Mill, Baby, Mill

June 6, 2012 |

In-field bioprocessing? Dramatically higher plant oil production?

R&D breakthroughs offer new paths to victory for Millers vs Drillers.

If you haven’t been getting most of your information on the Renewable Fuel Standard from the Grocers Manufacturing Association, you’ll note that biofuels manufacturers have been able to deliver all the fuel called for in the mandate, despite the massively-publicized shortfall in the cellulosic ethanol component of RFS.

That’s in large part because producers on the oil-side – that is to say, biodiesel producers, have managed to dramatically increase production since 2010, more than offsetting shortfalls amongst the cellulosics.

In recent years, the alcohols have generally received the attention because of the high promise of cellulose, and the high production from cane and corn, and deservedly so. But there’s been a tremendous amount of innovation on the oil side of the equation – for example, companies like Solazyme and Dynamics Fuels have been carrying the load in terms of deliveries for military and aviation biofuels. Pyrolysis-based KiOR may well be on the verge of a massive break-out into commercial-scale production, with commercial plant #1 ready to open later this year.

So it’s been fascinating to watch the oil-side evolving, and the story became even more interesting with two reports this week from Purdue, and Brookhaven National Laboratory, on oil-side R&D advances that could open up.

Over at Purdue: new process competitive with $100 oil

Detailed economic analysis is showing that a new thermocatalytic technology called hydropyrolysis can be competitive with $100 crude oil.

Back in 2010, we reported on the new approach, which comes from Rakesh Agrawal’s lab at Purdue, where he is the Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, and a high mucketymuck in research circles focused on hydrogen technologies. The work is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

The new process uses fast-hydropyrolysis-hydrodeoxygenation, which depends on adding hydrogen to the biomass reactor.

In traditional fast pyrolysis, the reactor runs in an inert atmosphere and at standard atmospheric pressures. In the H2Bioil process, the pressures are high and reactions take place in the presence of hydrogen – substantially boosting the yields. Catalysts then separate oxygen from carbon molecules, making the carbon rich in energy.

In 2010, we reported that if the biomass is used to produce the hydrogen, then the process yields 1.5x the liquid fuel of existing technologies, but if natural gas is used to supply the hydrogen, then the amount is 2x existing technologies

“We’re in the ballpark,” said Wally Tyner, Purdue’s James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics. “In the past, I have said that for biofuels to be competitive, crude prices would need to be at about $120 per barrel. This process looks like it could be competitive when crude is even a little cheaper than that.”

Mobile processing in the field?

Game-changer – but how? Primarily, its a technology designed to be cost-competitive with crude oils at small scale, which means that it can be processed on a mobile basis, even in the field.

While research elsewhere has made mobile units, Purdue’s Agrawal commented “Material like corn stover and wood chips has low energy density…It makes more sense to process biomass into liquid fuel with a mobile platform and then take this fuel to a central refinery for further processing before using it in internal combustion engines.”

Think in terms of units that can be mounted on a truck-bed – that’s an outcome envisioned by the inventors.

Where could that go? Well, think in terms, down the line, of the harvesting combine – snapping up the biomass, pyrolyzing in a few seconds, and producing a relatively stable crude bio-oil that can be pumped from the combine into a truck that runs parallel to the processor in the field – similar to the trucks that gather up and spirit away the grain produced by traditional combines.

Bio-oil might then be shipped via pipeline, rail, barge or truck to a processing center – one which serves a far wider geography than can be served with a more traditional approach to harvesting and has to transport the entire original biomass to the plant.

Fascinating possibility.

Over at Brookhaven: unlocking the key for plant to make more oil

But that could be only the second most interesting development of the week.

A group of researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory have found the mechanism that plants use to limit the production of oils in their oilseeds, and published their work recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Now, oil production in plants is a complicated process involving a bunch on intermediates that we’ll skip over for now.

In English: Here’s the key take-away: the group found that, as the plant goes through its metabolic cycle, the more oil it produces, the more a key enzyme gets inhibited and slows down oil production, in a biofeedback loop. Sort of like the way the human body signals “full” to slow down food intake.

In Geek-speak: During the step when it is converting acetyl-CoA to produce malonyl-CoA, the increasing levels of the first desaturated fatty acids inhibits the enzyme Acetyl-CoA carboxylase.

Why important? Now discovered, researchers can go to work on exploring how they might interfere with the process, including biochemical schemes to keep the “slow-down” signaling metabolite from accumulating, ways to block its effects on ACCase, and more.

“Now that we understand how this system operates—how plants ‘know’ when they’ve made enough oil and how they slow down production—we can look for ways to break the feedback loop so they keep making more oil,” said Brookhaven biochemist John Shanklin, the group’s leader.

By interfering with that process, the group might well be able to substantially increase oil production in plants – or, possibly – since this is a process that goes all the way back in the evolutionary cycle and is found in algae, and even bacteria – radically increase oil production in the microcellular feedstocks.

Which, in turn, could make viable a number of highly desirable feedstock plants and algae, that simply don’t produce enough oil but are highly prized for other characteristics.

Of course, some enterprising food chemist is probably off to the races trying to do the opposite – finding ways to insert even more inhibitors into, say, cupcakes – making it impossible for bodies to make oils and fats when eating sugar-rich foods.

The bottom line: Mill vs Drill

For now, think the more traditional oilseed crops like canola, rather than hoping for a radical breakthrough in, say, cyanobacteria. But overall, a sign that science is far, far away from being done with discovering an optimizing the bio pathway to oil.

Which of course, is the point that so many industry execs have been making for a long time. While the fundamentals of finite supply and growing population dictate that crude oil will become more expensive over time, the accelerating work in the life sciences dictate that the cost of carbs and lipids will come down over time.

Good news for this who are betting that the mills will ultimately win out over the drills.

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