What's New and Cool: What inventors are inventing in biofuels

August 11, 2010 |

In Washington, here’s a look at some of the more interesting biofuel-related patent applications logged at the US Patent and Trademark Office in recent weeks. The USPTO’s archive is not for the faint of heart, or those with a love of simple, plain language, but certainly provides copious evidence that biofuels inventiveness is all around us.

For just about anything you can imagine, there’s a [patent] app for that. Will any of these be in the market soon, later, ever? Too early to tell. But here are some Digest faves:

Ethanol direct injection engine technology

Abstract: Fuel tank system for a direct ethanol injection octane boosted gasoline engine. The system includes a gasoline engine and a main fuel tank that contains a mix of gasoline and gasoline E85. A smaller secondary tank is provided to contain ethanol or E85. An injector directly injects in a separately controlled fashion ethanol or E85 into a cylinder of the engine to boost octane. A control module controls the relative amounts of gasoline and ethanol used and structure is provided for fueling the main and secondary fuel tanks.

Read the app.

In English: We’ve written quite a bit about ethanol direct injection. Basically, you have two tanks. One has gasoline, one has ethanol. The engine senses those moments when it needs the superior power of ethanol, and injects it into the mix, such as during acceleration. This way, engines are using the superior octane of ethanol to get power, rather than increasing the fuel flow rate, as happens with gasoline engines. Result?

Instead of losing mileage with ethanol via burning gasoline-ethanol blends in all situations, you gain fuel efficiency and mileage.

Smart little molecule, our friend ethanol.

Methods for producing isoprene

Abstract: The invention features methods producing isoprene and a co-product, such as ethanol, 1,3-propanediol, or hydrogen from cultured cells. The invention also provides compositions that include these cultured cells. The invention provides compositions comprising isoprene and ethanol, isoprene and 1,3-propanediol, and isoprene and hydrogen. Additionally, the invention provides methods of co-producing isoprene and ethanol, isoprene and 1,3-propanediol, and isoprene and hydrogen by culturing cells under conditions suitable for co-production of isoprene and ethanol, isoprene and 1,3-propanediol, and isoprene and hydrogen.

Read the app.

In English: If I say isoprene, you think tires.

It’s the substance used for synthetic rubber, amongst many other applications in the world of fine chemicals. Genencor has been working hard on developing bioisoprene (and GylcosBio, too), and was exhibiting a tire made from its process at recent BIO events. In this case, the inventors are looking at producing a range of fuels and useful base chemicals, like 1,3-propanediol (PDO), which is used to make a wide range of everyday items such as adhesives, laminates, coatings, antifreeze, and wood paint.

DuPont uses a Bio-PDO in Sorona as a base for fibers, fabrics, films, filaments, and engineering resins.

More, more, more bio-isoprene

(FYI, read our What is Bioisoprene and Why Should You Master It?)

Abstract: The present invention relates to methods for the production of isoprene by the direct conversion of atmospheric carbon dioxide using metabolically engineered genetically engineered photosynthetic microorganisms. The present invention also relates to genetically engineered photosynthetic microorganisms, such as cyanobacteria, that are capable of producing isoprene from CO2.

Read the app.

In English: This app is cool because of its use of cyanobacteria and CO2 to produce a bio-isoprene. It’s not completely unlike the technology (we think, Joule’s not telling) that Joule is using to produce drop-in biofuels from CO2, sunlight and a modified microorganism which (we think, Joule’s not telling) is reputed to be cyanobacteria. Joule recently renamed itself Joule Unlimited – might have equally renamed itself Joule Undisclosed.

Energy from phytoplankton

Abstract: The present invention relates to a process for obtaining energetic compounds by means of electromagnetic energy produced by sunlight or artificial light by means of using phytoplankton cultures.

Read the app.

In English: When we say phytoplankton, think algae, cyanobacteria, and diatoms. Bootom line, this is an integrated system from producing fuel from algae, with a twist.

The oils and the carbs are separated from the biomass – with the oils used to make biodiesel through traditional transesterification. Then, a catalytic process to convert the carbs into fuels and internaediates: naphthas, kerosenes, polymers and gases. The remaining biomas is pyrolyzed into syngas, steam and heat.

Not sure if this is a commercially viable system – but my goodness, they throw in just about every advanced biofuel technology except microbial fermentation.

Microbial Fuel Cells

Abstract: A sediment-type self-sustained phototrophic microbial fuel cell for generating electricity through the syntrophic interaction between photosynthetic microorganisms and heterotrophic bacteria in algae cultivation ponds used for biodiesel production. The microbial fuel cell is operable to continuously produce electricity without the external input of exogenous organics or nutrients.

Read the app.

In English: Instead of producing energy from algae simply by harvesting stored oils or carbohydrates, this app looks at the potential of gaining electrical energy directly from the interaction of algae (and possibly other little swimmers) with bacteria also present in the water.

If you’ve been following electrofuels, which have been the subject of great interest at ARPA-E, this is an app aimed at producing a stable, re-usable power source, or fuel cell, rather than destroying biomass to produce power as in traditional combustion.

Improving plant oil yield

Abstract: The present invention relates to a genetically modified plant having an increased amount of oil in its green biomass as compared to the oil in the green biomass of its non-genetically modified counterpart. The plants may be used for producing bio-fuels such as biodiesel fuel. A genetically modified plant having green biomass, wherein said genetically modified plant has been genetically modified such that its green biomass has at least 10 fold the amount by weight of triacylglycerols, and at least two-fold the amount by weight of total extractable fatty acids as compared to the green biomass in its non-genetically modified counterpart. Selected from tobacco, maize, pea, canola, Indian mustard, millet, sunflower, hemp, switchgrass, sugarcane, sorghum, sugar beet, switchgrass, or duckweed.

Read the app.

In English: Bottom line, this is a process to double the usable oil content of a given biomass. They are extracting genes from arabidopsis – a widely studied plant that has been sequenced –   and inserting genes related to lipid production into a very wide range of biofuel feedstocks of choice.

(FYI, for more on duckweed and the lemna family of microscopic flowering plants, read our “What’s New and Cool in the world of algal fuel development“)

Solazyme going end-to-end?

Abstract: Fuels and other valuable compositions and compounds can be made from oil extracted from microbial biomass and from oil-bearing microbial biomass via hydroprocessing and/or other chemical treatments, including the alkaline hydrolysis of glycerolipids and fatty acid esters to fatty acid salts.

Read the app.

In English: This comes from Solazyme. They have developed a process to use hydroprocessing with their algae to make fine chemicals and fuels. To date, we understand they have been licensing a hydroprocessing system from Honeywell’s UOP in order to make jet fuel from their renewable oils. Does this mean that Solazyme is looking for ways to develop their own end-to-end solution, and reduce costs and dependencies by bypassing the licensees? Early days, but sure looks that way.

Coal and biomass to liquid fuels

Abstract: A liquid fuel production process from Cellulosic biomass and coal comprises providing a mixture of Cellulosic biomass and coal, subjecting the mixture to gasification to obtain synthesis gas and converting the synthesis gas to a liquid fuel under the presence of catalyst. The catalyst includes molybdenum sulfide, alkali metal compound and a component activating the C–H bond in alkanes product, wherein the alkali metal compound is selected from the group of salts of Li, Na, K, Rb and Cs, the component activating the C–H bond in alkanes product is selected from Mo, V, Os, Re, Ir, Pt, Pd, Co, Rh, Ni and their mixture. Additionally, co-gasification of Cellulosic biomass and coal can reduce the ash fusion temperature of coal

Read the app.

In English: Ah, this is a pretty good way to use coal and biomass together. Usually, they are burned, to generate power that meets emissions standards and cost goals – coal is cheap, and biomass is carbon-neutral. In this app, the investors are passing coal and biomass over a catalyst and producing a syngas which is reformulated into methanol and ethanol in a one-step gasification process.

The coal and biomass mix provides the desired ratio of hydrogen int he syngas to maximize the yield of liquid alcohol fuels.

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