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Syntec Gearing Up to Commercialize its Biomass-to-Ethanol Gasification/Synthesis Process

15 July 2006

Syntectechnology
The Syntec process. Click to enlarge.

Syntec Biofuel, a spin-off from the University of British Columbia, is gearing up to enter the second-generation biofuels market with a set of proprietary catalysts that produce ethanol from the syngas resulting from the gasification of biomass.

Established as a research company at the University in 2001, Syntec was just officially  acquired by NetCo Investments—which promptly changed its name to Syntec Biofuel.

In 2004, Syntec filed a patent for its first ethanol catalyst, which contained precious metals. The company expects to file a second patent for its commercial variant—based on non-precious metals—by year’s end. In parallel, Syntec Biofuel will commission its first bioreactor for the production of bio-methanol—a facility that will utilize the same production methodology as its biomass-to-ethanol process. This will also serve as a test bed for commercial-scale testing of Syntec’s proprietary ethanol catalyst, while generating revenue for the Company from the production of bio-methanol.

Syntec’s process consists of a thermochemical conversion of synthesis gas (syngas) into ethanol in a bioreactor containing a catalyst.  Syngas is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be derived from any carbonaceous material including: natural gas, coal bed methane, landfill gas, digester gas and biomass gasification.

The production process is similar to modern day methanol & GTL (gas-to-liquid) production processes; the key differentiating factors are the catalysts and their operating parameters.

Syntec believes that its patented technology will provide it with the leading production process for achieving high ethanol yields from biomass and it expects its costs to be much lower than those of conventional ethanol fermentation processes that use sugar and starch crops as feedstocks.

Relatively few studies have been done on selective catalytic synthesis of ethanol from syngas, according to Syntec.  Moreover, it is the lack of selective ethanol catalysts and poor conversion ratios that have prevented the commercial realization of chemical production of ethanol according to the company.

Syntec anticipates that once perfected, its catalyst will enable the ethanol industry to use this well established chemical process to obtain production and efficiency metrics beyond what traditional grain based fermentation processes can offer.

Unlike bacteria, enzyme, and acid or other solvent-based processes which are usually particular about their feedstock, the Syntec’s low-pressure thermochemical process can use a wide variety of feedstocks, given appropriate modifications in the syngas production step.

Enzyme/Fermentation vs. Gasification/Synthesis (Source: Syntec)
  Iogen Syntec
Process Enzyme/fermentation Gasification/Synthesis
Theoretical yield per ton biomass (gal/ton) 114 230
Actual yield (gal/ton) 70 114 (est.)
Approx. capital cost/gal/year US$4.45 $US2.23
Approximate cost/gallon US$1.44 US$0.78

July 15, 2006 in Biomass-to-Liquids (BTL), Canada, Ethanol | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack (0)

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so, it is economically less expensive, but what does the energy balance look like?

it sounds like they can use any biomass (not just grains, like fermentation-based ethanol), so they may have a better energy balance than the current norm.

Is butanol a possible product from this process?

I tend to notice terms like 'once perfected'. The tag on the table says actual yield but the number is estimated. Maybe there is a reason that GM enzymes, acids and high pressure reactors are needed in the proven processes.

There are sizable amount of relatively dry organic wastes which are virtually useless. First of all it is bark (and bark-contaminated wood clippings) which is specifically designed by nature to be almost entirely not biodegradable, inedible, and in case of sequoia even fire resistant. This wastes could be utilized only by thermal decomposition, such as relatively inexpensive Dynamotive pyrolysis to low-quality liquid fuel with small energy use, or more elaborative and energy intensive syngas process to produce methanol and recently ethanol, premium gasoline additive/conditioner. Which process will win – hard to say.

Notably both companies are situated in Vancouver. By the way, since when syngas process uses “BIOreactor”?

Shaun -

Iogen efficiency = 70/114 = 61%
Syntec efficiency = 114/230 = 50% ("once perfected")

Ergo, while the syngas route may be cheaper per unit of end product, it requires more feedstock to deliver the same amount of ethanol. As long as that feedstock is biomass that actually does get renewed, there is no net CO2 release from the process + fuel combustion either way. Note, however, that Syntec is also looking at NG, coal bed methane and other non-renewable feedstocks.

Cervus -

chapter 3 of the following document outlines the various chemical synthesis processes for producing the various isomers of butanol. In particular, note that it is apparently possible to produce butanol from ethanol via several intermediary products, but that overall yield per unit of biomass is probably unattractive:

http://dsir.nic.in/reports/techreps/tsr107.pdf

Here's more detail on how ethanol is produced from syngas:

http://spitswww.uvt.nl/web/telos/documents/rapportbioethanol.pdf


Rafael,
The yields are per ton, theoretical and actual. The ratios you gave are how far they are along with reaching their respective processes. It looks like the Syngas route is more efficient as well. With a max of 230 gal/tn vs 114gal/tn, and 114 vs 70, the syngas process may produce less CO2 as well. You could might as well throw various wastes at this thing; from post methane production manure to possible excess leftover algae biomass.
_
___One question though, are the lower yields in enzyme/ fermentation process due to the necessity of sustaining yeast and distillation, or am I missing something? If the distillation is such an energy hog, then use more extensive thermal recycling for use as preheating liquids.

It's better, but still not good enough to even replace gasoline.  We'd have to do much better to replace all motor fuel, and far better still to replace all the various uses of petroleum.

Syngas to ethanol processes change the EROEI drastically. The hot syngas can be used to power the distiller saving energy input at one of the most enrgy consuming points in the entire production chain. Some of the syngas could be directed to production of gasoline for cheaper E85, diesel fuel, and lubricants. How this differs from the Pearson/BRI system is unknown due to company secrets at this time. The lack of independent varification of these processes claims stands as a barrier to the needed large scale investments.

Well, at least somebody got it right! I've always suspected that cellulosic or grain to ethanol is an inefficient process. Gasification is much simpler and more efficient. But, they still ain't got it all right! With the syngas containing H2 and can be easily turned into methane, why not just stop there and use the H2 and methane as transportation, home, and power generation fuels? H2 for local transportation and immediate use without requiring long-term storage. Methane is for long-distance transportation, long-distance exportation via pipeline or LNG tankers, or long-term storage which we already have all the infrastructure designed for natural gas. For diesel application, make DME.

Roger -

turning syngas into methane without adding fossil carbon is actually not so easy. Besides, for transportation purposes, what you want is something with high energy density that is liquid at ambient temperature and pressure and can be used as an additive to the established gasoline/diesel infrastructure.

Ethanol meets these requirements, sort of, though as Cervus points out butanol would actually be preferable. Apparently, the chemical engineering for getting from syngas to butanol is substantially more difficult (or someone would be doing it already).

Alternatively, syngas can be turned into regular alkanes etc. using Fischer-Tropsch, or else into methanol and then chemically dehydrated into DME or higher hydrocarbons using the MTG process (which is harder to control).

I question the EROI comment.  From the above, the EROI improvment is only about 60%; I'd call that considerable, but not dramatic.  Considering that the input material is waste, it's not clear how much energy to allocate to its production; there's clearly a lot of room for fudging, or shenanigans, there.

Actually, I can't find any information in this post which would lead me to a firm EROEI number. As allen_z rightly points out, we can only compare the theoretical and "actual" performance of this process and of recently-developed cellulostic processes. We have no numbers breaking down the costs and quantities of the various inputs, including energy inputs.

While the expected price of production puts some upper limit on the amount of energy that this process can consume, we have no firm data on how much heat energy (probably from coal or natural gas) is actually needed to gassify the biomass, or how much energy is needed to run the catalytic and separation phases, or how much energy to ascribe to the production and transportation of the "waste" biomass -- or, rather, how much energy it will cost to come up with substitutes for whatever uses to which that "waste" biomass was previously put (mulch? green manure?). Some of these accounting questions may apply to cellulostic processes as well, but they are typically addressed to some extent by those studying the energy inputs needed to grow things like switchgrass, create enzymes, distill the result, etc.

So -- a very interesting technology. But without several important pieces of information, it is hard for me to figure out where it fits in from a policy or business perspective.

Rafael,
Syngas already contains CO, thus you've got all the carbon needed. Plus methane (CH4) requires more hydrogen than carbon anyway, so you've got a lot of excess carbon from cellulosic biomass. Convert some amount of syngas to liquid hydrocarbons, if you will, but leave some H2 and methane left for those who just wanna to run their cars with H2 or methane, and pay less for the cost of renewable fuel while help reducing pollution.

NBK-Boston, Eng-Poet,
Heat energy required to heat the biomass to 815 degrees C is entirely recyclable by steam turbine with 40% efficiency into electricity, same efficiency as a coal burning power plant. So, one can consider this free heat. This, in contrast to the low-temp heat energy required to distill the fermented product into anhydrous ethanol, that has little recycling value.


Enzymes required to break down the cellulose into simple sugars so far are still very expensive, pushing the cost of cellulosic ethanol much higher than grain ethanol. Gasification does not require enzymes, nor much processing of the raw feedstock.

Is lower EROEI necessarily bad? I mean, England once used wood but had to switch over to coal for energy (heating, etc.) which is harder to get. England didn't self-destruct; coal powered the Industrial Revolution.

And what about hunting/gathering vs. farming? It takes more energy to plant crops than to go hunting. Humanity didn't self-destruct when early man formed an agrarian system; society actually began!

Ergo, while the syngas route may be cheaper per unit of end product, it requires more feedstock to deliver the same amount of ethanol.

No, the opposite is the case. Remember, the syngas route can exploit everything -- starches, cellulose, hemicellulose, fats, proteins, and (very importantly) lignin. The enzymatic processes can't do anything with lignin.

I suspect the problem with the syngas route is that it's not economical on a small scale, particularly if you need an oxygen-blown gasifier.
I understand gasifying biomass is also somewhat problematic, in that the slag is more corrosive than the slag from gasified coal.

This leads to the natural question: why are they gasifying biomass instead of coal? Coal is cheap and plentiful and coal gasifiers are well understood. Are they trying to exploit government subsidies for biomass-based ethanol?

Roger -

I know what syngas is. It's just hard to get the CO reduced and combined with the hydrogen to produce methane. Methanol is much easier.

Paul -

of course coal gasification has been around for donkey's years. But (a) British Columbia has a huge logging industry generating a lot waste biomass and (b) using biomass that actually gets renewed as your feedstock is CO2-neutral.

Coal is cheap only because it is not subject to a carbon tax as all carbonaceous fuels (incl. biofuels) ought to be - instead of income and other direct taxes, of course. Conversely, anyone achieving net capture of CO2 out of the atmosphere (i.e. growing something via photosynthesis) deserves to be paid for this service by the government because they are reversing damage to the atmosphere.

Roger,

A co-generation scheme might significantly reduce if not eliminate the energy "lost" to the gassification process, especially if you adopt the attitude that "we were going to burn that coal anyway to turn it into electricity." There are still a few miscellaneous bits of energy accounting to take care of, including the energy value of the current uses of the biomass waste, but I'll assume for the moment that those items are small.

I'm still left with the problem that the infographic that goes along with this post does not indicate that the designers of this system actually intend to build it as a co-generation project. If this process goes anywhere commercially, I hope they have the good sense to try your proposal.

Moreoever, the infographic does indicate that there is a distillation step which takes place towards the end of this process, meaning that we cannot entirely get around that energy-consuming bottleneck. How distillation in this context compares to distillation of conventional or cellulostic-enzymatic ethanol is unclear. Whether lower-grade heat coming out of the gassification/steam electricity step can make a difference I cannot tell at the moment, but seems like a possibility -- a triple co-generation setup, if you will (biomass gassification, steam electricity, low-grade steam heat for distillation).

The biggest advantage here seems to be the ability to turn any mix of biomass waste into a reasonably useful fuel (ethanol), without having to fool around with costly and possibly narrow-spectrum enzymes or micro-organisms. Which is no small thing, but which doesn't mean that this process will automatically displace cellulostic developments, especially those aimed at markets where specific feedstocks can be grown to suit the needs of the enzymes or yeasts. Price out the processes using a higher figure for the coal and natural gas inputs (perhaps reflecting Rafael's carbon-tax approach, or perhaps reflecting higher prices due to higher demand) and see how things line up.

Take a look at the woodgas information at www.woodgas.com for an insight into the digester part of the process. Iogen's process will still require fermentation, a process that gives off CO2, and takes time. On the surface this literal woodgas to ethanol process should enjoy much faster conversion of biomass. Perhaps you could convert a unit of biomass to ethanol in a few hours or less. Most fermentation processes take up to 24 hours or more followed by distillation.

Combustion of wood to generate electricity is not economical per se. Combustion of wood wastes with heat utilization is currently the most economical way to get rid of this wastes. Due to moisture content and presence of oxygen atoms in the material, combustion temperature is lower then at combustion of coal or NG, and thermal efficiency of wood-fired boiler with steam turbine is about 30% vis 40% coal-fired. Currently standard method of combustion of wood wastes is co-firing on coal boilers with quantities about 5% of calorific input, thus retaining 40% efficiency. Alternative method of utilization is generation of biogas in anaerobic digesters (like at sewage treatment plants), but it is not widespread because of poor economics of the process. As any biological process, it can not decompose lignin, which constitute up to 40% of wood biomass. Same applies to cellulosic ethanol. Pyrolysis or gasification of biomass is accomplished by partial combustion of the material, thus sizable part of the biomass energy is wasted just to perform pyrolysis/gasification. Moisture content is critical to the economy of the process. All these methods of dedicated wood wastes combustion to generate electricity are not competitive (for local space heating it is economical and widely used) compared to coal burning.

Economics of the process changes dramatically when final product is liquid fuel, especially transportational quality – it is just way more expensive than fuel used to generate electricity. This is the core reason why cellulosic ethanol/butanol (can use wet organic wastes, but lignin content is wasted), or pyrolysis/singas (utilizes all biomass, but can work only on dry materials) path to convert biomass, first of all waste biomass, are economically appealing and are developing rapidly, with current oil prices especially.

Clean wood wastes, such as straw and sawdust, are way more valuable materials to make variety of construction panels and materials, instead to be combusted or even turned into liquid fuels. Thus two classes of organic wastes remaining to be converted to liquid fuel economically: wet wastes as corn stalks and alike to produce cellulosic ethanol/butanol, and dry bark/bark contaminated wood wastes to be used in singas conversion.

The only problem I can see with this is that it's aimed at the same old dead-end consumption technology:  the internal combustion engine.  The claimed 1.3 billion tons/year of available biomass, at maybe 16 GJ/ton, contains 2.1e18 J or ~20 quadrillion BTU of energy.  Turn that into ethanol at even 60% efficiency, and you cut that to 12 quads.  Compare to roughly 18 quads of gasoline we use each year!

The USA is currently using about 40 quads of oil per year, plus maybe 25 quads of coal.  But we only take about 6.8 quads of electricity from coal, and the 45% of petroleum which becomes gasoline supplies us with a mere 2.6 quads of work at the wheels.  That totals 9.4 quads, or about half the energy in that biomass.  This leads to two conclusions:


  1. We are not going to replace coal and oil by turning biomass to liquids.
  2. It's still possible to do, if we break out of the "gotta have something to pump" mindset.

But try convincing people that they have to charge with electricity instead of pumping a fluid, and they tune you out.

Rafael,
What I meant for methane production is actually not gasification, but pyrolysis, in which lower temp is used but fast transfer of heat to biomass and and less time at hot vapor phase, such that the carbon-carbon bonds break into short chain alkane such as ethane or methane, and hydrogen, and CO or CO2. If you gasify it all the way with high temp, then all the carbon-hydrogen bonds are stripped and all you've got is H2 and CO.

Eng-Poet,
Imagine that eventually, most cars will be capable of 50-80 mpg combined. Then, we'll be able to meet gasoline demand with biomass, won't we? The technology for these high efficiency is here today. It just takes time to be adopted commercially, providing that gas prices will remain high. For home electricity, wind or solar will be best.

"the ICE is dead? NO, long live the ICE-electric hybrid" Especially if you run it with renewable H2 or Methane.

My first reaction on reading the article was: why ethanol? Once you've got syngas, there are so many ways you can go; I wouldn't think ethanol was one of the easier or more efficient paths. But it depends a lot on the catalysts available, and how good they are.

Interesting bunch of comments, by some clearly well-informed observers. However, I doubt that a bunch of amateurs (include myself) are going to be able to resolve what product or product mix really makes the most economic sense. There are a lot of details in which the devil can hide, and I suspect that even working chemical process engineers would have trouble sorting the issues. Personally, I'd put my bets on a "natural" mix of methane, methanol, ethylene, and DME as most energy efficient. But what do I know?

About co-generation from gasification: gasification does not produce heat, it consumes it. You can can certainly divert some of the produced syngas to make power, but what's the advantage? Maybe some scale advantage from running a larger gasifier operation, but no obvious energy advantage.

F-T synthesis does produce a good deal of heat, but it's relatively low grade. Good for distillation and drying, but for power generation, you'd only get low pressure steam and maybe 10% efficiency.

Regarding conversion of methanol to methane: though I hesitate to challenge Rafael, I believe it's actually pretty easy. Methanol should "burn" in a hydrogen atmosphere to produce methane and water vapor. There's a small energy cost, and then you have to separate the hydrogen from the methane. That's non-trivial, and costs a bit more energy, but there are several ways to go about it.

However, why bother? What would you want to do with the methane? If it's for transportation fuel, better to stay with the methanol. If it's for power generation, better to stay with the syngas.

Of course gasification consumes heat input, and does not produce it. I certainly know that (cf. my comment about "having to burn this coal anyway..."), and I think Roger knows it as well. But the question he was addressing is how much heat does it *actually* have to consume -- that it, how much of the input energy is non-recoverable once you've turned your biomass into syngas.

The point is, though you may have to burn a whole pile of coal to heat up your load of biomass to something like 800 F (or whatever), by the very end of your process you need the liquid ethanol product to be no hotter than 100 F in order to safely load it and transport it. It seems likely, based on first impressions, that there is room somewhere in this process for a steep drop in temperature. That could be effected by simply venting the heat into the atmosphere, or it could be effected by running the hot syngas through a heat exchanger in order to cool it, and then having that heat exchanger dump the energy into a steam boiler. Which could then be used to run an electricity turbine. If you then take the view that we were going to burn coal to generate electricity anyway, the loss associated with the gasification process could turn out to be fairly low. You'd have to compare the electricity produced by this sort of "co-generation" with the amount that could be produces if you burned the same amount of coal in a standard electricity plant. There is at least a chance that the amounts could be rather close.

To the extent the chemical bonds in the resulting simple molecules (H2) embody more potential energy than the chemical bonds in the complex carbohydrate molecules of the input mass (which I think they do -- I recall from somewhere that reforming methane into H2 causes external energy to be "embedded" in the H2 molecules), we haven't lost anything, we've only moved the energy to an different place which also happens to be a pretty useful one. To the extent that we keep the temperature in the syngas conversion chamber up at high levels, we retain the ability to run an efficient thermodynamic engine -- to generate electricity say.

The key proviso is that there needs to be a stage in the syngas-to-ethanol process where the temperature of the working fluid can be quickly dropped from 800 F to perhaps 400 F or 200 F. That is the point at which a classic Carnot engine can make useful work out of this heat which we have already generated.

The key accounting trick is to think of a syngas-to-liquids cogeneration plant as a conventional power plant that needs to run anyway. Then, the only operating cost involved in the syngas conversion step is the cost associated with any additional fuel that needs to be burned to keep electricity production up to previous levels, plus the typcialy overhead costs of a syngas plant such as pumping, maintenance, etc.

The point is, gasification consumes thermal energy. But it does not need to "consume" all the thermal energy used to keep the operating temperature up.

Certainly there is thermal energy in the hot gases coming out of the gasifier. Is it more productive to use that energy to fire a boiler to generate power, or to use in in a counter-flow heat exchanger to provide a portion of the energy that the endothermic gasification reaction will soak up? Bearing in mind than any energy you use for the former rather than the latter will have to be made up by increased partial combustion of the input coal or biomass?

That's not actually a rhetorical question. There may be considerations that make it more favorable to use the hot gasifier products for power generation rather than for heating inputs. I don't know. But it's not going to be a big win, energy-wise, on way or the other. When the product gases are used to preheat the input materials, gasification is a nearly isentropic process. Most of the energy liberated through partial combustion of the input carbon ends up in increased chemical potential energy in the produced synthesis gas.

Which is why using focused sunlight to provide the high temperature thermal energy to drive gasification is one of the more efficient uses of solar energy. Instead of burning half your input in order to make synthesis gas from the other half, all of the input material ends up as synthesis gas. You get almost twice the yield per ton of coal or biomass.

I recall a landfill gas to hydrogen project along just these lines -- using concentrated solar energy as a (partial) heat input to support the endothermic reaction involved. To the extent you can effectively substitute solar for coal in this process, that makes perfect sense. But to the extent that you are still burning coal, the point remains that there are several useful pathways to extract useful energy products from the inputs, meaning that this proposition need not be much of a loser. Thermal input from coal can be embodied in the higher energy content of the H2 component of the syngas, and after gasification, the residual heat can be used to pre-heat the incoming mixture (your suggestion) or run a thermodynamic engine (Roger's suggestion). Or maybe even both (step from 800 to 200 in a boiler, step from 200 to 100 as a counterflow preheater). Specific engineering practicalities will dictate which is the superior plan in any given case. They will also determine whether we want to allow any of the biomass/syngas to be consumed to create thermal energy to promote the gasification of the remaining amount, or if we want to prevent that reaction and use only other thermal inputs. There are good reasons for prefering the latter. Biomass might be more expensive to acquire or scarcer than coal or solar power. In any event, I don't think anyone was suggesting that we allow some of the syngas flow to be diverted to electricity production. I think we were merely trying to say that electricity co-generation is one possible way to make effective use of residual waste heat that remains after biomass is successfully reduced to gas -- as you point out, there are certainly others.

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