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“Second-Generation” Biofuels: Heavy Focus on Biomass-to-Liquids


The newly-released EU biomass fuel action plan (earlier post) highlights the emergence of a commercial and policy-making focus on “second-generation” biofuels—biofuels created by thermochemical conversion such as gasification and Fischer-Tropsch processing, for example.

Although a variety of bio-based fuels are possible products of this route (hydrogen, methanol, ethanol, dimethyl ether (DME) and Fischer-Tropsch fuels (Biomass-to-Liquids, or BTL)), it is likely BTL diesel (which is chemically different than the methyl-ester biodiesel produced, for example, from rapeseed or soybeans) that will see the most attention over the next years, especially in Europe.

(Market development of thermochemical conversion of biomass or waste to fuels is not limited to Europe, however. Future Fuels Inc. in the US recently announced plans and funding to build a 52-million-gallon per year biomass/waste-to-ethanol facility in New Jersey.)

From the policy-maker’s point of view, second-generation biofuels offer a number of advantages:

  • They allow the use of a much wider range of raw material, especially waste. This can significantly lower the cost of the feedstock.

  • The resulting fuels are high-quality and clean-burning, with potentially a much lower well-to-wheels CO2 profile than other liquid fuel options.

  • The cultivation process (if any) could be less environmentally intensive than for ordinary agricultural crops. Lower intensity of cultivation will result in even lower greenhouse gas emissions from cultivation.

  • They can be co-produced with electricity.

Gasification and the subsequent catalytic Fischer-Tropsch processing are key technologies for producing second generation automotive biofuels. That combination of technologies, with its range of different systems and choices, however, makes the development of economically and environmentally viable systems much more complex than, say, building an ethanol plant.

There are numerous issues to work out. As summarized at the SYNBIOS conference—an event focused on biofuel production by the thermal gasification of biomass—these include:

  • Deciding on the appropriate gasification route and gasifier technology. These fall into two primary categories.

    The first is a one-step high-temperature path (used by Shell, Uhde, Future Energy, Chemrec and others) to push the feedstock straight up to its 1,300ºC temperature. This is similar in approach to coal-based gasification systems.

    The second is a two-step process (with a medium intermediate temperature (used by Choren, Värnamo/Chrisgas and others). This approach enables more optimization, and allows for intermediate gas cleaning, but also has its downsides (soot/coking).

  • Issues specific to the use of biomass in a gasifier (such as solids feeding, pre-treatment for entrained flow gasifiers and so on).

  • Fuel flexibility.

  • Optimizing synthesis gas quality.

The CO2 emission profile from these processes depends on the process technology, whether the energy source for conversion is biomass only or whether an external energy source is used, and whether the biomass is a waste product (e.g. straw) or an energy crop. This also affects the cost. Here too, significant CO2 gains and energy balance improvements are hoped for.

In Europe, Choren is developing a large-scale pilot plant (15,000 tonnes/year) in Freiberg, Germany. In addition, Choren and Shell are in the process of developing a full-size prototype commercial plant with a capacity of 200,000 tonnes/year which optimistically, depending on the experience with the pilot plant, could be operational in 2009/10.

Hybrids between first- and second-generation biofuels are also in preparation. Neste Oil in Finland is expanding its Porvoo refinery to use vegetable oil and animal fat as a raw material in a conventional hydrogenation process (using hydrogen produced at the refinery).

The resulting NExBTL synthetic has the same fuel qualities as BTL or GTL with lower investment, but higher raw material costs (closer to conventional biodiesel). The NExBTL 170,000 tonnes/year plant at Porvoo is due to come on-stream in summer 2007.

Neste has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with oil major Total to evaluate possibilities of jointly building a large-scale NExBTL plant adjacent to one of Total’s oil refineries, with the aim of beginning production in 2008.




This seems to be the way to go. Choren's press releases suggest well-to-wheels net CO2 emissions of about 10% of petro-fuels, while coal-to-liquids is apparently about 200%. Suitable taxes or pollution fees could tilt the playing field in favour of biomass. A major drawback for economically depressed areas seems to be the need for constant fine tuning and a high minimum throughput of many tons per day.


What biomass and how do you convert it to diesel?


Most any biomass, and you do it the same way as indirect coal liquefaction:  gasify to CO and H2, scrub of impurities, and catalytically convert to hydrocarbons and water.

If this process is as efficient as coal liquefaction, it will yield considerably more output than cellulosic ethanol.  The downside is the large investment.

Roger Arnold

The process can be CO2 negative and sustainable if most of the char from the initial pyrolysis step is returned to the fields as a soil ammendment. The volatile fractions driven off in the pyrolysis step are reformed to produce syngas. See http://www.eprida.com/

The steam reforming can be driven by partial combustion by oxygen from an air liquefaction and distillation plant. That's probably the most economical way to go for a very large installation. However, syngas yields can be improved by using electricity from solar and / or wind plants is used to produce hydrogen and oxygen. The whole process then becomes more strongly carbon negative.

Of equal significance, perhaps, coupling BTL with wind and solar electricity should help to make smaller BTL plants economically competitive.

I think this approach is probably the right way to produce moderate amounts of jet and diesel fuel once oil gets scarce. But electrification is still the most efficient and cost-effective option for most forms of ground transportation.




I would expect that the Wahhabi Oil Ministry will react to the loss of market share when these alternative fuel production techniques come on-line.

Investors must act with caution, lest the Wahhabis reduce the price of crude back below the $40 bbl thresh-hold.

An Engineer

The Wahhabi's no longer are setting the price of oil. The price of oil is currently chased up by demand (where in the past it would be chased up by limiting supply). The difference is this: The Wahhabi's are already pumping at full bore. They are effectively powerless to reduce the price of oil.

Of course, you can't expect them to admit it. You can't even expect our brave leader to figure it out.

Tripp Bisop

yeah, from the looks of it the saudis are no longer able to improve their production in any meaningful way. The Kuwaitis seem to be struggling with the same issue. They can drive the price up by cutting back on production but that would be counter productive in the mid-long term.

john varghis

second generation biofuel technology should be made available to all those who are concerned about the harmful effects of indiscriminate use of fossil fuels on the environment & the climate

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