The 8 Habits of Highly Successful Biorefinery Developers: Looking at Alberta’s look at advanced biofuels

October 28, 2014 |

jacobs-study-alberta-smAs Alberta looks at what might works for them in industrial biotech — Jacobs comes up with a useful take on Renmatix, GTI, LanzaTech, Enerkem, REG and OPX Bio — and 8 rules for getting it done, making it happen.

While in Alberta last week, we came across a report commissioned by Alberta Innovates looking at how a number of technologies might apply to the feedstocks and markets in Western Canada.

It’s a fascinating report — not least because it goes into depth on some key and closely-watched technologies from the likes of GTI, Renmatix, LanzaTech, Enerkem and the former LS9 (now REG Life Sciences) — and looks how combinations of technologies also might play in Alberta with the provinces woody biomass and MSW feedstock base.

The caveats

A couple of caveats before we discuss the findings.

First, these are estimates prepared by a consultancy — talented though they are — not based on actual commercial-scale results in the field. Plus, several of these technologies are not yet at commercial-scale. So, technology risk applies.

Also, the work in question relates to Alberta feedstocks — which may not be the most ideal for a given technology — not every process finds its optimal economics working from MSW or woody biomass. So, geographic variance applies.

Finally, these are combinations of technologies which have not been tested together at commercial-scale.

So, as is said in weight-loss ads, “results may vary.” But let’s take a look at this rich data stream.

The feedstock

The authors (Jacobs) chose unsorted MSW and agricultural and woody forest biomass (both whole and roadside residue) as a base — based on each having more than 2 million dry tons available each year.

The products

Chosen on the basis of “reasonable chance of being economically produced” were: diesel, gasoline, ethanol, acrylamide, and diluent for bitumen transport (thinners for heavy crudes to make it possible to ship them by pipeline). Hot molecules such as BDO and organic acids were excluded on the basis of a small market in Alberta.

The scale

In this case, 500,000 tons per year and 1 million tons per year were chosen — on the low end, as the smallest scale the authors thought might be feasible, and on the high-end based on the limits imposed by the costs and logistics of transporting biomass.

The technologies selected

1. The GTI process for drop-in gasoline and distillate blendstock from biomass.

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2. LanzaTech process for converting syngas to ethanol.

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3. Renmatix Plantrose tech for making industrial sugars from biomass.

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4. OPX Bio’s technology for producing acrylamides from sugar.

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5. LS9’s tech (Now REG Life Sciences) for producing fuels from sugar.

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6. Enerkem’s process for converting MSW to ethanol.

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The conclusions

Here’s the great news.

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1. Using sorted MSW, both LanzaTech and Enerkem technology showed “costs of production…less than the current market price of ethanol.” This, at both scales of operation.

2. GTI’s tech produces gasoline and distillate blendstock “at below the current market prices for the transportation fuels at both scales of operation.”

3. Renmatix technology can “produce simple sugars…below the world market price for unrefined sugar.”

4. The LS9 tech (when fed Renmatix sugars) can produce “alkanes (diesel fuel) with a cost of production that is below the price for diesel fuel.” [at the larger scale of production]

5. The OPX tech (when fed Renmatix sugars) can produce “acrylamide (diesel fuel) with a cost of production that is well below the current market price at both scales of operation.”

The not so great news was that the LS9/Renmatix pathway and the LanzaTech process (using woody biomass) struck out on the economics at the smaller of the two scales.

The recommendations for Alberta

Jacobs honed in on four technologies that it suggested should be focused on for development at the Alberta Energy Research Facility in Edmonston, “or elsewhere”. Keep in mind that Enerkem is already at commercial scale here, so not needing the recommend for further research.

1. GTI IH2 Biomass to drop-in fuels

Jacobs says: “If scalable, this would be a “breakthrough” technology that solves the key issues that most other pyrolysis technologies have — namely the ability to produce a non-acidic, stable (non-polymerizing) product state that does not require significant further treatment.”

2. Renmatix/OPX Bio sugars to acrylamide tech

Jacobs says: “The technology combination would manufacture a high value product that could be used to manage Alberta bitumen tailings ponds.”

3. Renmatix biomass to sugars tech

Jacobs says: “This could enable not only proven yeast based ethanol production, but also many other proven fermentation-based pathways to high value products that are in need of a cheap sugar source.”

4. LanzaTech MSW to ethanol and other high-value molecules

Jacobs says: “This versatile technology platform offers the potential to turn syngas…into other high-value products, as well as ethanol.”

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How to make it happen in Alberta, or elsewhere

1. Support pilot runs for the core platform technologies.

2. Focus on high-value products or those with a large spread between cost of production and market price. “Perform rigorous due diligence prior to funding”.

3. Entice a major chemical producer/chemical process developer to focus on Alberta biomass conversion. Jacobs offers BASF, BP., Cargill, DuPont, Koch, Marathon Oil, POET-DSM, Shell, Honeywell;s UOP, Valero and Waste Management as potential partners.

What it takes to succeed: 8 Habits

Jacobs identified 8 qualities which they described as “key attributes of successful process development groups.”

1. They do no target incremental improvement. They target novel process scheme that will: replace an expensive step, eliminate a step, produce a high-value product from a much cheaper feedstock.

2. They target processes that do not require subsidies.

3. They have considerable experience in process development.

4. They have access to “versatile, highly instrumented piloting facilities”.

5. They have “close access to laboratory facilities…[for] quick turnaround.”

6. “They seek out experience – fast – to solve problems.”

7. They “understand the value of rigorous material balances. They are extremely knowledgable in process scale up issues…they are experts at experimental design.”

8. They are “led by multi-disciplinary individuals with process development backgrounds.”

A note on Assumptionitis

Before we get too excited about the results and the attractive charts and graphs, let us consider that — especially in the world of MSW, the “Garbage in, garbage out” rule applies on assumptions of feedstock costs, process yields and capex and opex. For example, we note that Enerkem’s technology is being modeled here on $75 per metric ton tipping fees for MSW — when the company is getting $45 per ton.

We also note the built-in 20% IRR on capex — when most of the industry would be delighted with much lower.

So — again, be careful with the exuberance there, Goober.

The Bottom Line

We expect to see LanzaTech in China based on free steel waste gas, long before Alberta, and we’re not expecting to see REG Life Sciences in Alberta quite yet. But the message is clear — there are robust opportunities here that ought to be considered — and mutliple pathways where Alberta can win.

That thinking applies to a lot of other provinces, states and regions where agricultural or forest residues are abundant — or where MSW can be cheaply found.

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