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Syntec Biofuel and EERC Enter Joint Development Program to Convert Biomass and Waste to Bio-Butanol

Overview of Syntec’s B2A process. Click to enlarge.

Syntec Biofuel Inc. has entered into a joint development program with the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks for converting a wide variety of biomass and waste into bio-butanol. The core process utilizes Syntec’s high-performance catalyst technology in conjunction with an upgrading process exclusively licensed from the EERC Foundation.

Butanol (C4H10O), a four-carbon alcohol in widespread use as an industrial solvent, has an energy content closer to gasoline than ethanol’s. It is non-corrosive, can be distributed through existing pipelines, and can be—but does not have to be—blended with fossil fuels.

Butanol’s low vapor pressure and its tolerance to water contamination in gasoline blends facilitate its use in existing gasoline supply and distribution channels. It has the potential to be blended into gasoline at larger concentrations than existing biofuels without the need to retrofit vehicles and it offers better fuel economy than gasoline-ethanol blends, improving a car’s fuel efficiency and mileage.

Originally produced by fermentation starting nearly 90 years ago (using Clostridia acetobutylicum), butanol shifted to becoming a petrochemically-derived product in the 1950s as the price of petrochemicals dropped below that of starch and sugar substrates such as corn and molasses. Virtually all of the butanol is use today is produced petrochemically, although a number of initiatives—such as the BP-DuPont partnership—are targeting commercially viable production of bio-butanol via fermentation. (Earlier post.)

We are delighted to work with the EERC, a leader in the field of biomass gasification and liquefaction able to contribute its expertise to assist Syntec in our quest toward commercialization. We are not aware of any other company in the world that is developing a thermochemical process utilizing nonfood materials to predominantly produce bio-butanol. In a joint venture with DuPont, BP is building a demonstration plant in the United Kingdom to convert sugar into bio-butanol. This is concerning, as it uses food resources to produce fuel.

—Michael Jackson, CEO of Syntec

The EERC is very pleased to be partnering with Syntec. Combining the EERC’s expertise in biomass conversion and butanol production with Syntec’s unique catalyst technology will provide an excellent commercial opportunity to provide the world with an economical and sustainable renewable fuel option.

—EERC Director Gerald Groenewold

Syntec’s B2A (‘biomass to alcohol’) thermo-chemical technology (earlier post), initially developed at the University of British Columbia, gasifies waste biomass such as hard or soft wood, sawdust or bark, organic waste, agricultural waste (including sugar cane bagasse and corn stover), or switch-grass to produce syngas. This syngas is then scrubbed and passed through a fixed bed reactor containing Syntec catalysts to produce ethanol, methanol, n-butanol and n-propanol. Syntec says it currently has one of the highest-yielding catalysts within its sector.

The EERC is one of the leading developers of cleaner, more efficient energy and environmental technologies. A high-tech, nonprofit branch of UND, it pursues an entrepreneurial, market-driven approach to research and development in order to successfully demonstrate innovative technologies and commercialize them through its EERC Foundation and many clients. Since 1987, the EERC has had nearly 1,100 clients in 50 states and 51 countries. The EERC’s current research portfolio tops $236 million.



I am always glad to see work on butanol because I'm a huge fan. However, we have no idea how to judge if this is remotely worthwhile. Any idea how much it will cost to produce compared to other methods? Can it scale up? What time frame?


Ok so we've got butanol, which can be used in unmodified gasoline engines, and dimethyl ether, which can be used in unmodified diesel engines, and both can be distributed using the current infrastructure... Why are we messing around ethanol?


Because it is here, it is proven and it is huge. Ethanol was just a stop gap 30 years ago between President Carter and ADM to bridge the hole made by the oil embargo, it was never meant to be a long term solution.

Carter had a synthetic fuels program that went no where because Congress was not in favor of it. History may show that was the solution that we missed and now we have to start from scratch. We better hurry up because there is a storm coming and we have no time to waste.


Yes, this is why I was so frustrated that there was absolutely no funding in the last big batch of funds put out for biofuels for either butanol or DME. It was 100% ethanol.

Ethanol has to be shipped with it's own infrastructure which is mostly rail and truck. It simply can't use the existing pipelines and it won't run in today's cars without modification. It was a stop gap already...let's not move on to it's successors.

We should still be flex fueling all vehicles sold in America so that we're not limited regardless of what fuel is put in them.


Amen Dave, FFVs are long overdue. They cost so little and do so much it is and was a no brainer. Now if we can just get some of the politics out of the decision making and policy forming we might actually make some progress for once.


As I remember it Germany had a synthetic fuels program during WWII.

And after a little research I found that synthetic fuel has a history in the US as well:

The Bureau of Mines first studied the extraction of oil from oil shale between 1925 - 1928.

Between 1928 and 1944, the Bureau experimented with coal liquefaction by hydrogenation using the Bergius process. A small-scale test unit constructed in 1937 had a 100-pound per day continuous coal feed. The methodologies employed underwent extensive development in this period, delivering significant increases in efficiency, culminating in the Karrick process.

Between 1945 and 1948, new laboratories were constructed near Pittsburgh. A synthetic ammonia plant Louisiana, Missouri (Missouri Ordnance Works) was transferred from the Army to the program in 1945. The plant was converted into a coal hydrogenation test facility. By 1949 the plant could produce 200 barrels of oil a day using the Bergius process.

Part of the personnel were German scientists, who had been extracted from Germany by Operation Paperclip.

In 1948, the program was extended to eight years and funding increased to $60 million. A second facility was constructed at the Louisiana plant, this time using the Fischer-Tropsch process. Completed in 1951, the plant only produced 40,000 gallons of fuel.

In 1953 the new Republican-led House Appropriations Committee ended funding for the research and the Missouri plant was returned to the Department of the Army.

In 1979, after the second oil crisis, the U.S. Congress approved the Energy Security Act forming the Synthetic Fuels Corporation and authorized up to $88 million for synthetic fuels projects.

In 1986, during the 1980s oil glut, President Reagan signed into law the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 which among other things abolished the Synthetic Liquid Fuels Program. It's estimated that over 40 years the various efforts at creating synthetic fuels may have totaled as much as $8 billion.


I categorize synthetic fuels as those not refined nor fermented, they are synthesized from synthesis gas. The information that ai_vin has posted shows me that there has been little progress over a long time, some token efforts but few results.


Here is an interesting tid-bit. It turns out that if we used human sewage then we could get a lot of energy out of it.

I'm sure we'll get some bathroom humor here, but it's a serious opportunity. Extrapolating the work they're doing in Germany, they use 60% of available sewage to get approx 280kWh per person per year. So if we would use 100% of sewage in this process it would provide 467kWh per person per year.

That's enough electricity to drive the Nissan leaf for 2000+ miles per year per person. That's about 17% of annual driving for an average European or American.

That would be a hell of a dent in reducing oil usage and if we don't do it, we're just releasing all the methane into the environment anyway:


Water treatment plant use the methane created for their operations, landfills use methane as well. If there is money to be made or saved, people have thought of it. When fossil energy is cheap, they do not bother. There are lots of things we can do, but don't because it is just not "cost effective" in a bottom line world.


Would FFV be required if we use butanol instead of ethanol?

No FFV and no new liquid fuel delivery infrastructures could been major savings.


Harvey, that was my point; there are major saving to be had using current infrastructure and upgrading it as needed. But I have to point out that our liquid fuel delivery infrastructures aren't the only ones which could be used to get us off fossil fuels: BEVs use the electrical grid - which be made greener with more RE and the Pickens Plan would have used the NG infrastructure - which could be made greener with biogas.

With synfuel we have the option of making it with biomass and then using the current liquid fuel delivery infrastructures to move it around or the option of moving the biogas around using the current NG fuel delivery infrastructures and then making synfuel at the point of use.


You nailed it. The butanol would not require FFV vehicles or a new infrastructure to deliver it. But it has to overcome the huge momentum of the ethanol industry, especially their lobbyist. LOL

But I'm a huge EV fan so I'm like ai vin....I'd like to see us do a lot more EV as well.


Butanol is being tested as a substitute of 100LL for use in General Aviation piston aircraft.

Alex Kovnat

What I believe Syntec should try as an alternative fuel is a methanol/ ethanol/ propanol/ butanol mixture, with varying proportions of each. The idea is to find a mixture that offers an optimum combination of energy content per gallon, antiknock (octane) rating, and low exhaust emissions.

While methanol is problematic for a number of reasons, here are two possibilities that keep it in the running as an alternative fuel: One, it is easier to use CH3OH in fuel cells than anything else except hydrogen. Two, there is the possibility that someday, we may be able to economically synthesize methanol via the reaction CH4 (i.e. methane, from natural gas or from biomass) + O (oxygen) --> CH3OH, as opposed to the usual 2H2 + CO --> CH3OH.


Aside from exotic materials including plastics, and the benefit of electronics and computing, the ICE engine seems unlikely to change in capability or usefulness so we should prepare for an ongoing relationship with fuel suppliers at likely not reduced extent for some decades.
The question then is what are the least obnoxious downsides available?.

It seems so simple at a time before the cloud condenses. fuel builders and processors already have a suit of products, more of some - depending on the plants technology and feedstock. It seems reasonable to prefer lower emission fuels in anticipation that technology advances and the realisation of appropriate feedstock resources will follow demand.

I would think that an energy constricted world will be favorable also to niche producers providing bulk resources to chemical and plastics as well as fuel blenders, feeds for fuel cells? and domestic CHP? etc.

The existing delivery constrictions may then not be an issue in smaller scale (than 10%+) of consumer fuel mandate.

To understand that (in the manner of electron flow or musical chairs) that implimenting new green options as smartgrid

+ renewables
+ vehicle charging require that the supporting infrastructure is implemented in tandem.

This is the priorcondition for realisation and the answer to the endless uninformed criticism to progreess.

Further more without such refinement, the existing paradigm is likely to increasingly entangle and choke.


Alex has something there, the Syntec process produces a mixture of products, if all those can be used in an FFV, you do not have to filter and refine. That saves energy and increases yield.

FFVs make sure that we can run on alternative fuels. It costs SO little for the car manufacturers to make all of their cars FFV that it is a great hedge for the future.

GM says that they can make half their fleet FFV by 2012, with very little cost per unit. Methanol was proven as M85 in more than 15,000 cars over more than 5 years in the 1990a, we should go with a proven and effective method.


Alex has something there, the Syntec process produces a mixture of products, if all those can be used in an FFV, you do not have to filter and refine. That saves energy and increases yield.

FFVs make sure that we can run on alternative fuels. It costs SO little for the car manufacturers to make all of their cars FFV that it is a great hedge for the future. I see no advantage to commit to only one fuel, that is what we have now with gasoline.

GM says that they can make half their fleet FFV by 2012, with very little cost per unit. Methanol was proven as M85 in more than 15,000 cars over more than 5 years in the 1990s, we should go with a proven and effective method.


If limited liquid fuel is required for 2 to 3 more decades, why not select the fuel made from least damaging local sources while using the existing multi-billion $$$ infrastructures and the 240+ million existing ICE vehicles.

Cellulosic butanol and derivatives may meet most of the future requirements, at least until such times as e-energy takes over.

Bio-gas and syn-gas could be used to produce some of the electricity required for future BEVs.

Objections from corn and ethanol lobbies will have to be addressed with fair financial assistance to transition to cellulosic butanol production.

There is no need to have losers. All sides could win in the production and use of new energy sources.

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