|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)|
|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|