Incitor and the birth of a new low-cost fuel molecule

October 4, 2012 |

A new drop-in, low-cost, high-octane fuel molecule? How does that work, and why, and when?

How does it change the energy independence equation? 

Today, the Digest visits Incitor to find out about Alestron.

Back in 2008, there was a flurry of coverage of a new class of fuel molecules that could be made affordably from cellulose – the furans. There was some exciting work at Berkeley. Companies like Avantium and Lignol were working with one member of that class, furfural. Raven Biofuels had a process that landed it briefly in the 50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy.

The efforts didn’t pan out as hoped – primarily, the companies simply couldn’t shake enough of the costs out of the process, and had more promising near-term technologies to focus on.

But the idea was most intriguing.

First, the processes didn’t lose carbon by producing CO2 as a byproduct of fermentation.

Second, they generally produced a fuel molecule with around 120,000 BTUs (around the same as gasoline), that could safely run in 50 percent blends with gasoline or diesel.

Third, they used ethanol as a feedstock for the second step in a two-step conversion process – thereby giving you a path for getting around the E10-E15 ethanol “blend wall”.

Now, along comes Incitor. This intriguing company aims for some of the same chemistries, and a cost of $2.25 per gallon for a fuel that it has dubbed Alestron (which it produces from a process that also yields companion chemical market molecules, including ethyl levulinate). All based on a modeled cost of $75 per tonne of biomass.

The company has been working in an Albuquerque-based lab the past couple of years (moving from 500L/year to 4000L/year scale this year), recently completed a $2.5 million capital raise that will expand its facilities, and will embark on a $10 million cap raise to complete a pilot facility that can handle 8,000 tons of biomass per year.

The goal at Incitor has been to knock the cost down to a market-making level by designing a process that co-founder Troy Lapsys describes as “building it from things you can find at Loews and operating it from things you can find at Costco”. For example, avoiding the use, where possible, of high-cost stainless steel and working with low-cost plastics in the process design.

The process

The basics of making furanics from biomass-derived CMF, and an alcohol

The Berkeley research demonstrated in 2008 that — as an alternative to fermentation – you can bathe cellulosic biomass in hydrochloric acid, lithium chloride and a recyclable solvent to make a molecule called CMF.

Now, a lot of researchers have touted CMF over the years as a precursor to fuels – but you can’t burn it directly as a fuel molecule, because of the “C” in CMF.

It stands not for carbon, but chlorine – and, in a burn, you produce poisonous chlorine gas. The attraction of CMF is that it uses 5-carbon and 6-carbon sugars, and all the carbon goes towards fuel, instead of producing one CO2 molecule for every ethanol molecule, as in fermentation. That has energy implications, and lifecycle emissions implications.

Troy Lapsys: "building it from things you can find at Loews and operating it from things you can find at Costco"

Note the use of low-cost, off-the-shelf materials throughout the Incitor facility - in particular, the absence of high-cost metals and plastics

But, in a second step, you can mix ethanol (or any alcohol) with CMF and – in the presence of a catalyst, produce a set of furanic molecules that can be burned as a fuel.

Part of Incitor’s magic? They are using an organic catalyst – no expensive rare-metal catalysts that have to be recovered as completely as possible due to their high costs, requiring a whole recovery system to be designed into the overall process. And, a low-temperature process, which shakes out much of the energy cost.

You can read more about Incitor’s process here.

The feedstocks

Incitor’s process works with “corn stover, wheat straw, woody waste, solid waste, algae, or pretty much any sugar containing biomass,” the founders say.

Intriguing, that algae option – generally, that means residual algae biomass after the lipids are extracted – as sugars are the target here. Gives some food for thought, to algae companies, that there could be a customer, at scale, for post-lipid extraction algae biomass at $75 per tonne, in New Mexico, not far from where the CO2 pipelines travel, and near a lot of flat land, sunlight and brackish groundwater.

The “If, thens”

Incitor has a long ways to go to design and demonstrate their process at scale. But let’s think about the consequences, should they reach their final goal of producing a $2.25 fuel molecule, using ethanol as a feedstock, with about the same BTUs as gasoline, that typically blends at 50 percent with gasoline or diesel with no performance issues, and has an octane rating of 110.

OK, let’s think about ethanol, first. In their second step, Incitor uses a 40/60 mix of ethanol and CMF, and produces a fuel molecule that blends at a 50 percent clip. Well, that’s a path to taking, for example, 8 billion gallons of ethanol and $75 per tonne biomass, and producing 20 billion gallons of renewable fuel at gasoline-like BTUs.

Combined with the current US biodiesel capacity, the residual ethanol production from gallons not utilized for Alestron, and currently scheduled advanced biofuels capacity (through 2016, in our Advanced Biofuels Project Database) – that meets the entire 36 billion gallon RFS target. No E15, no blender pumps, no ethanol pipeline, no kidding.

Now, that’s math drawn to illustrate a potential, not a roadmap to meeting RFS2. Other technologies are reaching scale, and Incitor is at an early stage.

Second, let’s think about next-generation internal combustion engines, of the type that are expected to be needed to help the US reach its 54.5 MPG CAFE standards that automakers just agreed to. There are two types of advanced engines that we may see a lot more of – Direct Fuel Injection (DFI) and homogeneous-charge compression-ignition (HCCI – also known as the no-spark gasoline engine).

Learn more about DFI here  and HCCI here.

Now, those engines really like high-octane fuels, especially HCCI engines that deliver their efficiencies from higher compression – there, 82-85 octane gasoline as produced at the typical US refinery is going to have an epic fail, leading to engine knock and significant engine damage. So, Alestron’s 110-octane rating comes very much in handy – delivering no loss in energy density but giving you the octane you need.

Third – let’s think about how this kind of technology could work with, say, the kind of ethanol output that Joule is working on with its models and technologies. To meet the entire RFS2 target (allowing for existing and planned advanced biofuels capacity), you would need 9 billion gallons of ethanol (to make 23 billion gallons of Alestron, which would count for 30 billion ethanol-equivalent gallons for RFS2 purposes).

The possibilities are fascinating – even if they are well down the line.

The Ifs

There are four major ifs.

First, the company needs to demonstrate its process at scale. The good news is that catalysis processes are, generally, less tricky to scale that fermentation technologies (where we have seen, as in the case of Gevo and Amyris, that side reactions can depress yields at commercial scale).

Second, the company needs to complete its cap raise, and it has taken on the added task of severely limiting, in its next $10 million round, the amount of equity it will seek – hoping to secure the bulk of its finance through non-dilutive instruments such as new market tax credits and debt.

Thirdly, Alestron will have to go through the long and expensive process of becoming certified as a fuel molecule for the transportation fleet – the tests for emissions as well the engine and road testing for performance.

Fourth, in its current process it produces about half Alestron, half other valuable compounds like ethyl levulinate. There may well be limitations for the company’s growth based on saturating the markets for its chemical compounds long before the fuel markets saturate. But, fair to say, that would be a substantial amount of capacity building down the line.

The bottom line

Incitor's key management - CTO Troy Lapsys, CEO John Ellis, VP Jake Berman

It’s early days for Incitor and Alestron. But the company’s progress illustrates a couple of points very well.

First, innovation is still rampant in the biofuels industry. Beware of anyone who starts a sentence with “biofuels are…” or “biofuels can’t…” — that’s a sure sign that that speaker is not tracking the science.

Second, there are many paths to fulfilling RFS2, and biofuels targets in general, that do not necessarily involve infrastructure change, or limit ethanol production, or run into blend walls or questions over the viability of fermentation systems at scale.

Third, there’s a whole lot of cost-shakeout going on at some smaller, innovative companies that are finding ways to eliminate the need for costly parts and process.

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