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Study finds biomass-to-liquids fuels could be economically competitive at current price levels; pyrolyzer and biorefinery collectives

The biorefinery collective encompasses multiple pyrolyzer collectives. Credit: ACS, Manganaro and Lawal. Click to enlarge.

Given a sufficiently large production scale, liquid fuels such as diesel produced from crop residue could be economically competitive with petroleum-derived fuels at current price levels, suggests a new study by a team from the Stevens Institute of Technology. Their analysis is published in the ACS journal Energy & Fuels.

James Manganaro and Adeniyi Lawal performed a preliminary analysis of an integrated “Biorefinery Collective” biomass-to-liquids process based on distributed fast pyrolysis and centralized autothermal reforming (ATR) followed by Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. Assessing plant sizes of 2,000, 10,000, and 35,000 dry tonnes per day of biomass at 8% return on capital, they found required sales prices (exclusive of tax) of $3.30, $2.40, and $2.06 per gallon, respectively. The process comprises:

  1. harvesting surplus biomass such as crop residue;

  2. locally pyrolyzing the biomass into pyrolysis oil (PO), char, and noncondensable gas (NCG);

  3. transporting the produced PO to a remote central processing facility;

  4. converting the PO at this facility by autothermal reforming (ATR) into synthesis gas (CO and H2), followed by, at the same facility,

  5. Fischer−Tropsch (FT) synthesis of the syngas into diesel fuel.

Block diagram of the process. Credit: ACS, Manganaro and Lawal. Click to enlarge.

Manganaro and Lawal call the integrated enterprise of all the steps the “biorefinery collective” (BRC).

The higher density of pyrolysis oil compared to baled biomass reduces the transport cost to a central ATR plant; it also opens the possibility of pipeline transport, the authors note. They define a pyrolyzer collective (PC) as a collection of farms contained within a land area of arbitrary size in which each farm sends its crop residue to a single centrally located pyrolyzer within the land area where the biomass is converted to pyrolysis oil.

Just as the cost of crude oil has a heavy influence on current petroleum fuel prices, the cost of biomass is the largest single contributor to the final price of biomass-derived fuel and becomes more so as plant capacity increases, they found, leading to the need to improve methods of biomass gathering and delivery.

Other findings of their analysis include:

  • Char is a byproduct of the biomass process and when sold at $500/t contributes very measurably to the economics, reducing the price of diesel by $0.35/gal.

  • There appears to be on the order of a 12cent/gal benefit in using a 25 mi2 PC rather than a 14 mi2 PC due to the economy of scale of the pyrolyzer plant.

  • In order to make a measurable impact on reduction of fossil petroleum consumption in the US, one possible scenario calls for 10 BRCs producing 200,000 db each.

  • Future economic analyses, rather than taking a fixed price of biomass, should include accounting for the cost of (collecting) biomass as a function of the geographic land area as well as refinement of input data.

It must be borne in mind in comparing the economics of the nascent biomass to liquid fuel processes to the “mature”, century old, processes of crude oil or FT of natural gas or coal, that the biomass processes are on a learning curve and, over time, assuming commercial implementation, will more rapidly improve in economics relative to the mature processes. This also implies that early entrants into the field of biomass derived fuel would establish a competitive advantage. It then becomes a question of whether and when to enter the bio-derived fuel field in a committed way.

From this preliminary analysis, FT liquids derived from biomass, even without policy intervention, could be competitive at current prices at a sufficiently large production scale.

—Manganaro and Lawal


  • James L. Manganaro and Adeniyi Lawal (2012) Economics of Thermochemical Conversion of Crop Residue to Liquid Transportation Fuel. Energy & Fuels doi: 10.1021/ef3001967



I think this is a prime opportunity for government support.

It could well be one of those instances where a program/agency does not become a just a money maker for those favored by the party in power, and/or simply a poorly managed bureaucratic profit center for a few large, litigious corporations and/or a questionable handout that lives past its useful life.

This rant is in futile opposition to the paranoia about GM and CARB emasculating the ZEV and PNGV and killing the EV when they crushed the EV1 which because of harmonic convergence killed the Honda EV Plus, Ford's Ranger pickup EV, Nissan's Altra EV, Chevy's S-10 EV, and Toyota's RAV4 EV and stunted Prius sales for some 10+years.


If in support you mean tax breaks, fine. If support means Solyndra & Range Fuels-style grants & handouts - hell no.


Good point.

- Tax breaks!

- - Bipartisan tax breaks (Bipartisan: an obsolete practice involving cooperation instead of using terms like "opponents", “punish” and “enemies”).

The funds could even be a meaningful use of ARRA appropriations.


"a collection of farms contained within a land area of arbitrary size in which each farm sends its crop residue to a single centrally located pyrolyzer"

This what I outlined in the 10 mile by 10 mile farm area with central facility. You do not have to haul the biomass far, but can truck the fuel to market easily.


If these are such a great opportunities, why governments could not be partners @ 10% to 49% for the next 1000+ facilities.

Roger Pham

Gov. support, TT? Hmmm...would the Tea Party go for that?

"Given a sufficiently large production scale, liquid fuels such as diesel produced from crop residue could be economically competitive with petroleum-derived fuels at current price levels... Aye, there the rub!!! Potential investors into BTL get nervous about their investment go down the drain when petrol prices will bottom out if and when competition will come into the fray, wiping out all investments that would be required for "sufficiently large production scale" of BTL!

Thus, what the gov. can help is simply to stabilize the prices of petrol at the pump to insure that petrol prices won't drop down to the level that would wipe out alternative fuel investments. This would not cause any additional governmental spending that would exacerbate the already-ballooning deficits. The money that the gov. will collect at the pumps if and when petrol prices will plummet will be put into a petrol-price-lowering fund to be used to lower the price of petrol if when another petrol price escalation will happen in the future. Thus, it will not be a new tax and will be revenue-neutral to make everybody happy. Future economic collapses can thus be prevented.

The above scheme of Petroleum-Price-Lowering Fund ironically will benefit not just BTL, but all sorts of alternative fuel/energy for transportation, including BEV and even H2. Price stability is just what investors need before plunking down their hard-earned savings into alternative fuels!

Roger Pham

Correction: "Aye, there's the rub!!!"


Could we start by sending garbage?


What's hard to understand about energy subsidies is the $billions annually STILL being given to 100+ year old oil companies already making record $billions of income annually.

The past/present Roman Senate won't touch their $millions from each of their oil lobby buddies.

But hear the tears about $.5B(that's one half $billion) Solyndra while no one mentions commie China give THEIR solar firms $30BILLION to dump under cost solar cells on the market and kill ANY other countries solar.

Fortunately, America trained over 10 million soldiers during the Cold War.

Solid, well-armed Americans who have seen their 401K's robbed, VA/SS/medical benefits jacked, etc. as they are bankrupted to death by the highest medical charges on earth.

Who really thinks $trillions, the NSA, CIA, agencies-to-be-named/un-named-later tracking all US citizens/their communications only have a purpose of finding less than a thousand world shattered terrorists.

Well, maybe a thousand before we declared war on their countries, cultures, and religions for decades.

Silhouettes, foreign or domestic - it's how we train - it's how we roll..


What may be a lot worse than $16B/year to the Crude Oil gang is $16B/year to the Corn Ethanol gang because with the latter, millions more will die from hunger due to higher price for the three most basic food i.e. corn, wheat and rice. Re: The Human Right to Adequate Food and The Fight for the Right food by George Kent and Jean Ziegler.

One Corn Ethanol guzzler use more food in a week than a child needs for one full year.

Roger Pham

Very-well expressed and very poignant points, kelly and HarveyD!

I envision a more concilatory situation in which the Oil industry and the Energy Companies can play very big roles in the transformation toward a renewable energy economy. You see, who would have the most expertise, the infrastructure, the investment and the money in building BTL, GTL, and H2 facilities, other than the Energy Companies? Who were the earliest pioneering investors in solar energy? Exxon, Chevron and BP et al. Who have shown interest in algae oil (solar energy)? The same bunch! If this transformation is to occur, who would stand to gain the most from it? The Energy Company, who else, and of course, the American people, too.

So, what it'll take is that the US government will LEAD the Energy Companies toward a brighter future for us all, instead of being PAWN or PUPPETS of the likes, only to perpetuate the unsustainable status quo!
Starting with 16B subsidies to the Energy Industry/Sector: Hey, Congress can maintain it as long as they want, with just a stipulation that the $16B must be used solely toward development/deployment of renewable alternative fuels, to whoever that are most qualified. At the same time, to protect this $16B subsidy, Congress can start instituting the Petroleum-Price-Lowering Fund as mentioned above in order to keeping petrol prices at the pump from bottoming out to a level that can destroy investments in alternative fuels/energy. The Oil/Energy Companies will then see a steady playing field to compete in renewable energy/alternative fuels and will put their investments into it and will reap billions, just as if they will invest in another off-shore oil rigs...except that the renewable energy stuffs will be forever and will be far cleaner and more secure than digging for oil miles under the deep sea floor!!! Or sending their people to unstable war-equivalent zones rifes with terrorists!

Marcel Williams

Federal and even local governments could simply mandate that 10 percentage of diesel fuel sold in the US or within a State must be derived from carbon neutral resources by 2020 (50% by 2030) in order to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas being placed into the atmosphere. A 15% sin tax could be placed on all diesel fuel sold that did not reach this percentage by 2020.

This would act as a powerful incentive for private and public energy companies to immediately invest in urban and rural biowaste to fuel facilities all over the US in order to meet the 2020 deadline.

The Federal government could also guarantee a market for carbon neutral gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, methanol, and dimethyl ether by gradually replacing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve with domestically produced carbon neutral synthetic fuels.

Strategic Petroleum Reserves are currently worth more than $60 billion at today's oil prices. Only $20 billion was originally paid for these reserves. So selling perhaps $5 billion a year worth of petroleum from the reserve could allow the US government to purchase $5 billion a year worth of carbon neutral biowaste derived fuels from domestic farms and cities.

Marcel F. Williams


@Roger Pham,
The fund to stabilize fuel prices is a splendid idea. The investments, less risky, in exchange for tax breaks, would come in large quantities, without the need for public money. The economy would have additional stimuli. With less oil imports from the Arab states. It would trigger a virtuous circle.

It's also true that there are many innovative methods of production of drop-in biofuel with costs even less and that are suitable to small plants.

Instead of money aid, the small entrepreneurs would need assistance on how to form firm, to make right business plan,to form consortia if necessary as to avoid fatal errors. There is also a need for loans from the banks at honest rates, otherwise the major oil companies, which have already sniffed out this bargain, could grab this monopoly.

If there is more competition, if there are more producers, prices tend to fall or at least not to rise and it's better for the consumer, for for number of jobs and for economy.

What do they expect to do it?


"I envision a more concilatory situation in which the Oil industry and the Energy Companies can play very big roles in the transformation toward a renewable energy economy."

GM promised Ovshishy an EV world of NiMH battery powered cars to get his patents in 1994.

We are entering the fourth year of Exxon's promises to Venter's Synthetic Genomics about a world of algae-based renewable fuels.

What men of good will don't seem to understand is that liars, ultimately, can only lie. WWII didn't end at Germany's border, but only with Hitler's death.

Yet an ex-CIA chief stops the first Gulf War at Iran's border. Then, watching Sadam murder hundreds of thousands, keeps US troops on overflights and Arab soil.

Then, having stolen the election, his WMD son later calls the citizens of their own country terrorists and insurgents for fighting a US invasion.

The military industrial energy complex has to create enemies to defend America against enemies.

The oil cartels, foreign and domestic, aren't conciliatory about weakening their wealth.

The rich 1%, foreign and domestic, aren't concilatory about the 99%. In distribution of wealth, a serf of the Middle Ages had more than Joe American.


"Future economic analyses, rather than taking a fixed price of biomass, should include accounting for the cost of (collecting) biomass as a function of the geographic land area as well as refinement of input data."

In other words, they simplified the analysis of the most important cost of the whole mess.. the cost of the raw materials.

A big part of the expense is collecting and drying all the wood waste prior to processing.. a bit of rain at the wrong moment could be disastrous. We will use up all the NG in the world before this becomes practical.


You harvest the corn and stover at the same time, the big issue seems to be storage of stover, which is logistical.

If you plant miscanthus grass around the corn fields, you could harvest twice per year, which would reduce storage capacity.

These issues are not insurmountable, they just require some thought, planning and capital investment. The same actions that were required to create the oil industry more than 100 years ago.

Roger Pham

The cost of raw material would be minimal because only waste biomass is involved, not food-grade material.

Good point about the wet biomass. The following references shows that there are ways to use wet biomass directly without have to dry it.

Roger Pham

I certainly can see many of your points. History has often repeated itself! However, the solution may not require a complete revolution, with potentially disastrous consequences! The solution is for the powers that be currently to learn the lessons of history and to avoid repeating the same! WE should cooperate to arrive at win-win solutions for everyone, as I've outlined.

The Soviet Union finally imploded on its own cognizance of the its problems under the wisdom of Gorbachev, the Roman Empire who persecuted Christianity later converted to Christianity, the Maoist's disastrously idealitic party became pragmatic under Deng Xiao Peng...


Uncontrolled speculation and the need to maximize profits have the tendency to quickly degrade and corrupt worthwhile processes and ideas.

That's what quickly happened with corn ethanol. When speculators, farmers and associated corporations realized that higher profits could be made with higher corn price, they joint their efforts and price quickly tripled.

The price of other essential grains (wheat and rice) went (had to go) up to stop farmers from switching to corn. Over production would have lowered corn price. So up went the price of wheat and rice.

It was so easy to tell the majority that the price of Crude oil was the only reason for higher essential grains price. The real reason was and still is speculation + overuse of corn for ethanol.

Under so called free trade, production and demand is supposed to fix the price. By now, we all know that it is rarely true.

There is no easy way out. Nostra Damus claimed that by 2027, a golden age under Chinese rule would bring a better system. The switch may have started 10+ years ago and it may come a few years earlier than Nostra-Damus saw.


The oil companies wanted battery patents in case things went nuke in the middle east between saddam and isreal.. about a 99% chance back then.

America can use soo much of its corn for ethanol simply because almost all of its corn was and still is for animal feed. The problem was and still is that far too many idiots depend on america for food when they should have been making preparations for food closer to home LONG freaking hell ago when they all bleeping knew oil was peaking!!!!!! Did any of you rocket scientists realy think you were going to get cheap food shipping to africa when oil hit 200 a barrel? HMMMMMMMMMMMMM???? totsl freaking stupidity.

Think its bad now? Wait a decade.


A fund to "stabilize" fuel prices would be economic suicide.  If the target price was higher than current, it would give producers a reason to cut back production so that all of the price premium went into their pockets.  If it was lower than the current price, our already-bankrupt government would quickly find itself dead of subsidy-induced hemorrhage.

The scheme to convert biomass to bio-oil for transport is one of the better ideas.  I'd opine that mobile pyrolysis units might be even better, but the authors appear to think that large units are more economical than small ones, and mobile units would have to be small.

As always, the total energy yield of this scheme would be but a fraction of what the USA now gets from oil.  The bulk of the problem must be handled by other means.


"25 mi2 PC rather than a 14 mi2"

I advocated a 10 mile by 10 mile area with gasification to synthetic fuels and a liquid pipeline. If you have these in the farming areas, you can grow corn, use the stover and miscanthus in the area.

If you create cellulose ethanol, the fermentation creates CO2 which can be used in the synthetic fuels plants.

The cellulose process creates waste fiber that can be used in the gasification process and the synthesis process generates heat that can be used in the fermentation and distillation process.

Roger Pham

The fund for petroleum price stabilization will come only from the extra tax collected from retail petrol sales if and when the price of petrol at the pump will bottom out and threaten to kill alternative fuel projects. When this fund is exhaust, then no more gov. money should be use. This is only a ploy to make petro tax palatable to the voting public.


Oh, a price floor.  That makes immensely more sense.


It would be much simpler for the gov to mandate a certain mix of synthetic fuel in the blend.. starting low, and dont try to cherrypick the tech just let the market work it out.

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