Syntec Catalytic Synthesis Process Yields 105 Gallons of Alcohols Per Ton of Biomass

15 February 2008

Syntec Biofuel Inc has achieved a yield of 105 gallons of alcohols (ethanol, methanol, n-butanol and n-propanol) per ton of biomass. In 2006, the company had targeted a yield of approximately 113 gallons per ton.

The Syntec Biomass to Alcohols (B2A) technology (earlier post), initially developed at the University of British Columbia, parallels the low-pressure catalytic synthesis process used by methanol producers. Syntec’s technology uses any renewable waste biomass such as hard or soft wood, sawdust or bark, organic waste, agricultural waste (including sugar cane bagasse and corn stover), and switch-grass to produce syngas.

This syngas, consisting of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, is then scrubbed and passed through a fixed bed reactor containing the Syntec catalysts to produce ethanol, methanol and higher order alcohols. The Syntec technology can also produce alcohols from biogas (sourced from anaerobic digestion of manure and effluent), landfill gas or stranded methane.

In October 2007, Syntec calculated that the variable cost per gallon alcohol on then current yield (approximately 73 gallons per ton) was C$0.48 per gallon, which it expected to shrink to C$0.37 per gallon on reaching a targeted yield of 113 gallons per ton.

Current dry mill production of corn ethanol yields approximately 100 gallons per ton of corn (2.8 gallons/bushel corn grain, 1 bushel = approximately 56 lbs).

Syntec is continuing to optimize its catalytic technology, and projects reaching the 113 gallon per ton yield this year.

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Biogas might be better untilized if it's burned in city stoves and NG powered vehicles then converting it into an alcohol fuel. Another problem is the mix alcohol product is not a viable fuel and needs to be separated, it would be much better if they could produce only one kind of alcohol per reactor thus simplifying separation costs and bring up production.

I have heard no problem with the separation of alcohols. I would rather have 100 gallons of fuel from 1 ton of corn stalks than 100 gallons from 1 ton of corn kernels.

Doesn't say what biomass mix they got the 113 out of.

They may be able to use any biomass as input but would the yield be the same from each? That seems doubtful.

If I read the article correctly they are gasifying everything first. If that's true then I'm don't think you'd get any more gas from the kernel than they would from the stalk.

SJC you were right that catalytic conversion is still a very viable option to producing ethanol. Coskata also claims over 100 gallons of ethanol per ton using biological conversion of syngas. Since they use the same feedstock the competition boils down to capital cost.

We sure won’t see corn used as a feedstock to produce syngas. It cost $5 a bushel and that is$200 per ton. The numbers given for variable costs implies a feedstock price of 113*0.37=$41.81 per ton. I guess this must be the price of waste wood, paper mill waste etc that will be used for the syngas production. Corn would need to go beyond$1 a bushel to mach that and that is nonsense. The advantage of corn ethanol is of cause that its capital costs are very low. All the capital cost numbers that I have seen for cellulosic ethanol are still too high to compete with corn ethanol when all costs are considered despite that cellulosic ethanol is having much lower variable cost. It will be very interesting to hear more about the capital cost of these two new syngas technologies. At this early stage they probably are not very certain of that either although Coskata postulates production cost of $1 per gallon. I will believe it if they still claim it when they have had a 5 million gallon a year pilot plant in full operation for 12 months. You can synthesize just about any hydrocarbon from syngas with the right catalyst. So why make alcohols when you could make gasoline? I was referring to making 100 gallons of ethanol from corn kernels using fermentation and distillation in comparison to this process. I should have been more clear in my statement. The earlier post targeted 114 gallons from this process. It sounds like they are heading in that direction. The fact that gasification and synthesis can take several inputs and make several outputs makes it a more attractive business proposition to me. IMHO, what makes syngas exciting is that it can use just about anything carbon based as feed stock. That means that municipal garbage can be used. Considering that municipalities are currently paying good money to dispose of their trash, this can be used to heavily offset the initial cost of the syngas production. I don't know how the numbers stack up, but converting garbage to electricity or to fuel sounds like a win-win to me! However, the technology is still very new and I hope that we don't end up trading one type of pollution (ground & water) to another type of pollution (air)! @ Henrik, Andrew Carnegie, (the steel magnate who was the Bill Gates of his day), was willing to tear apart a factory and retool it if it could get his marginal cost per ton of steel produced a few cents lower than the competition. He knew in his commodity business, he could make it up in volume. He dominated his industry. The point is, capital costs are important, only if the equipment has too short a lifetime, or they build in an inefficient process (raising marginal cost per unit output). If you can make it up in volume with an inherently more efficient process, better throughput, lower marginal cost...you're golden. When (if ever) will syngas do that? I've heard many speculate that microbial conversion of cellulose to alcohol will give better EROIE than syngas approaches. Will that eventually lead to a lower marginal cost per unit of fuel? That's the important question. thanks Neil: I know little about syngas production. Maybe they do get the same outputs from any inputs. If so, is this the only process in the world that does? Perhaps the inputs have to be equally dry? Above sounds a little impudent but that is not my intent. My question is sincere and I don't know the answer. From what I have read, gasification likes a consistent feed stock. The process is designed on that basis. You can switch from doing a run of millions of tons of corn stalks to millions of tons of wheat straw, but the process might need to be altered. If it is not dry, then more energy is used to dry it in the preheating phase making the overall process less efficient. I do not know how valid gasifying landfill material is, because it does not represent a consistent feed stock. Perhaps some day this will not only be possible, but economically viable, but I am not sure that it is now. If the waste were put into groups like recyclable materials, it might be easier. Biomass like corn stalks and wheat straw sell for around$40 per dry ton. Now that price could go up, if there were a high demand market for it. Since you may be able to alter your process to take another kind of biomass, that may not be much of a problem. Thousands of tons of a biomass feed stock would probably be transacted under a term period contract, thus reducing the business risk.

Healthy Breeze I know a little bit about the story of Andrew Carnegie but mostly indirectly because I have visited the residence of his associate Henry Clay Frick. This residence is turned into a really interesting museum in New York, 5th avenue. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frick_Collection. I will recommend it to everyone even those that are normally not interested in art. Frick’s home is breathtaking and on top of the art experience you get this fascinating story about the biggest industrialists of their time.

Capital cost is not a problem with proven technology. The problem is that this syngas technology is not proven yet so the investors will wait until the entrepreneurs can demonstrate their technology in a 1-5 million gallon pilot plant for a reasonable period. If that looks good they will get more money to do one full scale facility (50-100 million gallons a year). Let that run for a year as well and if it still makes ethanol for $1 a gallon all cost included then they can get all the finance they ask for. It will be a fuel revolution and it will only take 15-20 years to scale up to energy independence for many western countries. As pointed out by SJC one worry is whether there will be enough feedstock. I did a few calculations once and there is quite a lot of such feedstock and there will be even more when it becomes a big industry. The biggest worry I see is still whether they can prove that$1 a gallon is doable. Coskata plans to prove that by 2011-2012.

sjc:

There is a garbage to electricity facility that's about to go on-line here in Ottawa. It's probably not as efficient running on municipal waste as it might be if it used dry feed stock, but basically it works by gasifying the garbage in a high temperature plasma and then piping the resulting gas into an internal combustion engine to generate electricity. There's more at: http://www.zerowasteottawa.com

Thanks for the link. If you put the output right into turbines many things are possible. It is the process of making liquid fuels that becomes more selective.

Landfill methane can be used in turbines, but has to be cleaned up more to be put into the NG pipelines. It all depends on what makes sense in the application.

@ Ben -

biomethane is indeed a great fuel, but NG vehicles carry a hefty premium and compressing the gas isn't free either. Liquid fuels - even alcohols - are more attractive in terms of on-board storage, but producing them from biomass-derived syngas releases a lot of energy at the facility rather than in the vehicle.

You are right to point out that methanol is unsuitable for unmodified ICEs as it is corrosive to aluminum - which is what the block, pistons and cylinder head are normally made from. Unfortunately, it is unclear how much of Syntec's 105 gallon/ton yield is methanol. Separating it out requires distillation at 64.7 degC, a secondary process that can be driven by waste heat from the synthesis process. Methanol can be used as a feedstock for various petrochemical processes, including the production of DME (an excellent but expensive diesel substitute that liquefies under mild pressure, cp. LPG).

The other alcohols are suitable gasoline additives with adequate to good octane numbers, though propanol may be more valuable as an industrial solvent. Ethanol is currently strongly favored by US law.

@ TC -

it is indeed possible to produce gasoline directly from methanol using the MTG process. However, it is hard to operate at high conversion rates and requires high pressures.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol_to_gasoline

The older Fischer-Tropsch process can be tuned to produce either diesel or gasoline, depending on the catalyst used and the temperature level. However, it yields a lot of undesirable byproducts.

http://www.greencarcongress.com/2007/12/dkrw-selects-ex.html

Conceptually, syngas application plants could change their product on short notice to maximize profits.

When wholesale electricity prices are high (early evening hours or during hot spells), syngas production could fuel turbogenerators.

When wholesale electricity prices are low, syngas could be catalytically (Syntec process) or bacterially (Coskata process) converted to alcohol.

Conversion of cheap biomass (like waste wood, paper mill waste, municipal waste, and farmed switchgrass) into liquid fuels for transportation is going to be big business in a few years (4-6 years) with almost certainty. The following explains why.

The implied cost of one ton of dry biomass is about $40. They say they can convert a ton of biomass into about 100 gallons of ethanol. This is about 40% of the material in biomass that can be converted into high value fuels that sell for at least$2 a gallon. In other words one ton of biomass at $40 can be converted into 100 gallon of ethanol that sells for$200. Now this leaves a >really nice< margin for capital cost, the cost of labor, electricity etc. It simply can’t be very long before a competitive conversion process is discovered and tested in a pilot plant.

Note that crude oil sells for about $90 a barrel. This is about ((1000/160)*90 =$562.5) $560 per ton of crude oil. This is very expensive compared to the cheapest forms of dry biomass. One ton of crude oil is about (6.25*42) 262.5 gallons of various fuels including gasoline and diesel. If these various fuels sell for an average price of$2.5 per gallon then it means that you can convert one ton of crude oil at $560 into 262 gallons of various fuel that sell for about$660. This is >not a large< margin for conversion cost (refinery cost, electricity labor etc.). However, engineers spend more than 100 years to bring these costs down.

The conclusion of this analysis is that there is a lot of economic incentive to develop conversion technology for biomass to liquid fuel. I did not realize this before I saw the price of dry biomass is now ten times lower than the price of crude oil. Wait and see. I am not the only person who made this comparison. They know it at big oil and big farm and they are working to get this refinery technology out of the lab ASAP. I now believe Coskata and others who say that they are on track to use syngas technology etc. to do liquid fuel for $1 a gallon. This is going to be cheaper than drilling oil at deep see or trying to make oil from tar sand in Canada. It will be a great boost for the environment and for big agriculture. And big fossil oil will become big bio oil :-). PS please correct me if I have made any errors or important omissions. Henrik, I agree, it looks like it could be a money maker to me. You make a gallon of fuel for$1 per gallon (all costs) and you sell it for $2 per gallon wholesale. Some pretty easy arithmetic. In fact, if I were to put together a business plan to do just that, I would be real interested in getting the plan into practice. This is good stuff. Here is one of the quotes from the press release: "...B2A process profitable in relatively small scale facilities using a wide variety of waste biomass feedstocks in any combination.” http://www.syntecbiofuel.com (first item in the news section) It sounds like the process may be less sensitive to changes in the input materials. This is really good news. @ SJC The small scale facility (300 tonnes of dry biomass per day or about 30 trucks a day) is also very important. It will save transportation cost that they can get the biomass locally. If it only cost$40 a ton the transportation cost will be important and small scale production means less transportation. Small scale production also means less capital cost per factory and that will make it easier to get financed. One bad thing though about Syntec’s catalyst process is that it yields a rather inhomogeneous product. The “ethanol” is composed of a mixture of ethanol, methanol, n-butanol and n-propanol. I guess this means you need to transport this fuel to a large scale refinery with the ability to transform this fuel into a uniform product that can be made into E85, E10, E5 for end consumer sale. This is a problem because it may imply that the selling price of a gallon of Syntec’s ethanol bled will be importantly less than $2 a gallon. Still there is a long way down to$1 a gallon which may be their break even price.

It should be mentioned that the Coskata process as far as I can tell does not have the problem with an inhomogeneous ethanol blend. They use microorganisms instead of catalysts to convert the syngas and this is a far more controllable technology. The Coskata process, as I understand, yields pure ethanol that is identical to grain ethanol and the selling price is therefore $2 a gallon at current prices. In fact I believe that as soon as the ethanol industry solve their current distribution bottlenecks (they can’t get enough trains for ethanol transport and they have not yet build an infrastructure of ethanol pipes, instead they use more expensive truck transportation as a temporary solution) then the price of pure ethanol will approach the price of gasoline which is about$2.5 gallon.

You don’t have to separate mixed alcohols to run as fuel in a properly equipped internal combustion engine. All those alcohols have octane ratings above 100 so any OTTO cycle engine of normal compression should work fine. What needs to change is the fuel lines as methanol and ethanol are corrosive. Butanol and propanol are not as corrosive or hydrophilic in fact it’s the butanol and propanol that make this a better fuel than just methanol or ethanol alone. Both are noncorossive to steel, non hydrophilic and have a much higher specific energy in J/kg than just methanol or ethanol alone. With the right software upgrade to the ECU the O2 sensor can be used to compute the proper fuel air ratio for stoichiometric combustion of any mixed alcohol mixture or alcohol/gasoline for that matter. This has already been done using existing sensors and ECU’s. Simply the O2 sensor tells the fuel injectors when 0 lamba has been reached for a given mass air flow, inverting the equations using the known amount of fuel mass injected over the know mass air flow gives the unknown of X which is equal to the chemical energy density of fuel in J/g which is then used to compute the fuel air ratio for all other mass air flows. And you all said algebra would never be useful in primary school  essentially the injectors keep riching up the mixture at till lamba 0 is reached; then the computed fuel air ratio is used from that point further in a closed loop control regime. If you tank up with a different mix the O2 sensor will detect that the combustion products have moved away from lamba 0 and adjust rich or lean until the mixture is stoichiometric again, recompute and establish a new fuel air curve. This is baby steps for a ECU running at millions of cycles a second.

Thanks for the explanation. The other factor is the fuel standards. If one process is allowed to mixed things, other processes will cry fowl. This is a minor point and should not stand in the way of a good solution, but one I thought should be pointed out.

Every entrenched interest will try to keep policy favoring them. It is self interest inertia. Corn ethanol people will want policy to favor the plans that they have made. If cellulose ethanol favors a minor adjustment, it might find less resistance.

I have long favored going with the flow and not against the grain. If a solution is more workable from a lot of standpoints, it is more likely to succeed. Business schools call this situational leadership. You find out what works and increase your odds of success.

@ burnbabyburn

Stochiometric A/F ratio is defined as Lambda=1.

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