The DOE has awarded Abengoa Bioenergy R&D $2,250,000 for the development of new catalysts for the conversion of biomass-derived synthesis gas to ethanol.
The production of ethanol via gasification and subsequent catalytic synthesis is an alternative to the conventional fermentive production of ethanol (including cellulosic fermentive ethanol)—and may offer a lower-cost, more energy-efficient mechanism than some conventional approaches.
For one thing, the yield of a motor fuel from biomass should be higher for fuels produced by gasification/synthesis than by hydrolysis/fermentation. In the first technique, all the carbon can be pyrolized and converted to fuel; in the second, only carbon convertible to sugar can be used to produce fuel.
Key to the success of this approach, however, is the development of new catalysts for the synthesis step.
The proposed Abengoa research is to develop such a new class of catalysts to support a simpler and less energy-intensive process to convert bio-syngas to ethanol. The new catalysts are targeted to lower the temperature and pressure required for the conversion and to improve ethanol selectivity at a reasonable residence time.
The use of low-value biomass and a simple process should lower the capital investment and total energy consumption.
The program is a joint effort of Abengoa Bioenergy, UOP, Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and Washington University.
Abengoa Bioenergy, the leading partner, and UOP will have roles in catalyst testing, process modeling and simulation, and economic evaluation. Development of catalytic materials will be done mainly by ANL and PNNL. Washington University in collaboration with ANL and PNNL will be responsible for developing fundamental knowledge for relating catalyst structures to reactivity and selectivity. Abengoa Bioenergy will act as program manager for the project.
Research into the catalytic conversion of biomass gas stretches back some 20 years (that would be following the last set of oil crises). There have been a few pilot attempts to deliver ethanol via gasification.
Recently, Starbourn Energy entered into a strategic alliance with Triton (Starbourn-Triton) to build two gas-to-ethanol plants—one in Columbus, Ohio, the other in the UK. The plants are expected to produce 25,000 to 50,000 gallons of ethanol per day.
Starbourn-Triton claims that its proprietary GTL (Gas-to-Liquid) ethanol technology can use a variety of alternative fossil-based or waste-sanitary biomass feed stocks to generate high-test ethanol at a greater volume and at almost 50% lower cost than current fermentation-based methods.