ARPA-E launches $20M Project REMOTE – bioconversion of natural gas to liquid fuels

March 27, 2013 |

arpa-eARPA-E aims to drive liquid fuel production from abundant, affordable methane — and sees biobased technology as the path forward.

In Washington, ARPA-E released its long-awaited funding opportunity announcement for Project REMOTE – Reducing Emissions using Methantrophic Organisms for Transport Energy.

If that seems like a mouthful – think “bioconversion of natural gas to liquid fuels”.

Concept papers are due at DOE by April 22nd – awards may range from $250,000 to $10 million and the overall FOA has $20 million in the kitty. Cost share is a 20% minimum, except for a 5% minimum cost share for educational institutes or domestic non-profits.

You can download the FOA here.

In a larger sense, FOAs from ARPA-E – the Advanced Research Projects Administration (Energy) give a good indication on the frontiers for commercializing energy research — because ARPA-E is specifically acting in the gap between basic R&D and the commercial zone, helping to bridge gaps that bar the development, specifically, of disruptive and transformational energy technologies.

In recent years, ARPA-E has funded work on electrofuels — and on Project PETRO (“plants engineered to replace oil”). In this project ARPA-E takes on the glut of natural gas, the barriers to its use in liquid fuels — and potential pathways to tapping this resource using bioconversion.

As ARPA-E itself writes, in the announcement, “The benefits of converting natural gas to liquid fuels for use in transportation have long been recognized. First, the existing transportation infrastructure is based on liquids, and such fuels can be conveniently “dropped in” without substantial changes in vehicles. Second, liquid fuels from methane have lower emissions than petroleum-based fuels. Liquid fuel produced from methane decreases emissions by up to 50%, compared to unconventional petroleum…Further, methane is responsible for 10% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions…Technologies capable of capture and conversion of methane will help mitigate the global-warming potential of these emissions.”

In case you have been visiting Neptune the past seven years, horizontal drilling technology, in tandem with hydraulic fracturing, has led the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Energy Information Agency to conclude that the U.S. has 2,000 trillion ft3 of technically recoverable natural gas- enough to power all of US transportation for 50 years at current rates of consumption. And the spread between gas prices and oil prices is startling — oil is up to 8X more expensive now on a BTU basis.

Why bioconversion?

According to ARPA-E, “this direct route to conversion, without relying on upstream unit operations for syngas production, has the potential to reduce capital expenses (CapEx) by more than 50%…the current conversion approach through Fischer-Tropsch (FT-GTL) is challenged by both high capital costs and low conversion efficiencies.”

The problem with current GTL technology

The high capital costs of FT-GTL result from its technologically complex, multi-step process, which includes:
1. Converting methane to synthesis gas (syngas, a mixture of predominantly CO and H2)
2. Catalyzing hydrocarbon formation from syngas, and
3. Separating a broad distribution of products and upgrading them, which all require numerous temperature and pressure changes.

ARPA-E observes, “Only large facilities are able to drive down capital costs per unit, manage heat efficiently, and cost effectively separate multiple products that are all required for the profitability of the FT-GTL approach.”

The bioconversion challenge

To give an example, a hypothetical methanotrophic bacterium that synthesizes n-butanol from methane has two problems: methane is activated inefficiently (66%) and then formaldehyde is converted into fuel inefficiently (78%). Thus, even if an organism fully leveraged the most recent developments in synthetic biology and industrial biotechnology, bioconversion through MMO will have difficulty being cost effective or disruptive to the fuel market.

The bioconversion promise

ARPA-E notes, “The discovery of alternative biochemical routes to either aerobic or anaerobic activation of methane have inspired new approaches to metabolic pathway engineering,” that may address “the efficient activation of methane, the conversion of molecules derived from methane activation into useful fuels without the waste of energy and the release of CO2, and the development of innovative bioprocesses to achieve high rates of gas transfer and product synthesis using engineered biocatalysts.”

The 3 Focal Points

The three primary challenges addressed by this program are the low carbon yield, low energy efficiency and slow kinetics in the process of bioconversion of methane to liquid fuels.

Some of the contenders

In recent weeks, ARPA-E has been assembling a list of “potential partners” – who have been busy raising their hands to become part of project teams or consortia to pursue the ARPA-E grants.

Download the complete project partner and capability list here.

Auburn University
Calysta Energy
Carbon Forge
Colorado State University
Ginkgo Bioworks
GreenLight Biosciences
Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology, University of Maryland
Iowa Energy Center
Iowa State University
Lawrence Berkeley National Lab
Los Alamos National Lan
Medical University of South Carolina
Microvi Biotech
Newlight Technologies
North Carolina State University
Penn State
R3 Sciences
Rutgers University
Sandia National Laboratories
SRI International
University of Michigan
University of Colorado
University of Georgia
University of Hawaii
University of Massachusetts – Amherst
University of Nebraska
University of North Carolina
University of Washington
University of Minnesota
Virginia Tech
Washington State University
Washington University
Wyss Institute for Biologibvally Inspired Engineeering at Harvard University

The bottom line

Here in Digestville, whenever we find ourselves short on hate mail, we write about corn or methane as feedstocks for biofuels.

For methane, the hate mail comes generally from people who regard natural gas as a fossil fuel feedstock and therefore not a biofuel and not renewable, even if bioconversion is involved.

Aside from the potential for tapping methane emitted by biomass — here in Digestville we see bioconversion of natural gas as a useful component of an all-of-the-above energy strategy — particularly when we look at rising energy demand in the developing world. Our view: let us not make perfect the enemy of good.

We also see as critical: the development of advanced catalysis that can convert new classes of gas molecules into liquids suitable for storage. Long-term, we hope for tailpipe-scale technologies to finally resolve the CO2 emission problem.

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