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Genifuel Licenses High-yield Algae-to-Natural Gas Process from PNNL

6 May 2009

Battelle is granting an exclusive license to Genifuel Corporation for a process developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to convert algae into renewable synthetic natural gas (SNG) for use in pipelines and power generation. Battelle operates PNNL for the US Department of Energy.

The method, called catalytic hydrothermal gasification, creates natural gas out of algae more quickly, more efficiently and at higher yields than other biofuel processes, according to PNNL. Genifuel expects the process also requires less capital investment. The license agreement moves this technology for renewable energy production a step closer to commercial reality.

Algae and other aquatic biomass hold significant promise for our country’s ability to produce renewable energy domestically. At Genifuel we have developed efficient growth and harvesting techniques for the aquatic biomass. With this gasification process, we can convert the biomass to a clean fuel that is almost completely carbon-neutral.

—Genifuel President Jim Oyler

PNNL originally developed the catalytic gasification process to clean up industrial and food processing waste as an alternative to incineration. Over the past 10 years, PNNL scientists advanced the technology to include a more stable catalyst that enables it to also convert wet biomass, such as algae. PNNL has tested the gasifier with terrestrial plants, kelp and water hyacinths. It works especially well for aquatic biomass such as algae, because the feedstock doesn't require drying before fuel production.

More than 99% of the biomass is gasified to yield both a product gas and steam, which contains the carbon dioxide produced during gasification. After condensation, the water enriched with dissolved carbon dioxide is recycled to the growth ponds to accelerate growth of the next generation of biomass while reducing emissions to nearly zero.

The PNNL gasifier runs at relatively low temperatures—350 °C compared with 700 °C or more for other systems—in a small stainless steel reactor. Compared with other methods of gasifying biomass, such as anaerobic digestion, PNNL’s process works 400 times faster and gives higher yields.

According to Doug Elliott, the PNNL scientist who invented the gasification process, “It is simple—we put wet biomass like algae in the gasifier, where it is catalytically converted, and we collect fuel gas and byproducts. It’s serendipity that our system creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct that Genifuel needs naturally to grow the algae. It’s a completely green process.

The technology behind the gasification process has been under development for a number of years. PNNL scientists have achieved significant advances in the chemistry of catalysts and the selection of the optimum temperatures and pressures for the process, as well as improving the systems to protect the catalyst from impurities in the biomass.

Genifuel grows aquatic biomass, such as algae, in shallow ponds or troughs, then harvests and processes the biomass for conversion using the PNNL technology. Water used in the growth ponds doesn’t have to be high-quality fresh water, and can be treated wastewater, brackish or alkaline water, or even salt water, Oyler said. Non-crop land can be used, so the process doesn’t compete with food production.

The company has been working with PNNL for nearly two years to demonstrate low-cost production of renewable natural gas from this feedstock. In addition to the license from Battelle, Genifuel also has a number of patents pending for its growth and production technologies using aquatic biomass.

Genifuel says it has no current plans to produce natural gas for motor fuel. The company points out, however, that the methane in the renewable natural gas can be made dimethyl ether (DME) for use as a diesel engine fuel.

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May 6, 2009 in Algae, Algal Fuels, Natural Gas | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

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"Genifuel says it has no current plans to produce natural gas for motor fuel."

Well that's their decision but in reality it's not necessary. North America has huge stores of natural gas and the infrastructure to get it into most of our homes where a home refueler like "Phill"- http://www.myphill.com/ -could wean us off oil. Solar heating of buildings, T. Boone Pickens' plan and the use of biochar instead of chemical fertilizers would extend those stores while we ramp-up renewable synthetic natural gas production.

This process could convert millions of tons of Kudzu from the U.S. southeast. That species of plant is invasive, so if you find a commercial use, it is worth harvesting.

ai_vin:

North America has huge stores of natural gas

I thought the idea was to keep ALL fossil fuels reserves under ground, not just the foreign ones.

@Anne

It is. However NG makes for a good stepping stone to a carbon neutral future. NG is the "greenest" fossil fuel you can have; methane, with 4 hydrogen atoms to each carbon atom, provides the most energy per CO2 released. It can be blended with hydrogen gas(a renewable fuel) and replaced with biomethane(another renewable fuel) as it comes on-line.

For cars methane is easier to store than hydrogen, gives you greater range than batteries and burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel [low-to-nil HC, NOX, CO, sulphur, particulate matter].

Personally I think 90% of our transportation needs could be covered through electrification. Biofuels could cover the rest.

This sounds like a direct to methane technique and not the classic syngas and synthesis to methane approach. Wet biomass directly to methane and gasification of dryer biomass to whatever fuels you want could be a good way to go.

On the site of geniful, the chemical pathway is shown ; there is a thermal destruction of any carbon-containing molecule to syngas and then catalytic conversion to methane. It is strange they are willing to pay for algae while they could use any (wet or dry) municipal waste or manure for free. Though I prefer algae to corn for making fuel, it sounds reasonable to start with converting waste-to-fuel before doing algae-to-fuel.
I must be missing something.

If they go to syngas, then they could synthesize almost any fuel, methane, methanol and so on. A lower temperature process could be done with concentrated solar thermal also.

"If they go to syngas, then they could synthesize almost any fuel, methane, methanol and so on."

Sure they could, but as you well know building a larger molecule takes more energy - most of which you don't get back in combustion.

One of the reasons some chemical companies left the U.S. was unstable natural gas prices. They were using the methane in natural gas to make methanol that is used in many processes. This could stabilize the price of methanol and bring some of them back.

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