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Shell and Virent Collaborating To Develop Biogasoline From Plant Sugars

Bioforming
Virent’s BioForming platform can convert a wide range of biomass-derived feedstocks to fuels and chemicals.

Shell and Virent Energy Systems, Inc., are collaborating on a joint research and development effort to convert plant sugars directly into “drop-in” gasoline and gasoline blend components, rather than ethanol. Such biofuels and components can be used at high blend rates in standard gasoline engines, and could potentially eliminate the need for specialized infrastructure, new engine designs and blending equipment.

Virent is exclusive licensee of an aqueous phase reforming (APR) process—developed by its co-founders Dr. Randy Cortright and Dr. Jim Dumesic at the University of Wisconsin - Madison—for the conversion of readily available biomass-generated sugar feedstocks to carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels or hydrogen. (Earlier post.) The sugars can be sourced from non-food sources like corn stover, switch grass, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, in addition to conventional biofuel feedstock like wheat, corn and sugarcane. The BioForming process is Virent’s first commercial application of the APR pathway.

BioForming is a catalytic, low-temperature (180º–260º C) method for the production of hydrogen or alkanes from oxygenated compounds; the partnership with Shell will focus on optimizing the process for the production of gasoline-like molecules. These new ‘biogasoline’ molecules have higher energy content than ethanol (or butanol) and deliver better fuel efficiency.  They can be blended seamlessly to make conventional gasoline or combined with gasoline containing ethanol.

The production process requires little energy and its biofuels separate naturally from water, unlike ethanol which requires energy inputs (61% of its final energy content) to separate it from water, according to the company.

In 2007, Shell Hydrogen, LLC and Virent Energy Systems announced a five-year joint development agreement to develop further and commercialize Virent’s BioForming technology platform for hydrogen production. (Earlier post.)

The two companies have so far collaborated for one year on the biogasoline research.  The BioForming technology has advanced rapidly, exceeding milestones for yield, product composition, and cost, according to the partners.  Future efforts will focus on further improving the technology and scaling it up for larger volume commercial production.

Virent has proven that sugars can be converted into the same hydrocarbon mixtures of today’s gasoline blends.  Our products match petroleum gasoline in functionality and performance. Virent’s unique catalytic process uses a variety of biomass-derived feedstocks to generate biogasoline at competitive costs.  Our results to date fully justify accelerating commercialization of this technology.

—Dr. Randy Cortright, Virent CTO, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President

Resources

  • Huber, G.W.; Chheda, J.N.; Barrett, C.J.; Dumesic, J.A; Production of Liquid Alkanes by Aqueous-Phase Processing of Biomass-Derived Carbohydrates;  Science 2005, 308, 1446-1450 DOI: 10.1126/science.1111166

Comments

Cervus

Perhaps they can use the sugars produced from PetroSun's algae feedstocks...

The fact that the oil companies are more more and more locked out of the existing oil reserves is forcing them to innovate like this. OPEC has us over a barrel right now.

Cost, production volume, and feedstock issues have yet to be resolved here. But this is going in the right direction.

Alex Kovnata

The problem with biogasoline, as is also true for petroleum-based gasoline, is that its antiknock rating will be lower than concentrated ethanol. The latter has lower energy content, but its octane rating is equivalent to mid-grade if not premium gasoline. This is important, if you want your car to have a supercharged or turbocharged engine.

If we were to utilize bio-gasoline, we would have to add 10% or so ethanol as an octane enhancer.

Since spark-ignited engines running on pure alcohol (especially pure methanol) tend to be hard to start, one needs to add ~10-15% gasoline to provide volatility. Hence there is a place for both biogasoline and ethanol (or butanol) in today's biofuel R & D efforts.

Alex Kovnat

The problem with biogasoline, as is also true for petroleum-based gasoline, is that its antiknock rating will be lower than concentrated ethanol. The latter has lower energy content, but its octane rating is equivalent to mid-grade if not premium gasoline. This is important, if you want your car to have a supercharged or turbocharged engine.

If we were to utilize bio-gasoline, we would have to add 10% or so ethanol as an octane enhancer.

Since spark-ignited engines running on pure alcohol (especially pure methanol) tend to be hard to start, one needs to add ~10-15% gasoline to provide volatility. Hence there is a place for both biogasoline and ethanol (or butanol) in today's biofuel R & D efforts.

Rafael Seidl

APR normally breaks down sugary or alcoholic feedstocks into CO2, H2 and relatively short alkanes. One big advantage is that it relies on catalysts rather than fermentation by finicky bacteria, so it's much easier to scale up to quantities relevant to a refinery. Also, it can handle sugar mixtures, such as the mixture of glucose and xylose produced when cellulose is pulped. Low-value products such as excess glycerol can by be processed as well.

The present project will focus on catalysts that yield somewhat longer alkanes (c5 - c8) that can be used to increase bulk gasoline production without any change to fuel or vehicle specs. Inevitably, a significant amount of hydrogen and gaseous alkanes will be co-produced. The hydrogen can be separated with a molecular sieve used to remove sulfur during fuel finishing. Another application is the catalytic hydrogenation of arbitrary vegetable oils from e.g. algae to increase diesel yield - something that will of interest in e.g. Europe.

Like any sugar conversion process - catalytic or biological - APR also co-produces significant amounts of CO2 and heat. The CO2 can be removed via pressure swing absorption, if desired for e.g. intensive algaculture. Otherwise, it is vented along with the CO2 already produced at the refinery as part of conventional operations. Since the CO2 content of the APR reactor's educts will anyhow be measured for process control, it can be exempted from the total tally used to drive the CO2 emissions certificate trade.

Dan A

I wish they would give some numbers on the relative EROEI of biogasoline as compared to ethanol. While biogasoline would be more convienent, especially considering today's infrastructure, if the EROEI wasn't high enough it wouldn't be worth it.

GreenPlease

So it's a cellulosic process. Sweet.

Now, how do they address the logistics of getting all of that cellulose to a "bio-refinery"? Perhaps they were thinking of using small scale refineries? No, that would kill the whole economy of scales thing...

I know, let's pyrolyze the cellulose feedstock into bio-oil and then ship it via pipeline. No, that gives up the advantage of using a low temp aqueous reforming process...

Here's an idea: let's get the 101st, Delta, 160th SOAR, and a couple thousand other highly trained soldiers and take over the middle east. What? The Arab D has been depleted?

Screw it. Batteries.

Treehugger

Their process look likes quite a smart and flexible approach. They need to be more transparent on the EROI from cellulose to fuel, they reported quite good number from cellulose and sugar to H2, but you have another catalytic process to then make their biogazoline. The good point is that their first catalityc process to get the G2 is in aqueous phase at low temperature, so no need to dry the biomass or to heat the biomass at very high temperature. Their biogazoline is not miscible with water which avoid the tedious and inefficient distillation. So on overwhole it looks good

But we need to see more...

jimbo

Gee, I'm so happy that one of the oil monopoly companies that are screwing us (think Exxon, $40 billion in profits last year) is now messing with the prospect of competition, entrepreneurship, invention and free enterprise in this country. Betcha that their process is not that effective or efficient, but they have the infrastructure that will be important. A much better bet is found at the Ausra website, which produces electricity for automobiles that is totally clean. A hundred square miles of their easily manufactured solar heat generators will run the country.

Engineer-Poet

Transportation costs will probably kill this idea unless it can be scaled way, way down.  What I hope to see is more efficient systems come along, and for them to out-bid the use of biomass to make hydrocarbons for ICE fuel.

Tim

If large APR plants are colocated with (1) large algal growing, (2) biodiesel refining, and (3) sewage treatment plants, then wastewater derived nitrogen and phosphorus and APR derived CO2 can feed algae. Then the algae-derived carbohydates and biodiesel-derived glycerine can fuel the APR process. The whole "campus" can also share heat (for heating substrates and algal ponds) so that a minimum is wasted. This scenario is possible in many metropolitan areas across the southern 1/3rd of the US.

ejj

What about wood pulp and scraps? How about bringing this technology to Florida where there is a never-ending supply of woody invasive & exotic species (Melaleuca, Brazillian Pepper, Australian Pine) all over the place?

Just grow bamboo and harvest it for cellulosic ethanol

sjc

The fact that they can distribute through the same channels is a plus for them. It is a way that Shell can be in the fuels business while OPEC and others hold most of the reserves. This is a smart move and will pay off if they can make it work. At some point the rising cost of drilling and exploration will make these efforts seem very practical.

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