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Techno-economic Study of Bio-oil to Naptha and Diesel Finds Calculated Costs Competitive with Other Kinds of Alternative Fuels

A team from Iowa State University and ConocoPhillips, Biofuels R&D performed a techno-economic study examining the fast pyrolysis of corn stover to bio-oil with subsequent upgrading of the bio-oil to naphtha and diesel range fuels.

While calculated costs of this biofuel are competitive with other kinds of alternative fuels, they found, further research is required to better determine the effect of feedstock properties and process conditions on the ultimate yield of liquid fuel from bio-oil.

They developed two 2,000 dry tonne per day scenarios: the first scenario separates a fraction of the bio-oil to generate hydrogen on-site for fuel upgrading, while the second scenario relies on merchant hydrogen.

The modeling effort resulted in liquid fuel production rates of 134 and 220 million liters (35 and 58 million gallons US) per year for the hydrogen production and purchase scenarios, respectively. Capital costs for these plants are $287 and $200 million. Fuel product value estimates are $3.09 and $2.11 per gallon of gasoline equivalent ($0.82 and $0.56 per liter).

Pioneer plant analysis estimates capital costs to be $911 and $585 million for construction of a first-of-a-kind fast pyrolysis and upgrading biorefinery with product values of $6.55 and $3.41 per gge ($1.73 and $0.90 per liter).

In 2007, ConocoPhillips established an eight-year, $22.5-million research program at Iowa State University dedicated to developing technologies that produce bio renewable fuels. (Earlier post.)

In 2009, a consortium including TI International, ADM, Albemarle and ConocoPhillips was awarded $3.1-million ARPA-E grant to develop a novel single-step catalytic biomass pyrolysis process with high carbon conversion efficiency to produce stable bio-crude oil with low oxygen content. The technology seeks to combine pyrolysis oil production, stabilization, and upgrading into one process, creating the potential to reduce the demand for imported oil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by displacing fossil fuels with biofuels. (Earlier post.)


  • Mark M. Wright, Darren E. Dullard, Justin us A. Sa trio and Robert C. Brown (2010) Techno-economic analysis of biomass fast pyrolysis to transportation fuels. Fuel. doi: 10.1016/JFE



2000 dry tons/day = 730,000 tons/year. The yield is 48 gallons/ton for the hydrogen production scenario and 79 gallons/ton for the merchant hydrogen scenario. (I calculate the carbon fraction captured in the product to be about 26% and 47%, respectively. This is not a very efficient scheme.)

If we take the figure of the 446 million dry tons of crop residues as a given, the potential output from this process is 21 billion gallons/year in the hydrogen-production scenario and 35 billion gallons/year in the purchased hydrogen scenario. (The question of the provenance of purchased hydrogen is significant.)

Even if the biomass supply can be doubled (or tripled), this scheme still falls short of providing BAU supplies of motor fuel. It can supply the liquid fuel needs of the PHEV component of an electrified fleet.


I'm kind of surprised they came up with the results they did with Conoco-Phillips paying for part of the study. When the tobacco companies paid doctors to research the safety of cigarettes, smoking was always determined to be 100 percent safe. You'd think the results of the study with Conoco would result in findings that standard petroleum is extremely cost effective vs. biofuels that are extremely expensive & cost prohibitive.


Oil companies may become the sustainable fuels people over time. They have been shut out of much of the world's oil for many years. Maybe even they can see the writing on the wall.



At $3+/gal equivalent, the finding has demonstrated (without really saying it) that fossil fuels are a lot cheaper.

AS we followed lower cost corn sugar syrup versus higher cost raw sugar, we know what route will be followed. The only way to change the direction would be to tax fossil liquid fuel more. Since the majority do not want new taxes......we will continue using fossil liquid fuel till the last drop, even if it makes us as sick as corn syrup fructose makes us.


They used a technique that was sure to show what they wanted to show. Syntec takes biomass and makes 100 gallons of alcohols per ton and more. FFVs run on alcohols and it they are PHEV they could really reduce imported oil.


No immediate rejection of oilcos wanting to develop biomass resources. They'll still have a lot of competition from EVs and low cost FCs. Plenty of FC fuel locked up in H2O.


Imagine 50 million FFV/PHEV cars using NO oil and recharging with renewable electricity. That would throw OPEC a curve that they would find difficult to hit.

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