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

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


shaun mann

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”?

Rafael Seidl

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:

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

allen Z

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.

tom deplume

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.

Roger Pham

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.

Rafael Seidl

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.

Roger Pham

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.

Mark R. W. Jr.

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!

Paul Dietz

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?

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