ARPA-E awards $34M in R&D for advanced liquid fuels from methane

September 19, 2013 |

arpae-logoARPA-E boosts its original projected awards by 70% as it burrows deep into the problem of how to make something insanely great out of stranded methane.

Here are the winners, the background and the stakes.

In Washington, the US Department of Energy announced that 15 breakthrough energy projects will receive approximately $34 million from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) via the REMOTE program (Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy), seeking to find advanced biocatalyst technologies that can convert natural gas to liquid fuel for transportation.

REMOTE will address the transformation of gas-to-liquid technologies. Current synthetic gas-to-liquids conversion approaches are technologically complex and require large, capital-intensive facilities, which limit widespread adoption. This program aims to lower the cost of GTL conversion while enabling the use of low-cost, low-carbon, domestically sourced natural gas.

In all, 15 projects in 9 states nabbed preliminary awards, which are subject to negotiation. It is of interest that when the project was originally announced in the spring, awards were aimed at the $250,000 to $10 million range and the overall FOA had $20 million in the kitty. Cost share was a 20% minimum, except for a 5% minimum cost share for educational institutes or domestic non-profits. Overall, the awards have dipped some 70% deeper into the DOE kitty — suggestive that there is increased emphasis at DOE on using methane for transport fuel — and that breakthrough technologies are required — and possibly available.

The largest single award, $4.00 million, went to a LanzaTech-led team including The City University of New York, Louisiana State University and Michigan Technological University. That award offers an interesting look at exactly what Project REMOTE is driving at.

The why and wherefore

You see, it’s a no-brainer that the US is currently awash in methane hydrocarbons. 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.

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 LanzaTech project, as exemplar

The LT-led consortium will receive funding over 3 years. The award is intended to help them make a reactor system perform the same or better but at much lower volumes/cost, with three benefits:

1. Hugely lower capex.
2. Flexibility – either go big and have a smaller footprint, or go small and still have viable economics.
3. More efficient energy footprint = better sustainability.

The stranded and remote gas problem

In general, REMOTE is focused, as its name suggests, on the residue side of waste methane gases. In short, this isn’t intended to deliver a technology that is bolted onto the end of a pipeline at the Henry Hub and compete for feedstock with existing, known, profitable uses for gas. It is aimed at the stranded gas — some or much of which is being flared as we speak, to convert methane into carbon dioxide, and vented into the atmosphere.

The reason that resources are stranded is that existing facilities are too big to make something out of the dispersed feedstock assets. Hence, the interest in intensification.

How does this relate to existing work — for example, LanzaTech’s platform for converting stranded carbon monoxide to liquid fuels?

“On the technology side, methane (like CO and H2) is an insoluble but energy-rich gas,” LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren told the Digest, as she took us through the world of ARPA-E. “Our platform is based on fermenting these gases using microbes, meaning that methane fermentation is substantially similar to the industrial off-gas and syngas fermentation LanzaTech is already doing. Our strategy is to focus on low-cost or waste resources and the US is now a world leader in low-cost natural gas, with certain locations currently flaring gas that cannot be delivered to pipelines. In addition, biogas is available for large municipal landfills in volumes applicable to fermentation.

“As always, we are focused on waste/residue streams not “virgin” streams,” she noted. “You would be amazed at how much natural gas is currently being flared because it isn’t economic to move it to a pipeline. Ethanol, lipids other liquids enable economic movement of the natural gas. In fact- think of these as better ways to move the BTUs around.

Reaction in Washington

“The new ARPA-E projects announced today demonstrate ARPA-E’s commitment to providing critical, early-stage funding for innovative energy technologies,” said Deputy Director Martin. “Today’s roundtable discussion focused on the importance of transformational energy innovation and how strategic partnerships between federal and state government, academia and the private sector create new energy options for our future.”

“The United States has historically been a leader in new energy technologies, but we are increasingly facing competition from abroad.  We must continue to invest in high-potential technologies and engage our brilliant entrepreneurs to ensure that the U.S. remains the world leader in energy innovation.  These new projects announced today are just the latest in a steady stream of new and exciting ARPA-E projects that are changing our energy landscape,” said Congresswoman Doris Matsui (CA-06).


High-Efficiency Biological Methane Activation

Arzeda Corp.
Seattle, WA
New Metalloenzymes for Methane Activation
Arzeda will leverage computational algorithms to engineer proteins for the creation of new synthetic enzymes to activate methane, the first step in producing a liquid fuel from natural gas. These completely new enzymes could transform the way methane is activated and will be more efficient than current chemical and biological approaches. If successful, Arzeda’s technology could efficiently activate methane for cost- effective fuel production, and it could also be applied in a variety of other synthesis processes for fuels and chemicals.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Berkeley, CA
Enzyme Engineering for Direct Methane Conversion
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) will re-engineer an enzyme to directly “methylate,” or bind methane with, a common fuel precursor in order to produce a liquid fuel. Methylation, which does not require the input of oxygen or energy, is a new technique that has never been applied for efficient methane conversion. If successful, LBNL’s process will enable low-cost, energy-efficient fuel production from natural gas.

MOgene Green Chemicals LLC
St. Louis, MO
Sunlight-Assisted Conversion of Methane to Butanol
MOgene Green Chemicals will engineer a photosynthetic organism for methane conversion that can use energy from both methane and sunlight. The use of renewable and readily available solar energy reduces equipment costs and greenhouse gas emissions. If successful, MOgene will develop a low-carbon-dioxide-emissions technology that produces a liquid fuel from natural gas and sunlight through efficient, low- cost biological conversion.

Northwestern University
Evanston, IL
Multicopper Oxidases for Methane Activation
Northwestern University will engineer an entirely new biocatalyst for highly efficient methane activation, the first step required to convert methane into a liquid fuel. Northwestern University will adjust and repurpose chemical properties within a certain class of natural enzymes that utilize copper to activate methane without the input of energy. Northwestern University’s process could provide a low-cost solution to the first step of methane conversion, which has been a long-standing technological challenge.

Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA
Methane-to-Acetate Pathway for Liquid Fuel
Penn State University will engineer a biocatalyst that makes use of methane as a co-reactant to generate chemical precursors of liquid fuels. Unlike other conversion approaches, this approach will explore reversing a naturally occurring sequence of reactions that produces methane from acetate. If successful, Penn State’s technology will enable cost-effective, energy-efficient, and carbon-efficient conversion of natural gas to liquid fuels.

University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI
Anaerobic Bioconversion of Methane to Methanol
The University of Michigan will create a biological approach to activate methane, which is the first step in producing a liquid fuel from natural gas. Current approaches to methane activation require the addition of energy and oxygen, but the University of Michigan will engineer a methane-activation pathway inside of a methanogenic, or methane generating, microorganism that eliminates the need for supplemental inputs. If successful, the University of Michigan’s biocatalyst will convert natural gas to a liquid fuel in a manner that is more efficient and cost effective than existing biological processes.

High Efficiency Biological Synthesis of Liquid Fuels

Coskata, Inc.
Warrenville, IL
Activated Methane to Butanol
Coskata will engineer methanol fermentation into an anaerobic microorganism to enable a low-cost biological approach for liquid fuel production. If successful, Coskata’s technology will enable the rapid microbial conversion of methanol to fuel with high energy efficiency and low carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, Coskata’s technology could integrate with other technologies that ferment methane to methanol.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA
Single-Step Methane Activation and Conversion to Liquid Fuels
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will develop a comprehensive process to directly convert methane into a usable transportation fuel in a single step. MIT’s unique technologies integrate methane activation and fuel synthesis—two distinct processes required to convert methane that are typically performed separately—into one step. If successful, MIT’s approach will result in a cost-effective approach to access natural gas in remote locations.

University of California, Davis
Davis, CA
Biosynthetic Conversion of Ethylene to Butanol
The University of California, Davis (UCD) will engineer new biological pathways for bacteria to convert ethylene to a liquid fuel. Currently, ethylene is readily available and used by the chemicals and plastics industries to produce a wide range of useful products, but it cannot be converted to fuels economically. If successful, UCD’s new biocatalyst would enable cost-effective conversion of ethylene into an existing infrastructure-compatible fuel.

University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA
Efficient Condensation Cycle for Methanol to Liquid Fuel
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) will develop a unique, non-natural pathway for highly efficient synthesis of fuel. Unlike other approaches, this new technology uses metabolic components that avoid carbon-dioxide-generating (decarboxylating) reactions. If successful, UCLA’s technology will convert methanol to butanol efficiently, without emitting carbon dioxide, and it could easily integrate with advances in upstream methane activation.

University of Delaware
Newark, DE
Engineered Bioconversion of Methanol to Liquid Fuel
The University of Delaware seeks to engineer a synthetic methylotrophic organism to utilize new metabolic pathways to convert methanol into butanol while recapturing and reusing generated carbon dioxide. Unlike current bioconversion processes, The University of Delaware’s technology offers greater efficiency without carbon dioxide emissions during the conversion of methanol to butanol, an infrastructure- compatible liquid transportation fuel.

Process Intensification Approaches for Biological Methane Conversion

Calysta Energy
Menlo Park, CA
New Bioreactor Designs for Rapid Methane Fermentation
Calysta Energy will develop new bioreactors to enable efficient biological conversion of methane into liquid fuels. Unlike current technologies, Calysta’s new bioreactor designs facilitate the delivery of methane to the biocatalyst for rapid fermentation of methane to transportation fuel. If successful, Calysta’s technology would enable low-cost conversion of natural gas at remote sources, while reducing energy inputs associated with liquid fuel production.

GreenLight Biosciences
Medford, MA
Cell-Free Bioconversion for Access to Remote Natural Gas Sources
GreenLight Biosciences will develop a cell-free bioreactor that can convert large quantities of methane to fuel in one step. This technology integrates the rapid conversion rate of chemical catalysis into a single-step bioconversion process that does not use traditional cells. If successful, it could enable mobile fermenters to access remote sources of natural gas for low-cost conversion of natural gas to liquid fuel.

LanzaTech, Inc.
Roselle, IL
Bioreactor Design to Improve the Transfer of Methane to Microorganisms
LanzaTech will design a gas fermentation system that will significantly improve the rate at which methane gas is delivered to a biocatalyst. Current gas fermentation processes are not cost effective compared to other gas-to-liquid technologies because they are too slow for large-scale production. If successful, LanzaTech’s system will process large amounts of methane at a high rate, reducing the energy inputs and costs associated with methane conversion.

Oregon State University
Corvallis, OR
Bio-Lamina-Plates Bioreactor for Enhanced Mass and Heat Transfer
Oregon State University (OSU) will develop an entirely new bioreactor design to enable low-cost conversion of methane to liquid fuel. OSU’s ultra-thin, stacked plate system will improve the overall rate at which methane is transferred to biocatalysts. If successful, this new design could provide a low- cost alternative to current state-of-the-art methane bioreactors.

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