Biofuel Production with the Sun, the Sea and Thermochemical Reactions

October 10, 2017 |

By Dr. Marcius Extavour, Senior Director, Energy & Resources, XPRIZE
Special to The Digest

Biofuels have a renewed and important focus in a time of growing recognition of the need for carbon neutral, carbon negative, and circular carbon solutions. Hydrocarbon drop-in fuels are among the leading products targeted by the CO2 conversion community, be it diesel, methanol, butanol, or others. New approaches to the science and technology of CO2-to-fuels may alter the energetics, the economics, and the business case to the point where bio-based CO2 conversion could be poised for a radical leap forward.

Driving realization of a robust circular carbon biofuel category, our semifinalist teams’ work in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE have shown that there are many ways to make a biofuel — presenting a series of exciting new technology platforms described below that may emerge from the competition into commercialization.

From Hydrochar to Carbon Negative Renewable Diesel

Taking a biological approach, Team Aljadix from Basel, Switzerland, plans to use carbon dioxide to grow microalgae in its large-scale process for carbon negative renewable diesel. (Digest readers may already recognize Team Aljadix from the 8-slide guide published in 2016.) The microalgae cultivation platform is an innovative design adapted from well-known sea surface platforms developed by others. The platform captures sunlight by operating in sheltered coastal locations in high sun areas (e.g. Mexico). This eliminates the need for land or freshwater and ensures a reliable source of energy to drive thermodynamics.

The microalgae is harvested using high-efficiency microfiltration (Global Algae Innovations; Liq-O-Flux). It is converted to biocrude using hydrothermal liquefaction (as developed by the Pacific Northwest National Lab). The biocrude can be blended with regular (fossil) crude and refined, or it can be directly upgraded by hydrotreatment to renewable diesel (the leading advanced biofuel).

The “secret sauce” in their process comes from a hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) co-product: hydrochar. (Hydrochar is biochar made via a hydrothermal process.) For years HTL has seen difficulties because 5 to 15 percent of the carbon converts into tiny hydrochar solids, which plug tubes and reduce yields. Aljadix has solved this problem by turning it around. It turns out that the carbon in hydrochar is chemically inert, having been sequestered and permanently removed from the atmosphere. Aljadix captures the hydrochar and buries it. Since more carbon is bound up in the hydrochar than is released during the entire production process (e.g. the carbon released as a result of energy/materials consumed from cultivation through to processing), the result is a carbon negative renewable diesel. In this case, the carbon negative renewable diesel not only replaces fossil fuel but also claws us back from the carbon precipice (see here).

Aljadix has six corporate/supplier partners, a solid management team lead by Thomas Digby, Chris Chuck, PhD and Mike Allen, PhD, access to government funding (Canada, UK and Mexico), and healthy contact with potential angel investors, all of whom are looking for the right technical investor prepared to lead the next round term sheet.

Thermochemical Conversion to Methanol and Sellable Biochar

Jumping to California, Ventura-based Hago Energetics sees conversion of waste CO2 as a key to making valuable and profitable products with carbon negative technology. The company plans to monetize power plant emissions directly at the production site with an approach that comprises thermochemical conversion of CO2 to liquid fuels such as methanol, and to sellable biochar, with the aid of unwanted waste biomass and methane. Selling biochar along with the carbon neutral methanol makes this process very profitable compared to the standard process of making carbon positive methanol.

Comprised of seasoned individuals with over 25 years in the biofuels and biochar industry, the team is led by company CEO is Wilson Hago, PhD chemist, recent graduate of the Global Solutions Program at Singularity University, and current participant in the Silicon Valley SU Ventures Incubator. Looking to

leverage exponential technologies in carrying out the mission of lowering global carbon dioxide levels, the teams grand vision is to reverse global warming by burying billions of tons of biochar produced from the company’s process in the ground, while at the same time increasing the productivity of agricultural soils, improving forest soil health, and greening the deserts.

Hago’s work is moving fast – with plans to build the first demo plant in Denver, Colo., the company is looking for investors or partners to help it realize its grand vision.

Power of the Sun for Syngas or Methanol

A third scalable approach harnesses the power of the sun and the abundant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, for the production of energy. Dimensional Energy’s founding team includes professor David Erickson, who in 2014 designed and patented novel waveguides for the production of biofuels in partnership with the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment. While this approach improved algal productivity, the technology was not commercialized.

Jump to 2016 — during Cohort 3 of NEXUS-NY, a NYSERDA funded clean energy accelerator, Jason Salfi and Clayton Poppe formed Dimensional Energy to address the challenge from the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. They soon partnered with Erickson and Tobias Hanrath who proposed combining two lines of work: the waveguide with catalysts that his lab was working on for photocatalysis.

The result? The team has gone on to invent a reactor platform technology which they call HI-LIGHT. Focusing more on photocatalysis at this stage, the reactor platform has the ability to select for two main outputs, syngas or methanol. As both an XPRIZE semifinalist and NSF-supported company, Dimensional Energy is collocating their HI-LIGHT reactor at the Cornell CHP Plant in Ithaca, N.Y., to convert CO2 emissions onsite.

Salfi has said that his focus has been on commercial solutions to solve the world’s most pressing problems, and the founding of Dimensional Energy and competing in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is an extension of that lifetime mission. “With the Hi-LIGHT reactor we’ve previously demonstrated several multiples of increased growth rates for algae used in bio-fuels,” Salfi explained. “We are using the same technology here to increase light delivery to solid state catalysts, improving the overall efficiency of the reactor.”

Ramping Up with Capital Infusion

Innovation is alive, with teams that are driving increases in capacity providing more opportunity for forward thinking organizations that are committed to biofuels, today and in the future. Fuels derived directly from CO2 are attractive in the CO2 utilization community because of the sheer size of the global fuels market, and therefore their capacity to utilize carbon beneficially. For this pathway to live up to its promise as an important part of CO2 reduction strategies, or to be part of an eventual circular economy, it will be critical to not only see new science, technology, and business models applied to the problem, but also to be rigorous with life cycle analysis, carbon accounting, and environmental monitoring.

Carbon conversion and broader circular carbon innovation have the potential to support a massive future market of CO2-based products, including biofuels. They may also eventually help the world to achieve CO2 reduction targets at scale. Getting started takes ingenuity; acceleration requires capital and new investment. Working in tandem, these two elements can help us unlock a truly circular economy.

About the author

Marcius Extavour is the senior director energy and resources for XPRIZE and lead for the $20-million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a global competition for conversion of carbon dioxide from power plants into valuable products. Over the past 15 years, he has applied a background in experimental physics and engineering to complex problems in industry, government, and academia. This work took him to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where he held the OSA/SPIE/AAAS Congressional Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, the Canadian electric utility Ontario Power Generation, and more recently the faculty of applied science and engineering at the Univ. of Toronto, where he served as Director of Government and Industry Partnerships. He has a BASc in engineering science, and an MSc and PhD in MSc quantum optics and atomic physics, all from the Univ. of Toronto.



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