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Virent Receives Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for BioForming Process to Produce Biohydrocarbon Fuels

Overview of Virent’s BioForming process. Click to enlarge.

Virent Energy Systems is receiving one of five 2009 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards (Small Business Award) for its BioForming process—a water-based, catalytic method to make gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel from the sugar, starch, or cellulose of plants that requires little external energy other than the plant biomass. (Earlier post.)

Virent’s catalytic BioForming process combines proprietary aqueous-phase reforming (APR) technology with conventional catalytic processing technologies used in petroleum refining—such as catalytic hydrotreating and catalytic condensation processes, including ZSM-5 acid condensation, base catalyzed condensation, acid catalyzed dehydration, and alkylation—to generate the same range of hydrocarbon molecules now refined from petroleum.

First, water-soluble carbohydrates are catalytically hydrotreated. Next, in the APR process, resultant sugar alcohols react with water over a proprietary heterogeneous metal catalyst to form hydrogen and chemical intermediates. Finally, processing with one of multiple catalytic routes turns these chemicals into gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel components. The technology also produces alkane fuel gases and other chemicals.

Like 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.

Unlike fermentation, Virent’s process can use mixed sugar streams, polysaccharides, and C5 and C6 sugars derived from cellulosic biomass. By using more plant mass per acre, the process provides better land use and higher value for farmers. The technology needs little energy input, and can be completely renewable.

Virent’s energy-dense biofuels separate naturally from water; as a result, the process eliminates the energy-intensive distillation to separate and collect biofuels required by other technologies. The hydrocarbon biofuels from Virent’s process are interchangeable with petroleum products, matching them in composition, functionality, and performance; they work in today's engines, fuel pumps, and pipelines. Preliminary analysis suggests that Virent’s BioForming process can compete economically with petroleum-based fuels and chemicals at crude oil prices of $60 a barrel.

The BioForming process can speed the use of non-food plant sugars to replace petroleum as an energy source, thus both decreasing dependence on fossil hydrocarbons and minimizing the impact on global water and food supplies. Fuels derived from the process can have a 20–30% per Btu cost advantage over ethanol. The BioForming platform is near commercialization. During 2008, Virent produced more than 40 liters of biogasoline for engine testing and began fabrication of its first 10,000-gallon-per-year pilot plant to produce biogasoline. Also in 2008, Shell and Virent announced their collaboration.

EPA’s Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge, now in its 14th year, promotes research and development of less-hazardous alternatives to existing technologies that reduce or eliminate waste, particularly hazardous waste, in industrial production. An independent panel of technical experts convened by the American Chemical Society selected the winners from nearly 100 nominated technologies. Awards are made in five categories; the other Green Chemistry Award Winners for 2009 are:

  • Eastman Chemical Company, Solvent-Free Biocatalytic Process for Cosmetic and Personal Care Ingredients (Greener Synthetic Pathways Award)
  • CEM Corporation, Innovative Analyzer Tags Proteins for Fast, Accurate Results without Hazardous Chemicals or High Temperatures (Greener Reaction Conditions Award)
  • The Procter & Gamble Company and Cook Composites and Polymers Company, Chempol MPS Resins and Sefos Sucrose Esters Enable High-Performance Low-VOC Alkyd Paints and Coatings (Designing Greener Chemicals Award)
  • Professor Krzysztof Matyjaszewski (Carnegie Mellon University), Atom Transfer Radical Polymerization: Low-impact Polymerization Using a Copper Catalyst and Environmentally Friendly Reducing Agents (Academic Award)



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