Phase Shift: 12 Hot Gas-based biofuels technologies

August 8, 2011 |

Jumpin’ Jack Flash! It’s a gas, gas, gas! New technologies bring gases into the vanguard of advanced biofuels feedstocks.

In traditional biofuels, the story to date been all about solids and liquids – grains, juices, mash, slurries and eventually files, chemicals and biomaterials.

A lot of the early companies through the advanced biofuels IPO gate – like Amyris, Solazyme and Gevo, work on liquids too.

In short, the wet stuff is the publicity hog.

But a new generation of technologies is coming along fast, primarily in advanced biofuels, which is gasifying biomass at the front end along its path towards making fuels, chemicals or other biomaterials – or in some cases, using organic chemicals already in a gaseous state.

One of the most exciting new technologies, syngas fermentation – described recently as the “third path for cellulosic ethanol” by Advanced Biofuels USA, is profiled here.

But there are a variety of types. Fisher-Tropsch process companies, such as Rentech; gas fermentation specialists such as INEOS Bio, Coskata, LanzaTech; pyrolysis companies like KiOR; and companies using catalysts to convert gasified biomass to liquid fuels and materials, such as S4, SynGest, and TRI. Plus, there is the hybrid fermentation and gasification approach that ZeaChem takes.

Here is the latest on 12 companies to watch.

Coskata

Technology: Gas fermentation

In June, Coskata announced that it has issued a Letter of Intent with Fagen for engineering, procurement and construction services for the construction of its commercial cellulosic ethanol facility in Boligee, Alabama, that will be designed around the Coskata technology. Fagen and Harris Group will lead an EPC process that will include in its scope the project detailed design, procurement, construction and commissioning.

Coskata received a conditional commitment for a loan guarantee from the United States Department of Agriculture, and is working on the details that will be necessary to close the financing for the project.  The facility will convert sustainably harvested wood biomass into ethanol, a high-octane renewable fuel, and is expected to bring approximately 300 construction jobs and 700 direct and indirect jobs to Greene County, Alabama.

Coskata has been on the warpath of late to remind the industry, and the broader stakeholders in a future beyond fossil fuels, about why ethanol fuels were developed in the first place, and why they should be considered a superior alternative to drop-in hydrocarbons, when refining fuels from biomass.

At the end of June, Coskata CSO Rathin Datta presented at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop that ethanol should be considered “the primary renewable liquid fuel”. Though too polite to say it, he leaves us to draw the obvious conclusion that all the companies making renewable gasoline can go home now.

You can download the Coskata presentation, here.

So, which is better – ethanol, or drop-in fuels?

Here’s the main thrust of the Coskata view: “For liquid fuel or chemical production from lignocellulosic biomass, the winning strategy is to produce a product that has proven and widespread use, with the highest yield – that is ethanol.”

Enerkem

Technology: Catalytic conversion of gasified biomass

Last week, Enerkem announced  the closing of US$30 million in additional financing through corporate equity (US$15.3 million) and corporate debt (US$15 million) transactions.  As part of the equity financing round, The Westly Group, Fondaction CSN and Quince Associates, L.P. join existing investors Valero Energy Corp., Waste Management, Rho Ventures, Braemar Energy Ventures and Cycle Capital, who had each invested in the recently announced US$60 million equity tranche.

In June, Enerkem, in partnership with the Government of Alberta and the City of Edmonton, opened The Advanced Energy Research Facility. This facility will consist of a network of top researchers from around the world aligned for the purpose or creating renewable fuels and chemicals through the conversion of waste.

Enerkem enables every city in the world to produce advanced fuels locally, efficiently and cost-effectively using their household garbage. The company manufactures, owns and operates community-based, compact advanced biorefineries founded on its proprietary thermo-chemical technology, developed in-house since 2000. Enerkem’s transformative technology converts residual materials, such as non-recyclable municipal solid waste, into clean transportation fuels and advanced chemicals. The multi-feedstock and multi-product process combines green gasification and catalytic synthesis. Enerkem’s extensive gas conditioning produces a tailored synthetic gas that is converted into premium products using proven industrial catalysts at the proper temperatures and pressures.

Fulcrum BioEnergy

Technology: Catalytic conversion of gasified biomass

Fulcrum BioEnergy most recently announced that it has successfully demonstrated the ability to economically produce renewable ethanol from garbage at its TurningPoint Ethanol Demonstration Plant. The company’s 10.5 Mgy Sierra BioFuels Plant, located approximately 20 miles east of Reno, will commence operations in 2011 and will convert 90,000 tons of municipal solid waste (MSW). The company expects to produce fuel for less than $1 a gallon, at a yield of 120 gallons per ton.  In a two-step thermochemical process, organic materials recovered from MSW are gasified in a plasma enhanced gasifier – the syngas is then converted to ethanol.

Ineos BIO

Technology: Gas fermentation

In June, INEOS New Planet has signed a feedstock supply agreement with the Indian River County Board of Commission which includes plans to import 90,000 tons per year of yard clippings, tree trimmings and other vegetative waste from other counties in order to supply its $150 million plant in addition to the 55,000 tons per year of waste from local household collection.

INEOS Bio’s biorefinery will have the capacity to produce 8 million gallons of ethanol and 6 megawatts (gross) of electricity per year—of which approximately two megawatts will be exported to the local community. This renewable electricity will be able to power approximately 1,400 homes. Located at a former citrus processing plant site in Vero Beach, Florida, the BioEnergy Center will provide 380 direct and indirect jobs (including 175 construction jobs) over the next two years and 50 full-time jobs in Indian River County. The project is expected to commence operation in 2012.

KiOR

Technology: Catalytic pyrolysis

We looked at the KiOR IPO in detail, here.

In May, KiOR finalized a “conditional” offtake agreement for its biocrude-based gasoline with Catchlight Energy, the 50-50 joint venture between subsidiaries of Chevron and forest products major Weyerhaeuser, making it the second deal of its kind following an earlier deal with Hunt Refining.

Back in April, KBR announced it has been awarded an engineering, procurement and construction by KiOR build a first-of-its-kind biomass-to-renewable crude facility to be located in Columbus, Miss. The facility is designed to process approximately 500 tons per day of wood biomass and produce over 11 million gallons of fuel per year.

KBR will provide engineering and procurement services, as well as direct hire construction for the commercialization of KiOR’s proprietary technology, which is designed to convert biomass into drop-in biofuels such as gasoline and diesel blendstocks. The facility is designed to produce renewable fuels from wood biomass.  KBR is an engineering, construction and services company.

LanzaTech

Technology: Gas fermentation

LanzaTech is talking with Indian Oil and Jindal Steel on how they can  leverage their resources to implement a commercial scale ethanol plant using LanzaTech’s technology to process waste gases from a Jindal steel mill. The fuel ethanol produced by the plant would be blended into Indian Oil’s gasoline pool.  The announcement was made during the state visit to India by New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and Trade Minister Tim Groser.  LanzaTech’s vice-president, Prabhakar Nair was part of the 25 member delegation accompanying Key and Groser.

In March, LanzaTech, Baosteel Group Corporation, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) launched the construction of a plant that will use LanzaTech’s gas fermentation technology for the production of fuel ethanol from steel mill off-gases.  Construction of the plant is expected to take six months and production will begin late in the third quarter of this year. The company’s commercial plants will have a 50 million gallon capacity.
In February, LanzaTech and Baosteel signed a joint venture agreement that will see the construction of a 100,000 gallon a year demo plant, with the intention of quickly scaling the model again for the first commercial plant in China.

Last month, we profiled LanzaTech as one of the “rising Tigers of the China Bioenergy trade”, here.

Rentech

Technology: Fisher-Tropsch process

In Canada, Ontario has selected Rentech’s Olympiad Project in the Township of White River for proposed supply of up to 1.1 million cubic metres/year of forest waste and unmerchantable wood fibre (1.3 million US tons) to produce renewable RenJet low-carbon jet fuel at the proposed 23 million gallon Olympiad Project. The Rentech project will also produce 43 million litres (13 million gallons) annually of renewable naphtha, a chemical feedstock.

In addition, Rentech has recently submitted an application for funding to the federal government’s NextGen Biofuels Fund, for up to 40 per cent to a maximum of C$200 million of eligible project development and construction costs, which would be repaid from a percentage of the project’s cash flows. The Government of Canada’s Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) has up to C$500 million in funds.

The Olympiad Project, scheduled to be in service in 2015, will be designed as a state-of-the-art renewable energy facility that will employ the Company’s Rentech-ClearFuels biomass gasification system and the Rentech Process to produce the only type of alternative jet fuel certified for use in commercial aviation today. These leading-edge technologies will enable Rentech to turn primarily unmerchantable and underutilized timber into clean, renewable jet fuel, and create up to 400 jobs.

S4

Technology: Reforming, following gasification.

Last May, Waste Management Inc. and InEnTec announced a joint venture, called S4 Energy Solutions, that will produce renewable fuel, power and industrial products as well as to generate electricity, using plasma gasification. In plasma gasification, biomass is fed into a closed chamber and superheated to temperatures of up to 20,000 degrees fahrenheit. The intense heat transforms biomass into syngas, which is then reformulated using into ethanol and green diesel, hydrogen, methanol or methane. A secondary process can convert the base materials into other industrial chemicals.

Last week, InEnTec converted itself from an LLC to a corporation under the laws of the State of Delaware, and has filed a Form D with the SEC disclosing a $20 million capital raise, with a goal of $69 million.

Karl A. Schoene, InEnTec President and CEO, stated that this was done to fuel fund new commercial projects.  InEnTec has a proprietary gasification system that transforms waste streams from municipal, commercial, medical, and most industrial and hazardous wastes into syngas that can be used to produce electric energy, ethanol, methanol and hydrogen.

Solena

Technology: Fischer-Tropsch process

In January, Qantas and Solena Group announced that they expect to finalize a partnership in the next two weeks to determine the feasibility of a Fischer-Tropsch based biofuels plant in Australia that will produce aviation biofuels from waste.

Early last year, Solena inked a $309 million partnership with British Airways to construct a 16 million gallon aviation biofuels demonstration plant in East London. The London project would utilize up to 500,000 tonnes of waste as feedstock for the project.

According to Qantas and Solena, the partners expect to complete a business case by year-end – as airlines struggle to determine the most cost-effective means of coping with new EU regulations on aviation carbon emissions that will take effect in 2012 under the Emissions Trading Scheme.

According to a report in the Guardian, Solena is also negotiating at an early stage with Lufthansa, and for a Dublin-based project with a coalition of airlines including easyJet, Ryanair and Aer Lingus – with a prospective price tag of $309 million per project.

Last year, British Airways announced that it will construct a 19 Mgy waste biomass gasification plant at one of four sites under consideration in East London, that will produce renewable aviation biofuels. The plant will commence operations in 2014, and will utilize 500,000 tons of waste biomass. The facility will be constructed by US company Solena Group, will use the Fischer Tropsch process and will reduce the airline’s annual carbon emissions by 145,000 tons per year, according to consultancy Arcadis that is also working on the project.

SynGest

Technology: Catalytic conversion of gasified biomass

The gasification facility is the only really new technology in their proposed Cornucopia BioRefinery.  The SynGest gasifier, although it has some new characteristics and achieves better performance than prior biomass gasifiers, it is based on well-known and understood technologies.  The goal with the SynGest system is to convert any form of biomass into clean syngas at the lowest possible cost and simplest operational approach.  The ideal scenario would be to convert biomass into syngas in one step.  The best way to come close to achieving that goal is to gasify the biomass using almost pure oxygen and the appropriate catalytic fluidized bed.  Although our design gets very close to complete conversion in one step, we still have components of the syngas that need to be handled, such as methane, tars and BTX.

ThermoChem Recovery International

Technology: Steam reforming, following gasification.

TRI’s medium-BTU syngas can be converted into a wide range of downstream biofuel and biochemical products.  Since 2003, a TRI gasifier has been in commercial-scale operation at Norampac’s Trenton (Ontario) containerboard mill, gasifying black liquor (solid biomass equivalent: 500 dry tons per day).  Currently, TRI is the gasification technology provider for two separate DOE-funded biorefinery projects which will convert TRI syngas to Fischer-Tropsch waxes and diesel for market sale, and provide tailgas to offset natural gas use in the lime kiln.

ZeaChem

Technology: Hybrid gasification and fermentation technologies

Last March in Boardman, Oregon (population 3,300), ZeaChem commenced construction of their demonstration plant, designed to prove out a technology at scale that has been producing 2,000 gallons of ethanol per acre  in its three-year pilot phase. (Note: that’s based on 135 gallons per ton of biomass, and a correspondingly large productivity in poplar biomass. See our 2009 report on those yields.)

Yesterday, as the cranes swung three 40,000 gallon fermentation tanks into place and locked them down at a site between a massive Cargill processing plant and the Pacific Ethanol’s 40 million gallon corn ethanol facility, ZeaChem’s footprint looked tiny. But the technology, which processes poplar among a wide variety of cellulosic feedstocks from corn stover to switchgrass, is promising to be anything but small or insignificant.

2,000 gallons per acre? They are numbers that usually are associated with algal biofuels, or a liquid-fuel-from-thin-air project like the Joule Unlimited pilot in Leander, Texas. These are not productivity rates generally associated with cellulosic ethanol, and are approximately four times the productivity of first-generation corn ethanol, without competing with food processors and cattle ranchers for edible starches.

There are two arrows in the ZeaChem productivity quiver.

First, its bacterial acetogen-based process does not produce CO2 as a by-product, rather conserving all that carbon for fuels and chemicals. For that reason, the process yields up to 135 gallons per ton of biomass, about 30 percent higher than yields from a standard-range 100 gallon per ton cellulosic ethanol projects.

Second, it uses poplar, which grows like a weed, and is one of the primary reasons for the project’s location along the Columbia River, because it ties in for feedstock to the 30,000 acre GreenWood poplar tree farm, which grows the 15-20 ton per acre per year biomass monster for the solid wood, power and fuel markets.

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