Special Asia Biofuels Report: The Top 10 Stories of the Year, and More

December 24, 2013 |

AsiaAsia looks at petroleum reserves and exploration and concludes: our future is in biomass.

As we wrote in 2012: “There’s only one complete region for biofuels where abundant feedstock, lack of oil & gas production, rising energy demand and supportive government policy come together — and that is Asia.”

The feedstock comes in three flavors. Existing and fast-growing crops, if controversial, such as palm oil. Crops grown on land unsuitable for food crops. Most importantly, an abundance of residues – agricultural, animal, forest, municipal and industrial.

Accordingly, though Asia has a carbon challenge like every other region, and would like to be energy secure for regional security purposes — what drives Asian interest in biofuels are the opportunities to add value to waste and wasted land.

As LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren explains, ““India is on the move. A lot of wisdom in trying to tackle energy security while trying to deal with a growing population, industrial growth and reducing their carbon intensity.  I find that globally – there is no debate about carbon.  The imperative to diversify to low carbon feedstocks is every where as is the vision to do so.  We are fortunate to be able to leverage great biotech in India and couple that with their interest to reduce carbon.”

Which is why global companies like Green Biologics, TNO Renewables, Heliae, Naturally Scientific, Elevance and LanzaTech, among others, have established Asian operations or attracted investors from the region.

Not to mention some exciting technologies for cellulosic ethanol, biobutanol and other molecules coming out of Asia-based companies like Praj, and the Taiwan’s ITRI research group.

Here are the Top 10 developments of the year.

1. Elevance and Wilmar begin commercial shipments of biobased chemicals from newly commissioned refinery

A project in Gresik, Indonesia; the company you know as Elevance Renewable Sciences; and a technology called olefin metathesis that’s highly worth knowing.

In Singapore, Wilmar International and Elevance Renewable Sciences have just announced that they have begun shipping commercial products, including novel specialty chemicals, to customers from their first world-scale joint venture biorefinery, located in Gresik, Indonesia. The biorefinery is the first based on Elevance’s proprietary metathesis technology.

The commercial-scale manufacturing facility produces novel specialty chemicals, including multifunctional esters such as 9-decenoic methyl ester, a unique distribution of bio-based alpha and internal olefins including decene and a premium mixture of oleochemicals. It has a capacity of 180kMT (approximately 400 million pounds) with the ability to expand up to 360kMT (approximately 800 million pounds) of products. (For those of you who think in terms of gallons, 180kMT is around 57 million gallons per year – the size of a major biodiesel facility).

Now the project cost might be a shocker. $40 million at Gresik for the whole shebang. Some of that stems from the site integration advantage of Wilmar’s big refining complex at Gresik – the opportunities to share utilities and other infrastructure.

The high-value, di-functional specialty chemicals produced at the biorefinery have superior functional attributes, previously unavailable commercially. These molecules combine the functional attributes of an olefin, typical of petrochemicals, and a monofunctional ester or acid, typical of bio-based oleochemicals, into a single molecule.

2. Praj breaks ground on $25M cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant

In India, Praj Industries broke ground on its integrated 2nd Generation Cellulosic ethanol plant. The 2G Cellulosic ethanol demo plant will operate on different variety of biomass with a capacity of 100 dry tonnes of biomass per day, which includes agricultural wastes such as corn stover, cobs and bagasse. The demo plant will enable Praj to consolidate its 6 years of R&D efforts, starting with laboratory trials to pilot scale trials.

The same plant will also enable Praj to develop various biochemicals and bioproducts.

The demo plant will seek to demonstrate various technical parameters including optimization of water and energy integration and its impact on the capex and opex. The plant will also develop the entire value chain including biomass handling and biomass composition and its impact on the operations.

Praj expects the project cost to be in the region of $25M.

Commenting on the ground-breaking, Mr. Pramod Chaudhari, Executive Chairman, Praj Industries, said: “Ground breaking of 2G Cellulosic ethanol plant is a giant leap in biotechnology and towards a more sustainable world. The greenhouse gas savings from Cellulosic ethanol is greater than those from 1st Generation crop-based biofuels as well as fossil-based fuel and hence this project will play a vital role in reducing carbon footprints.”

3. Seaweed-based ethanol technology gets boost in Vietnam

Deep in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam a small bio-refinery is converting seaweed into protein, fuel-blendable alcohol, and a bacterial soil product. It is part of a bio-economy demonstration that is also enhancing shrimp quality and yield by co-cropping naturally-occurring aquatic plants as a bio-chemical feedstock.

The project is a collaboration between the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) Institute of Tropical Biology (ITB) and Algen Sustainables. It was funded in part by grants from the governments of Denmark and Netherlands with additional research support from labs in the USA and China.

There are over 350,000 hectares of brackish water ponds in the Mekong Delta, most of which are owned by subsistence farmers who use no energy, nutrient, or probiotic inputs. Survival rate of shrimp fry is typically less than 10%. The project team discovered that certain seaweed varieties appear naturally in the ponds and serve as a food source for the shrimp while also clarifying the water. But with growth rates reaching 15% per day during the peak winter season, farmers were concerned that the plants can rapidly cover a pond and pollute it after dying.

The conversion facility itself is in a standard shipping container that can be moved near biomass sources of interest. It has a rotary tumbler, primary 200 litre fermenter, secondary inoculum fermenter, centrifuge, and two distillation columns. A small amount of electricity from the local grid is used to drive pumps. The heat source for hydrolysis, fermentation, and distillation is a low-emission rice husk boiler, supplemented by a roof-mounted solar water heater. Gravity feed is used to move material down the conversion pathway. Freshwater is recycled, and non-toxic waste water is treated in a shallow pond before release into the environment. Carbon Dioxide from fermentation can be captured and bottled for sale as a co-product.

4. Unlocking corn stover and agricultural waste for plastic bottling

In November, Novozymes announced that it will supply enzyme technology to the world’s first biomass to glycols bio-refinery to be constructed by M&G Chemicals in China. The bio-refinery will be located in Anhui province, close to Fuyang in Eastern China, and will have capacity to process 1 million metric tons of biomass per year, approximately 4 times the capacity of the biomass conversion facility by Beta Renewables in Crescentino, Italy.

Construction of the bio-refinery is contingent upon successful financing, and the bio-refinery is slated to begin operations in 2015.

The bio-refinery is expected to be realized through a joint venture between M&G Chemicals and the Chinese company Guozhen Group Co. which will make available 1 million metric tons of wheat straw and corn stover per year.

The bio-refinery will produce mono-ethylene glycol (MEG). MEG’s main application areas are in the production of synthetic polyester fibers and as one of two main components in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) production. PET is one of the key building blocks for plastic packaging, including plastic bottles for water. The lignin by-product will feed a 45 MW cogeneration power plant which will be constructed in conjunction with the bio-refinery.

The bio-refinery will use Beta Renewables’ PROESA technology, and Novozymes will supply the enzyme technology for biomass conversion on an exclusive basis over a 15-year period. To support M&G Chemicals’ vision, Novozymes will provide M&G Chemicals with financial support of USD 35 million, the exact details of which remain to be determined. Novozymes does not currently expect to expand its enzyme production capacity to serve the new bio-refinery.

5. Carbon-negative biobutanol for $2 per gallon? ITRI says its ButyFix technology has the right stuff

Seeking low-carbon fuels, even negative carbon? Or, looking for a low-cost, cellulosic renewable fuel? Or, in search of a capital-light, bolt-on technology to drive better economics for first-yen ethanol plants?

There was good news out of Taiwan in November — a new biobutanol technology, early-stage — with an update from Taiwan’s non-profit Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), that its newest biobutanol technology can increase carbon utilization from typical sugar fermentation from 67 percent to 94 percent.

To express it in economic terms, when you are making ethanol from, to use an example, $4.50 per bushel corn, for every $100 you spend on corn, $33 goes towards producing CO2, which has a street value of around $18. So, you start with a 15% fiscal deficit that drags on the economic performance of the remaining products — ethanol and distillers grains.

So, a jump from 67 percent to 94 percent carbon utilization has — on the face of it — enormous promise. In fact, ButyFix is being touted by ITRI as the first carbon-negative biobutanol production technology using cellulosic feedstock. Yep, carbon-negative. That’s a quality that, in the current marketplace, only Cool Planet is making a claim to among all other biofuels technology developers.

How does ITRI do it?

“The technology produces butanol by first fermenting sugars to produce butyrate. To create butanol from butyrate, ITRI uses proprietary processes to regulate certain genes in specially adapted microorganisms and re-directs carbon dioxide generated during fermentation to the desired pathway where the carbon dioxide can be re-utilized, achieving a high yield of butyrate. ITRI has demonstrated that ButyFix generates a solvent yield of 0.70g/g-sugar—a 94% conversion of carbon. this result corresponds to a 57% increase over traditional ABE processes.”

6. Sahara Forest project aims to use algae, renewable technologies to bloom deserts

In Qatar last month, we reported that Norwegian company Yara had teamed with the Qatari government on the Sahara Forest project that will use solar power and sea water to produce food crops such as tomatoes, cucumber, melon, fodder crops, freshwater, clean energy, salt, algae and for biofuel.

The metrics? A commercial scale project of 4,000 hectares would supply enough power for the project and export 325GWh a year in addition to 7,500 tonnes of algae oil, and hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food and fodder crops.

The project has seven distinct facilities including concentrated solar power (CSP), saltwater-cooled greenhouses, outside vegetation and evaporative hedges, photovoltaic solar power, salt production, halophytes and algae production.

Saltwater greenhouses

Saltwater-cooled greenhouses provide suitable growing conditions that enable year-round cultivation of high-value vegetable crops in the harsh Qatari desert. The cooling system is an evaporative cooler at one end of the greenhouse. The cool air is supplied under the plants via polythene ducts to ensure that the cool air is distributed evenly along the greenhouse and at low level.

As the air heats up it rises and is expelled via high level openings in the end wall.

The middle bay has a twin skin ETFE membrane roof that forms a void over the greenhouse. When the air is passed through the void at night it cools and the moisture in the air condense out to give fresh water that can be used for irrigation of the plants.

By using saltwater to provide evaporative cooling and humidification, the crops’ water requirements are minimized and yields maximized with a minimal carbon footprint.

A state-of-the-art 50 m3 algae test facility – the only of its kind in Qatar and the larger region – enables commercial-scale research on the cultivation of marine algae species native to the Gulf and Red Sea for use as nutraceuticals, biofuels, and as animal and fish fodder.

7. Develop Malaysia, develop palm oil biomass, develop bioenergy: the primer

If palm oil has been key to the Malaysian economy, palm oil biomass may be key to the next steps, say Dovre Group’s Dr. Ronald Zwart in a detailed national survey.

Dr. Ronald Zwart, Sr VP, BioRenewables, Dovre Group, wrote this overview of Malaysia opportunity in mid-year that proved to be one of the hottest reads all year. 

Oil palm plantations in Malaysia cover close to 5 million hectares, out of 16 million worldwide. The plantations yield crude palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm kernel cake — traditional ingredients for a wide variety of food, feed and nonfood products.

Table 1. Annual oil palm biomass production base

Oil Palm Biomass Fraction  Yield*
EFB – Empty fruit bunches 6.7
PKS – Palm kernel shells 4.0
OPF – Oil Palm Fronds 47.7
OPT – Oil Palm Trunks 13.0
MF – Mesocarp Fiber 7.1
POME – Palm Oil Mill Effluent 3.0

* in dry weight million metric tons per year (dw Mmtons/yr)

The biomass markets

Biomass has attracted increasing interest in recent years as an alternative feedstock for the production of energy, chemicals and other biobased products. In particular the use of biomass for the production of biofuels and bioenergy in the form of electricity and heat has ignited the development of an entirely new market.

Security of energy supply

While the EU energy market is about replacing fossil resources with renewable ones, the Asian situation is very different. According to the IEA the Asian continent is expected to roughly double its demand for energy in the next 20 years. For China and India spectacular increases are expected from 1,970 to 3,827 and from 595 Mtoe to 1,287, respectively. Similarly, energy demand in Malaysia will grow from 73 to 118 Mtoe. The ASEAN group of countries will go from 513 to 903 Mtoe. These stunning figures imply that renewable energy sources, including biomass, will be needed in addition to fossil fuels to meet the increasing demand for energy. It will be part of the portfolio to secure energy supply. The use of biomass to meet additional demand has very different market dynamics compared to energy replacement.

8. The Haze: Clearing Southeast Asia’s smoky skies with biofuels technology

A technology developed for Europe finds it is in demand again, as technologists address the growing mountains of palm waste and its special opportunities and challenges.

Too often, the first time most people heard something EnegraTech, they mistook it for ViagraTech — and were inclined to form the wrong impression of its claims to vastly improve performance, and overlooked it.

So it’s good news that the company has been renamed NextFuels — and its purpose is much clearer , and so too its merits and improvements. Addressing in this case, the appalling problem of smoke formed by burning waste palm biomass — generated by the world’s rising demand for palm oil.

And so we have waited for innovation, and waited. And then, along comes NextFuels, based on hydrothermal liquefaction – a/k/a/ hydrothermal upgrading.

The underlying technology was originally explored at Shell as far back as the 1980s, when oil prices rose to scandalous heights — and like algae, research came to a crashing halt when oil prices fell into the sub-$20 range in the 1990s. But a team of researchers, with support from the Shell Foundation, later took its development through a 1000-hour pilot test.

This hydrothermal liquefaction technology has much in common with pyrolysis in its outcomes — some residual biomass residue and a crude oil which can be burned in boilers to generate power, or upgraded into fuel.

The company is collaborating on its commercial strategy with Enagra, a biofuel trading company with extensive contacts and partnerships throughout the industry, on the development of its technology.


9. Algae to fuel developers: LanzaTech is supersizing our fries

At the leading edge of lipid technology, scientists turn to the french fry of biofuels, acetates, to grow more renewable oils faster, cheaper.

Unsurprisingly, we find LanzaTech’s cohort of carbonpreneurs in Malaysia and especially India right in the thick of it.

Earlier this year, LanzaTech, and India’s Centre for Advanced Bio-Energy, which have partnered to create a new process for the direct conversion of waste CO2 into “drop-in” fuels through an acetates-to-lipids pathway.

LanzaTech had previously developed gas fermentation technology that can directly convert waste CO2 gases into acetates. The Centre for Advanced Bio-Energy, a joint venture between Indian Oil Corporation and the Indian government’s Department for Biotechnology is working to increase the production yield of lipids (oils) by “feeding” acetates to microalgae.

The solution? Take a page from gasoline’s story. That is, find a feedstock so abundant that the marginal cost of adding supply remains low even when demand rapidly increases.

As LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren explained to the Digest, “We leverage our CO platform to convert CO2 directly – so we have the reactor systems etc to efficiently do gas fermentation and we have extended that to CO2 work. This is what the Petronas project is all about.  It is worth noting that we need H2 to make this work.  CO has Carbon and energy for the organism (just like sugar does) but CO2 only has carbon.  To get energy CO2 eating organisms can – get it from the sun (algae), from electrons (our bacteria can do that but it is a longer term project) or H2.  So unlike the CO case – we have to add Hydrogen.  There are cheap sources of hydrogen –especially in steel mills and chemicals plants… and of course there is plenty of CO2.”

So, what happens?

“The organism takes the CO2 + H2 and effectively converts it to acetate,” Holmgren explained.”The Center for Advanced Bioenergy Research can take our acetate and convert it to lipids (indeed, the same lipids that can be used to make drop in fuels and Solazyme makes into wonderful products like flour, creams etc.).”


“Integration of the technologies gives you a CO2 to lipid system ,” Holmgren added. “Much like algae with our organism and theirs working in concert to produce the lipids.  While the world makes great progress on algae, we thought this is an alternate approach which could also contribute to the future fuel pool.  We will see how good the economics can be.”

10. Acritaz Greentech taps Cool Planet system for commercial biorefineries in Malaysia

In October, Cool Planet Energy Systems and Acritaz Greentech announced that they have signed an agreement to explore the building of multiple commercial facilities in Malaysia.

The plan is to begin construction on the first plant in 2014.   Acritaz will work with Cool Planet to use biomass raw materials local to the region that include palm plantation waste products such as empty fruit bunches, wood, and bark waste to make renewable, cellulosic fuels for the Asian market.

Acritaz will work to commit USD60 million to the first facility before the end of 2013.  The first commercial facility is planned to be located in the Malaysian state of Johor.  Acritaz and Cool Planet will then work to build multiple facilities across Malaysia, with Acritaz purchasing proprietary equipment and consumables from Cool Planet in the construction and operation of the facilities.

Acritaz and Cool Planet will develop a plant design that satisfies the specific needs of Malaysia, including feedstock selection, biochar production, and specification of the final fuel.


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