rapid Thermal Processing reaction takes less than one second, he tells people that it takes less than two seconds because public perception was that under a second is "too fast."

"We've had an advanced biofuel since 1989, it was a byproduct of our chemicals production," he said. Ensyn has been making smoky flavors from its process for years, which have been picked up by big names such as Kraft Foods and Burger King.

The feedstock comes in at 45 percent water, and they use excess gases off the process to dry down the product to between six and eight percent moisture. He said the process yields 70 to 75 percent liquid fuel.

As far as feedstock choices go, Goodfellow said, "The sand doesn't care what it hits. It could be lignin-it is lignin." The joint venture hopes to have its fuels hitting commercial markets by 2012.

When used for heat, Goodfellow said the fuel is economic when oil is only $30 a barrel; when considering transportation fuels, it is economical when oil is only $40 a barrel.

Elevance Renewable Sciences Inc.'s Omar Abou-Sayed, vice president of corporate development, rounded out the ABW's kick-off panel, and he spoke on the company's metathesis process. Metathesis can produce a host of platform chemicals from double-bond triglycerides, such as 1-decene that makes up synthetic motor oil, to 9-octadecene, which Abou-Sayed said sells for $1,000 a pound. "We're going to make it for $1 a pound," he said.

"Out of a typical barrel of oil, eight percent is used for petrochemicals-the naptha cut," Abou-Sayed said. "But that eight percent makes up 40 percent of the profits."

He said Elevance sees 9-decenoic acid as the heart of the biochemical industry, which is why it's important to derivatize it to other chemicals.

"Prices being equal between a black molecule and green molecule, people will always pick the green one," Abou-Sayed said.

By fourth quarter this year, the company will begin biorefinery construction. "We need to achieve scale, and we'll be introducing productive capacity in the next 12 months," Abou-Sayed said.
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