|Virent’s BioForming platform technology. Click to enlarge.|
Virent Energy Systems, Inc. and Shell have successfully started production at the first demonstration plant converting plant sugars into gasoline and gasoline blend components, rather than ethanol.
The demonstration plant, located at Virent's facilities in Madison, Wisconsin, is the latest step in a joint biogasoline research and development effort, announced by both companies in March 2008. (Earlier post.) The demonstration plant has the capacity to produce up to 38,000 liters (10,000 gallons US) per year, which will be used for engine and fleet testing.
Moving from lab-scale to a demonstration production plant is an important milestone for biogasoline. There is some way to go on the route to commercialization, but we have been delighted with the speed of progress achieved by our collaboration with Virent.
—Luis Scoffone, Vice President of Alternative Energies at Shell.
Virent’s BioForming platform technology—based on the Aqueous Phase Reforming (APR) Process (earlier post)—is a catalytic, low-temperature (180º–260º C) method for the production of hydrogen or alkanes from oxygenated compounds. BioForming combines APR technology with conventional catalytic processing technologies such as catalytic hydrotreating and catalytic condensation processes, including ZSM-5 acid condensation, base catalyzed condensation, acid catalyzed dehydration, and alkylation.
As in a conventional petroleum refinery, each of these process steps in the BioForming platform can be optimized and modified to produce a particular slate of desired hydrocarbon products. For example, a gasoline product can be produced using a zeolite (ZSM-5) based process, jet fuel and diesel can be produced using a base catalyzed condensation route, and a high octane fuel can be produced using a dehydration/oligomerization route. The partnership with Shell has focused on optimizing the process for the production of gasoline-like molecules.
The biogasoline fuel molecules have higher energy content than ethanol and deliver better fuel economy. They can be blended seamlessly to make conventional gasoline or combined with gasoline containing ethanol. The sugars can be sourced from non-food feedstocks such as corn stover, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, in addition to conventional biofuel feedstocks such as wheat, corn and sugarcane. The demonstration plant is currently using beet sugar.
This new biofuel can be blended with gasoline in high concentrations for use in standard gasoline engines. The new product has the potential to eliminate the need for specialized infrastructure, engine modifications, and blending equipment necessary for the use of gasoline containing more than 10% ethanol.
In addition to its work with Virent, Shell’s global biofuels program includes collaborations with Iogen Energy (on the production of enzymatic cellulosic ethanol from agricultural waste), Codexis (on enzyme conversion) and a joint venture called Cellana (research of marine algae for vegetable oil).
Production of Conventional Liquid Fuels from Sugars (Virent whitepaper)