Biofuels’ 10 scariest challenges: Part 2 of 2

August 21, 2013 |

2. Oxygen content

Here’s the oxygen issue, biomass has it – as much as 60 percent by weight. But hydrocarbon fuels have none. So, in converting biomass to hydrocarbons, you lose an awful lot of biomass in the process.

“The problem with biobased technologies is that the biomass is not cheap enough,” says Alan Shaw, “nor is it readily available enough. Few companies have successfully scaled-up. You see so many of them starting out trying to make fuels, and now they are talking about very specialized niches, mostly in chemicals.

Calysts'a take on the methane opportunity, compared to biomass sugars and CO2

Calysts’a take on the methane opportunity, compared to biomass sugars and CO2

“Sugars are too expensive for products that are reduced in relation to sugars,” Shaw told the Digest. “For example, products that don’t need the oxygen that is contained in sugar. Those products lend themselves to natural gas. For those that are oxidized — for example, lactic acid, succinic acid, you can see the economics in making them from sugar – and that’s why companies like NatureWorks have been successful, and others will too who go in that direction. But not diesel.”

“The government rushed into investments, with no diligence,” Shaw added. “They are just not industrialists, in my opinion.”

The difficulty, he has explained, is the problem of making $275 per tonne sugar work in a $750 per tonne diesel market, when you lose 60 percent of the mass in the conversion, when the oxygen is blown off from biomass to make a hydrocarbon.

Reaction from industry? “I agree,” commented UOP general manager Jim Rekoske, whose company does a lot of the upgrading work from, say, renewable oil to diesel and jet fuel.

Shaw’s solution? Calysta Energy and NatureWorks announced an exclusive, multi-year collaboration to research and develop a practical, world-scale production process for fermenting methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into lactic acid, the building block for NatureWorks’ signature Ingeo product line, as well as lactide intermediates and polymers made from renewable materials. Thereby bypassing sugars altogether by picking up carbon via methane.

Elsewhere? There are the alcohol fuels, which do utilize oxygen, but there are infrastructure issues.

In the realm of alcohols — if there’s one technology we’re all waiting for, it’s the arrival, at scale, of isobutanol – a higher value fuel and chemical blendstock made from the same feedstock and at the same locations as corn ethanol, if you’re using Butamax or Gevo technology. (There’s also n-butanol made from cellulosic feedstocks if you are teamed up with Cobalt or Green Biologics).

Gevo, Butamax, and Green Biologics are working on these opportunities – though Butamax and Gevo have been more active to date with the US corn ethanol fleet.

Biobutanol blends at 16 percent into gasoline under the same structural rules by which ethanol blends at 10 percent. And, generally speaking, an ethanol to butanol production will bring down the production capacity by 20%. So, if you build 20 billion gallons of ethanol capacity and converted it to butanol, you’d be producing 16 billion gallons of product which would safely blend into the current gasoline pool and existing vehicles. Without the oxygen problem.

In today’s Digest, follow the page links below for each Scary Challenge – and potential solutions.

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