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DuPont Scientists Outline Company’s Biofuels Strategy

17 July 2006

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Genomic sequence of Z. mobilis—a key player in DuPont’s BioRefinery. Source: Center for Biological Sequence Analysis, TDU

Two DuPont research leaders provided an update on the company’s strategy to develop next-generation biofuels at the third annual World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing.

In June, DuPont and BP announced a partnership to develop, produce and market next-generation biofuels, starting with biobutanol. (Earlier post.)

Our strategy is simple and consistent with the mega trends we are seeing globally. We are making new chemicals, such as Bio-PDO [earlier post], and new fuels, such as biobutanol, from agricultural crops. And we are simultaneously developing new ways to convert abundant plant cellulose fibers to biofuels so that even larger volumes of these valuable materials can be produced. Our strategy is designed to deliver the science needed to begin to transform global economies so we are less reliant on oil by enabling the adoption of efficient, high-performance, bio-based technologies.

—John Pierce, DuPont Bio-Based Technologies vice president

DuPont has a three-part strategy for biofuels, according to biofuels research manager William D. Provine. The strategy entails:

  1. Improving existing ethanol production through differentiated agricultural seed products and crop protection chemicals;

  2. Developing and supplying new technologies to allow conversion of cellulose to biofuels; and

  3. Developing and supplying next generation biofuels with improved performance.

Seed & Crop Protection Solutions. DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. has selected more than 135 seed hybrids marketed through its IndustrySelect program. The program brings specialized grain traits that improve the efficiency of ethanol production. The seed and crop protection research pipeline includes yield traits in seeds and other products that will further improve ethanol production efficiency.

Integrated Corn-Based BioRefinery (Cellulosic Fuels). DuPont and the US Department of Energy are jointly funding a four-year research program to develop technology to convert corn stover into ethanol. This is consistent with the company’s strategy to develop technologies that can convert energy crops such as grasses, and agricultural byproducts such as straw and corn stalks, into biofuels and biochemicals.

The Integrated BioRefinery program will significantly increase the amount of ethanol per acre achievable by using corn grain and stover on the same amount of land. The technology package will be complete next year, and the company is currently developing options for the construction of a demonstration plant.

DuPont has developed a fermentation process in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to allow high conversion of both C-6 glucose sugars and the difficult to ferment C-5 xylose sugars to ethanol at high yields. The BioRefinery technology uses an enhanced bacterium—Zymomonas mobilis—to make these conversions. This organism is found in the tropics where it normally lives in the sugar sap of the agave plant, a plant that is commonly used to make tequila.

Biobutanol Partnership with BP and Advanced Biofuels Pipeline. DuPont’s partnership with BP to develop biobutanol is based on its strategy to bring advanced biofuels to market to expand the use of biofuels in gasoline.

Biobutanol will be the first product available and offers improved performance. It enhances ethanol-gasoline blends by lowering the vapor pressure when co-blended with these fuels; it enhances fuel stability of biobutanol-gasoline blends, giving it the potential to be distributed via the existing fuel supply infrastructure; it improves blend flexibility allowing higher biofuels blends with gasoline; and it improves fuel efficiency (better miles per gallon) compared to incumbent biofuels. Biobutanol is targeted for introduction in 2007 in the United Kingdom. Additional global capacity will be introduced as market conditions dictate.

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July 17, 2006 in Biobutanol, Biotech, Ethanol | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

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Comments

Butanol in the UK in 2007 - that's good news, if the premium at the pump is reasonable. I hope they will succeed in co-fermenting glucose and xylose into butanol before long, so they can use cellulose feedstocks for it. Initially, they'll have to use pure glucose.

The article would seam to indicate that they can ferment C5 xylose in this process. Can it work on algae?

The article also seems to imply that biobutanol will be available in limited quantities and/or at increased prices relative to other fuels -- the talk is of using it as a stabilizer and an additive, not as a bulk fuel.

From previous discussions on this site, I gather that butanol has more attractive properties than ethanol. However, this article implies that there are still a few significant hurdles impeding the cheap and efficient bulk production of that substance. The possibility that a lighly blended gasoline-ethanol-butanol (E10+B05+G85, perhaps?) blend could run in an unmodified gasoline engine and be transmitted through unmodified petroleum distribution pipelines is very exciting -- solving the bulk distribution problem will save a nice bit of money and resources.

The prospect that it could reduce volatility of the fuel mixture is also important. Ethanol-gasoline mixtures form volatile azeotropes which enhance hydrocabron evaporation of standing fuel. Evaporative losses from the fuel systems of cars are a significant source of urban-area HC pollution, and one thing preventing flex fuel vehicles from achieving better Low Emission Vehicle grades. Had the Prius been fitted with FFV capabilities, I think it would not have qualified as SULEV, which would have tarnished its image and hurt its marketing, as well as hurt air quality a bit. If butanol blends pan out as a stabilizer for higher alcohol concentrations (E80+B05+G15 fuel mix?) Toyota could certify its hybrids to run on high-concentration biofuels without losing any clean air points, which would be a welcome step forward.

Many people criticize biofuels in large part due to the way they are currently produced and implemented. Corn ethanol admittedly has only small-scale energy balance and CO2 benefits, plus there is a clear limit to how much more we can produce before we run out of corn; or more properly, drive up the price of corn to the point where it no longer makes sense to produce more ethanol. (I have argued elsewhere that under the current circumstances a corn price ramp-up would render conventional ethanol wildly unaffordable well before it would have a significant impact on food prices -- which is not to say that it would have *no* impact on food prices.) FFV technology is generally deployed on oversized and overpowered trucks, "greenwashing" gas guzzlers that are often not needed for practical reasons in the first place.

But matching up cutting-edge biofuels production processes with far more efficient cars has real promise. Moving from corn to bulk biomass improves the energy balance and avaiability of the fuel. Having the chance to use it in low-polluting and high efficiency cars allows us to stretch it much farther. That's a step in the right direction, even if it is not a sufficient long-term solution.

To make things fair, we ought to squeeze butanol into one of the various renewable fuels tax breaks we have out there, or just phase them out entirely.

Neil -

they've figured out how to ferment xylose into ethanol. They still have to come up with a way to produce butanol out of it instead, though one US inventor claims he has already succeeded (www.butanol.com).

The algae species that would be most useful for fuel production produce either starch or lipids in large quantities under certain conditions. Starch is readily broken down into glucose with enzymes. Lipids would be a feedstock for biodiesel. The other components of the harvested algae would presumably be recycled as fertilizer.

NBK-Boston -

the BP-Du Pont venture will produce the butanol in the UK. The sugar will presumably come from sugar beets or sugar cane. Corn will probably not be used.

The EU has a program to get to 20% alternative fuels (CNG, biofuels and hydrogen) by 2020. It looks like biofuels might end up playing a bigger and hydrogen a smaller role than initially projected. To assist the adoption of biofuel components, refiners are supposed to meet certain blending goals and carmakers are supposed to deliver vehicles that can handle the higher blends pencilled in by 2020. Using ethanol, butanol and liquid diesel substitutes as additives on a continent-wide basis eliminates the need to set up a new distribution infrastructure (as is required for CNG).

Hmmm.  DuPont must be looking at the short-term, because they (being chemists) have to know that the energy in biomass isn't sufficient to meet our needs if we run it through the ethanol/ICE route.

I wish I could tell them to look at ZAFC's and DCFC's.

Good post!

Rafael:

You rightly point out that as the butanol plant will be in Europe it will likely run on something other than corn -- sugar beets very likely. However, their cellulostic ethanol program is U.S. oriented, and speaks of using corn plant waste as a feedstock rather than just the ears of corn, as in the conventional process. At any rate, critics of ethanol rightly point out that any food-crop based process (corn, beets, etc.) is of inherently limited potential, because the EROEI is not terribly high and the amount of increased production that can be constructed is rather constrained. Sugarcane is a limited exception, in that its EROEI is apparently not that bad, and production can be expanded a fair bit if you are willing to sacrifice a lot of rainforest. I digress...

What seemed most interesting to me was the heretofore unknown (to me) capacity of added butanol to stabilize mixtures containing gasoline and ethanol. Reading between the lines, it appears that butanol might still be too expensive or hard-to-produce to be soon introduced as a bulk fuel. But if it allows the cleaner and more efficient use of an existing bulk fuel (ethanol), then we have something very useful on our hands. Promising ethanol technologies can continue to expand without worry that transportation problems will eat into profitability, efficiency or HC emissions signature. Just add a little butanol and you can stick ethanol-blended fuels in your standard pipelines and cut down on problematic azeotropes. Not bad, even if biobutanol ends up costing $4 a gallon to make.

A $4 to $7/gal bio-fuel cocktail, compatible with existing distribution networks, makes sense and could be sustainable if we switch to a mix of PHEVs and EVs and phase out our current dinosaurs ICE gas guzzlers.

The end solution has to include conservation i.e. major fuel consumption reductions. We kneed more efficient vehicles, homes, commercial buildings etc.

Some countries have demonstrated that high standards of living can be maintained while reducing energy consumption by 30% to 40%.

i want mechanisms of cars

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