Bracketology: Which 3 of 6 will win in NABC drop-in fuels consortium cut-off?

March 18, 2011 |

The NABC drop-in biofuels consortium now six months underway, approaches a Fall 2011 decision point. Three technologies out of six will advance.

Who will win, who might lose out? Make your own picks in our Digest NABC Bracket Contest.

Enter the Digest’s NABC Bracket Contest, here. One lucky winner will receive a free pass to the 2012 Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference – a $1395 value!

Amongst the various projects that received support under the 2009 Recovery Act were an algal R&D consortium called the NAABB, and a drop-in biofuels R&D consortium called the NABC, of the National Advanced Biofuels Consortium.

The NABC’s $50 million, three-year mission: to explore new biofuels, to seek out new processes and new opportunities in yield and performance, to boldly go where no consortium had gone before.

Within three years, the consortium’s goal is to downselect from six processing technologies to one, and have that one ready for pilot, en route to commercialization.

There’s money, pride and first-mover advantage at stake. For the private companies, the winner has an inside track at one of the biggest economic transitions of all time: the transition from a fossil-based to a bio-based liquid fuel transportation platform. If it is cost competitive. If the known barrier can be overcome. Those are the Big Ifs.

Led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, NABC includes 17 partners from industry, universities, and national laboratories.

The Big Downselect

This fall, the NABC will go through the Big Downselect, in which its six technology pathways will be reduced to three. It’s a biofuels R&D version of Survivor, and in Georgia this week at the BioPro Expo in Atlanta, Dr. Adam Bratis, Biofuels Program Manager at NREL and a director of the NABC consortium, outlined more about how, when and why the NABC group will make that decision, which will advanced three pathways towards a significant first-mover advantage in drop-in fuels, and leave three others out in the cold.

“Ethanol historically is something that refiners had to deal with,” Bratis explained in giving background on the NABC. “They were told to blend it in, and so they had to develop the infrastructure and process in order to accomplish that. But there are infrastructure-ready conversion technologies, and we are exploring them, the drop-in fuels.

“There is the possibility of producing bio-based crude oil equivalents which can be dropped in to the refinery process. There are refinery-ready intermediates that can, for example, be fed in. And there are finished fuels and blendstocks that can be blended directly into the pool. In all, three insertion points.

“For feedstocks, we partnered with Iowa State to provide a representative ag residue, in this case corn stover. Alternatively, Catchlight Energy is providing loblolly pine. In stage two of our project we’ll look at switchgrass, too.”

What does a consortium do?

Well, the best way to think of this is to consider all the back-end help that any project needs in order to advance towards commercialization. It’s not just designing a great catalyst or a smokin’ bioreactor.

In NABC, for example, many of the partners are working in support of several or all of the projects. That way, you get a “deeper and cheaper” investigation – equivalent in many ways to the venture capitalist’s dream that “if a company has to die, please let it die early, and for very little money.”

In NABC, Pall Corporation will address separations challenges across the process. Tesoro and BP will provide refinery integration. NREL will study process economics. NREL and Argonne National Laboratory will perform life cycle assessment; ARL and PNNL are also doing work in screening, synthesizing and processing catalysts.  NREL and Washington State University will develop pretreatment, saccharification, and inhibitor mitigation strategies. Catchlight Energy and ISU—provide loblolly pine and corn stover biomass, respectively. Albemarle is screening catalysts and upgrading hydrocarbon liquids.

So, you get all this on a shared basis, as opposed to buying it all via one-to-one research partnerships and duplicating and slowing a lot of the work.

OK, who are the contenders?

There are six teams with their eyes on the prize.

Fermentation of Lignocellulosic Sugars Process Strategy

Well, this is basically the Amyris process, writ large. The fermentation of lignocellulosic sugars process strategy is based on a class of compounds called isoprenoids. Amyris has developed a technology capable of producing a high quality diesel fuel or chemicals from a 15-carbon isoprenoid called farnesene. In the mevalonate pathway Acetyl-CoA is converted into isopentenyl pyrophosphate (IPP), which is further transformed into farnesenyl pyrophosphate (FPP) and into C15 isoprenoids.

This project is not aimed, though, at duplicating the known pathway of pristine corn or cane sugar to drop-in fuels that Amyris has already developed. Here, the project is looking at low cost sugar streams to Amyris for evaluation – the tougher but potentially cheaper sugar streams from cellulosic feedstocks. It’s a major goal for Amyris, to break dependence on one or two volatile feedstocks, and thereby diversify its supply and  drive down costs.

Catalytic Conversion of Lignocellulosic Sugars Process Strategy

In this one, we are looking at the Virent process. The National Advanced Biofuels Consortium’s catalytic conversion of lignocellulosic sugars process strategy optimizes using complex lignocellulosic sugar streams as cost-effective feedstocks for Virent Energy Systems’ (Virent) conversion process, a leading technology in the field of catalytic processing of biomass-derived sugars. In the project, NABC will look at  deconstruction strategies for releasing sugars from biomass with a focus on producing complex sugar streams that can be readily upgraded and converted to infrastructure-compatible liquid hydrocarbons using Virent’s BioForming platform technology. Importantly, it will determine the optimal hydrocarbon product specification and its associated value as a refinery feedstock, blendstock, or finished fuel product. Virent can make a lot of products, potentiually, with its process. This project may well be a fast route to determining which fuel has the most legs in the near-term.

Catalytic Fast Pyrolysis Process Strategy


This is the Ensyn process – a/k/a Envergent  (for those projects, in partnership with Honeywell’s UOP for upgrading to target fuels such as jet). The goal? To develop a new, technically viable and economical catalytic fast pyrolysis process to convert whole biomass to an upgraded pyrolysis oil (relative to oil from thermal pyrolysis). The hydrocarbon-rich pyrolysis oil will be evaluated for insertion point 2 (with or without one-step hydroprocessing) or insertion point 3 (after hydroprocessing and separation). It is unlikely that catalytic pyrolysis will be economical if two stages of hydroprocessing are required.

Hydropyrolysis Process Strategy

In this one, RTI is providing the reactor design. The goal? To develop a technically viable and economically feasible hydropyrolysis process to convert biomass into hydrocarbon-rich biocrude oil to use as a petroleum substitute for conventional refinery upgrading. As Bratis says, “does hydrogen as a carrier really make a difference as you shift from less than five-carbon molecules to more than C5s and get up to C15, 18, 20.

Hydrothermal Liquefaction Process Strategy

In this case, the NABC is studying a Pacific Northwest National Lab process. The National Advanced Biofuels Consortium’s hydrothermal liquefaction process strategy develops stable bio-oil refinery feedstocks, by developing new reaction media and catalysts that reduce process severity, and evaluating feed pretreatment development and studies of recycle operations to allow for higher solids loading.

Syngas to Distillates Process Strategy


For years, Mobil had a unit that could convert methanol to gasoline. In the end, the process was just too darn expensive; too many steps were involved.  The NABC syngas to distillates process strategy develops a single-step methanol-to-gasoline approach and assesses the economics to reduce capital and operating costs. These efforts simplify the methanol-to-gasoline (MTG) route, and potentially create a single-step process in which the functionalities of the syngas-to-methanol, methanol-to-DME, and DME-to-gasoline processes are combined in a single reactor with a multifunctional catalyst bed

OK, where are we, at this stage of the tourney?

The criteria are signed off for the downselect, and it will take place in the fall. Already, Bratis theorizes that the first insertion point, the creation of bio-based crude oils, is ever going to work at all, from a refinery’s point of view. With biofuels as opposed to true crude you have that oxygen content. Any amount of oxygen at all in a jet fuel is, for example, going to be a problem. So putting that oxygen into the front end of the refinery, and spreading it everywhere, well I am not sure if that is ever likely to work. Better to finish off the fuel and blend it in, or feed it into an intermediate point where you can limit that impact.”

The techno-economic analysis

Well, that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? That NREL team that is looking at the data, seeing where you get the biggest bang for the buck, and identifying any major pain points as research focal points for stage two of the project and beyond.

Hence why NREL, as an independent third-party with no dog in the hunt, is doing the work. As Bratis remarks, “the for-profit companies, well, they all want their technologies to go forward. So we signed off on criteria by which they will be measured before the consortium got underway.”

The Bottom Line

The winners? With six months to go, NABC is not discussing which of the technologies are most likely to go forward. But we can make some educated supposes, for the sake of bracketology.

The bio-oil problem. As we look at the problems Bratis is relating with respect to the front end of the refinery, that tends to put the bio-oil technologies more at risk, as opposed to the finished fuel processes that Amyris and Virent have developed.

The Amyris factor. We’d be surprised to see Amyris participating in the consortium, as a public company with its reputation under investor scrutiny every day, unless the financial advantages of collaboration far outweighed its risk of getting eliminated in the first-round cut off.

The “Spread the joy” factor. It would be somewhat surprising to have two finished fuels technologies move forward, leaving only one chair to be filled by the other four technologies. But we’d be looking closely at those trio of technologies that are creating new routes to bio-oil, for how well they match up to the second insertion point (the intermediates) and the third (the finished fuels).

Whatever the technology chosen, the timeline is clear – downselect to three this fall, and down to one, ready for pilot, by late 2013. That would be on a path towards a demonstration by 2015 or 2016, and a commercial-scale plants before the end of the decade.

Those are the years when the Renewable Fuel Standard is hiking the cellulosic biofuels mandates up by as many as three billion gallons in a single year. With the take-up of E85 ethanol (or other higher blends) slow, those drop-in fuels may well be the only path, if not emphatically the path of least resistance, to making those RFS targets a reality.

But given the time needed to permit, design and build commercial-scale biofuels plants, especially first-of-kind technologies, the timelines are tight, so that downselect is critical. We’ll be watching with interest as the six become three this fall.

Who’s in your NABC bracket?

Enter the Digest’s NABC Bracket Contest, here. This fall, we’ll publish all of the respondents in the Digest who correctly predict the three survivors. Good luck, bracketologists!

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