10 Time Machines for making biofuels and chemicals

November 4, 2013 |

time-machineWant to make renewable fuels at warp-speed — and possibly at an unwarped price — try these 10 fairly amazing paths to making fuels from biomass faster than you can say “subsidy-free”.

Hey kids! You really can make free crude oil. Amaze your friends. Make Dad real happy. Mom can help you with the recipe. It really works.


1 cup concentrated algae.

1 quart salt water.

1 5lb bag of dirt and rock.

Large mixing bowl and 10″ round baking pan.


1. Add dirt and rock into the mixing bowl, stir in salt water, and ladle algae on the top until settled.

2. Pour into baking pan.

3. Bake at 200 degrees and 30 atmospheres of pressure for 60 million years.

4. Serve.

The only problem is, you won’t be around to enjoy your free fuel.

Accordingly, there’s an entire branch of the biofuelscape that is devoted to — well, time machines. Technologies that take that 60 million year long process and speed it up to minutes, even seconds.

Now, because the owners of the old algae aren’t around to collect wages for their aggregation services, in the case of crude oil, all you have to do is find it and pump it back up to the surface where it originated years ago. The pressure, temperature and feedstock are free and the time factor is someone else’s problem.

The new technologies that come along have to provide pressure, temperature and feedstock at their own cost. So it’s the cost of those three elements, competing against the cost of locating, drilling and pumping.

In recent years, the gap has narrowed considerably — the science of the time machine has advanced, while the cost of locating and drilling has increased as the easy-to-get-to oil is recovered. A number of these time machine technologies are now projecting that they can compete — at scale — with the $100+ crude oil we are likely to see for a while.

Where the share a common point is at the starting gate: they heat biomass up to begin to loosen the bonds that define one ball of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms as wood, and another as a plant, and so on.

From there, they have secret catalysts, temperatures, pressures, catalysts, reactor designs, cooling procedures and follow-on procedures that turn that unglued biomass into an intermediate that can be thereafter transformed into a finished fuel.

Here’s the challenge: At high temperatures and pressures, biomass is converted to a soup of volatile gases which, if cooled, would have thousands of different molecules that, when cooled down to liquid form, continue to react with each other – hence, why pyro oils have struggled with stability. You start with one soup, then you get another as all the reactions take place. The larger the chamber, the more unpredictable reactions – hence why pyrolysis systems have had tough issues scaling results from bench to commercial scale.

Addressing volatility, shaking out cost, reproducing results at scale, and getting the conversion targeted to make the right intermediates — that’s been the work in the world of time machines in recent years.

Here is the latest on 10 technologies well worth knowing and the latest on their adventures — some in near-stealth, some well along the road to commercialization., starting with KiOR.

1. KiOR

Late last month, KiOR announced the execution of $100 million in committed equity related financing in two separate private placement transactions to support the Company’s recently announced expansion of production capacity in Columbus, Mississippi, called the Columbus II Project. Once completed with the planned technology enhancements for both Columbus facilities, the Columbus II Project is expected to achieve overall positive cash flow from operations for KiOR.

What exactly is KiOR all about and why is it attracting all the finance? Well, it’s got first-mover advantage in cellulosic drop-in biofuels — though some see that privilege as akin to the Curse of the Bambino. We profiled the catalytic pyrolysis technology — that generates a biocrude from woody biomass (among other feedstocks) suitable for upgrading from biocrude to finished drop-in biofuels, here.

2. Midori

About a year ago, a little-known company called Midori Renewables picked up some traction from the invited international selectors in the 50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy. The company’s foundational technology had only started coming forward in 2010 and the venture was very much in stealth mode, out of the Flagship VentureLabs – the source of companies such as Joule Unlimited

The promise of the technology was simple: a revolutionary way to deliver low-cost sugars — perhaps the most stubborn barrier between cellulosic biofuels as a triumph in the lab, and cellulosic biofuels as a triumph at the pump.

The technology may surprise. There’s no biology in it, really – no enzymes, no magic micro-organism — fungus, yeast, bacteria, protein, aqueous acid, or what have you. It is a solid material — though one temporarily shrouded in some mystery — but one that reportedly can be easily separated from the reaction and reused, resulting in a significantly lower cost solution than existing technologies.

“People have been trying to cost-effectively break down cellulose in biomass for more than 100 years, and we have finally done it,” said Dr. Brian Baynes, Founder and Chairman of Midori and Partner at Flagship VentureLabs.

It’s a little like taking biomass and baking a cake,” said Baynes. “You mix it up with the catalyst, shove it into an oven — or, at scale, into a reactor. The sugars are melted of of the cellulose. You wash it with water, until you have a stream that looks like maple syrupthen you separate out all the solid residuals. It’s not hard for that step, because the trick is that we are using a very dense material that sinks very rapidly to the bottom of the reactor where it is recovered for re-use.

3. Biorefinery Midscandinavia

In July, we profiled biorefinery R&D project number 100 at the Swedish Processum cluster, aimed at thermochemically converting lignin from black liquor to bio oil. It is run by the Swedish-Norwegian cooperation project “Biorefinery Midscandinavia” and the project partners are Processum Biorefinery Initiative, PFI, Metsä Board Sweden, Viken Skog (a Norwegian forest owner association) and the Bergen University.

Lignin is an aromatic polymer which is released in the pulp mills’ sulphate cooking sequence and ends up in the black liquor, is burnt and transformed into heat energy in the recovery boilers. When pulp mills are run increasingly energy efficient there may be an energy surplus in the form of steam. This energy surplus makes it possible to remove some of the lignin from the process, thus relieving the recovery boiler.

4. Anellotech

Last March, Anellotech announced that it plans to make available large quantities (i.e. 100 kg) of green benzene and toluene to strategic partners for downstream product development purposes before the end of this year.

The BTX group — benzene, toluene and xylene — are the key molecules among the aromatics. Though why they got that name is really anyone’s guess, since they aren’t always possessed of a strong aroma. The smell they give off? Really, when you get down to it — it’s the smell of money.

Not just money in the form of profit — also, quite literally, its in the smell of the kind that folds. Aromatics are a traditional ingredient in currency printing inks, used as solvents to adjust the viscosity.

Anellotech is the developer of a thermochemical catalytic fast pyrolysis (CFPTM) process for making aromatics directly from non-food biomass.  The company’s pilot plant operations are scheduled to commence in the second half of 2013.  It plans to offer kilogram scale samples of green benzene and toluene to selected customers in late 2013.

These large volume development lots will provide sufficient quantities for qualification of Anellotech’s green aromatics as drop-in feed stocks for use in downstream conversion into a variety of valuable derivatives.  This will provide early customer assurance that “green” plastics can be sourced from renewable aromatics produced from Anellotech’s CFP technology.  CFP produces xylenes as well as benzene and toluene, and similar sized xylene samples will also be made available.

5. Virent

Virent is developing a separation process which uses its BioForming technology to efficiently convert carbon from lignocellulosic biomass into hydrocarbon fuels. Virent will work to improve the overall carbon conversion efficiency of biomass—helping to reduce the cost of producing hydrocarbon biofuels that work with our existing transportation fuel infrastructure and are capable of meeting the Renewable Fuel Standard. Idaho National Laboratory will also bring their feedstock pre-processing capabilities to the project.

During a 3-year, $4M DOE-supported project, Virent will apply a novel fractionation and separation process coupled with its patented catalytic BioForming technology platform to optimize conversion of carbon from lignocellulosic biomass to hydrocarbon fuels. Virent will investigate both debarked loblolly pine and corn stover as feedstocks, in collaboration with Idaho National Laboratory’s state-of-the-art technologies and expertise for the pretreatment of the biomass.

Virent was also in the news on R&D in May when the company announced the delivery of 100 gallons of its bio-based jet fuel to the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) for testing purposes. Product testing will begin at Wright Patterson Air Force Base to validate Virent’s jet fuel against the standards required for qualification and approval of new aviation turbine fuels established by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The validation plan includes fit-for-purpose, fuel system and combustor rig testing.

6. Velocys

One technology definitely worth watching: the microchannel Fischer-Tropsch reactors and catalysts developed by Velocys.

F-T has been looked at many times over the years, but the cost of shipping biomass simply skyrockets due to the increased cost of shipping and logistics with feedstock aggregation.

According to Velocys, microchannel technology is able to intensify the FT process to the extent that a plant of 500 barrels per day output (7.6 million gallons per year) can be economic, which would require around 500 tonnes per day of biomass. That’s not far off the biomass requirements of the small commercial plant that KiOR has just commissioned in Columbus, Mississippi – and also in the ballpark of Ensyn’s preferred 400 ton-per-day reference design.

In terms of modular construction, Velocys has signed with Ventech Engineers International, which specializes in the design and construction of modular refineries.  Under the terms of the collaboration agreement, Ventech will design, sell and deliver GTL plants incorporating Velocys’ microchannel FT reactors to customers in North America – and placed an order for the first 1400 barrel per day modular GTL plant. Furthermore, through Ventech Project Investments LP, Ventech has $200 million in available capital to make equity investments in energy projects, and expects to co-invest in initial customer GTL plants.

7. Cool Planet

This summer, Cool Planet Energy Systems announced that ther company will build three bio-refineries in Louisiana with a capital investment of $168 million. The project will consist of modular biomass-to-gasoline refineries in Alexandria, Natchitoches and a site to be determined. Cool Planet will create 72 new direct jobs, averaging $59,600 per year, plus benefits. Additionally, LED estimates the project will result in 422 new indirect jobs, for a total of 494 new jobs. The company estimates 750 construction jobs will also be created by the project.

Cool Planet will harvest wood waste and forest byproducts to make gasoline at its initial commercial-scale facilities in Louisiana. Each bio-refinery will be capable of producing 10 million gallons of high-octane, low-vapor pressure gasoline for strategic distribution through existing market channels and for blending at Louisiana refineries.

8. Agilyx

Last year, Waste Management and Total caught the industry off-guard when they announced that they have joined the $22 million Series B investment round in Agilyx, led by Kleiner Perkins and including previous investors Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, Saffron Hill Ventures and Reference Capital.

The technology – a pyrolysis process converting plastic into syngas, and thence cooled into synthetic crude. Waste impurities are then removed from the stream and lightweight gases (e.g. chlorine, bromine) that do not condense continue further downstream where they are treated by an Environmental Control Device. The Four primary vessels and the associated secondary processing equipment, comprise the system.

9. Ensyn

Ensyn is not a new company – in fact, it has been around for more than two decades with extensive operations in producing flavors & ingredients, upgrading heavy oils from fossil fuel drilling operations, and renewable fuel oil for power generation. Overall, the company has produced more than 125 million litres of renewable fuels and chemicals from wood residues. More about them — in pictures, too, here.

Staring in the mid-2000s the company began its move into renewable transport fuels – with a signature establishment in 2007 of a 75 ton per day plant in Renfrew, Ontario in 2007, and establishment in 2008 of the Envergent joint venture with Honeywell’s UOP, aimed at stand-alone upgrading of the Ensyn liquid product to drop-in transportation fuels.

Though a complex technology, this class of technologies is based in a simple concept. Rapidly heat up biomass under the right conditions, you gasify the materials into a stream of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that, when rapidly cooled, densifies into a trio of carbon-based soup, a solid bio-char, and a remainder of flammable, renewable gas.

The key to making a commercial technology is an affordable supply of biomass, a technology for efficiently heating and cooling the material, as well as optimizing the mix of carbon-rich liquid, char and gas.

10. Fulcrum BioEnergy

Recently, Fulcrum caught both industry and the public by surprise when the company was announced as one of the three recipients of an Air Force grant, under the Defense Production Act, aimed at developing plans for a drop-in military biofuels plant, capable of making both marine diesel and jet fuel, which would supply sub-$4 biofuels to the DoD.

“Over the past past year,” said CEO Jim Macias, “we’ve making advancements on integration of plant design. We’ve been focused on the demonstration of the integration of our technology taking us all the way from MSW to fuels, at our demo plant in Durham. But we have other technologies, and see other opportunities. And there is a lot of market pull from customers looking for drop-in fuels. Jet fuel is in big demand, with airlines eagerly pushing for it. So, we added on a Fischer-Tropsch design as a complement, yet quite different, to our alcohol to ethanol capability.

“We have a tubular reactor design,” Macias added. “Probably not the most long term cost effective, but reliable and predictable, and that’s important now. So we have our MSW system, and our gasification technology and scrubbing systems, and then the FT process to produce jet fuel and diesel from the gas stream.

“We took a fresh approach, rather than trying to scale down an existing system. For example, the tubular reactors rather than the slurry bed reactor. The other technology is tougher to scale up or down. We built full scale reactor tubes with all the heat and chemistry components, and then found some designs and technology for the fuel upgrading, to crack the FT liquids and turn it to distillate.

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