Pyromaniax Unbound

October 24, 2018 |

An interesting addendum appeared in recent days on the Anellotech website — a notation, not seen before from the Sultans of Stealth, that “Anellotech has raised US$80 million in cash and in-kind contributions to date. These considerable investments come from our highly-motivated and engaged strategic partners, who are working with us to develop and commercialize Bio-TCat™, our efficient, eco-friendly thermal catalytic process.”

On the record we have roughly $30 million in acknowledged investment from Suntory and around $6M publicly acknowledged from Toyota Tshusho — what does the remainder represent? Perhaps investment from those two partners at higher levels than publicly known; perhaps “in-kind investments” from R&D partners AXENS, IFPEN and Johnson Matthey. Perhaps there’s another strategic or two lurking somewhere in the Anellotech orbit.

Any way you conjugate the dollars, it’s an impressive haul and a testament to the potential of a) Anellotech technology and b) by extension, the field of catalytic pyrolysis for the production of fuels and chemicals, as a whole.

Why the attention? Some of it in the most recent data and news regarding commercial status.

TCat-8 has operated for over 2,000 hours with continuous catalyst circulation including a fluid bed reactor, catalyst stripper, catalyst regenerator, quench tower, and recycle compressor. The pilot plant is operating mass balance closures of 100% +/-2%, and regularly completes uninterrupted 24/7 runs. The TCat-8 unit operates inside a commercial chemical facility that is OSHA PSM compliant.

Mass balance closures, multiple sustained runs, operating inside an OSHA PSM facility?  These are metrics and safety standards that should resonate with senior R&D management at industrial companies.

And then, BioBTX

But there’s more to be attentive to than solely Anellotech’s success. Consider that Carduso Capital is investing in a rival technology, BioBTX, a company based in Groningen-NL that also produces chemicals (Aromatics) from biomass.

The (amount undisclosed) Carduso Capital finance will accelerate the scaling up of the technique that BioBTX says it has “already proved itself on lab scale and in test lineups.”  BioBTX CEO Cor Kamminga said: “after the construction of a pilot plant in Groningen it is the intention to roll out the technology into the market. First step will be the construction of a plant in Emmen, together with our partners Cumapol and SunOil, to produce building blocks for example PET packaging for the cosmetic industry out of Glycerin”.

More about BioBTX here.

Viva l’Anellotech difference

There are some important differences between Anellotech and other catalytic pyrolysis operations, that we should note. First, Anellotech focuses on the production of the BTX molecules (benzene, toluene and xylene); second, it does not first produce an oxygen-laden bio-oil and then upgrade it to fuels or chemicals.

One thing we don’t know much about is the cost of Anellotech’s molecules or even much about the cost of their system when it reaches commercial-scale. In part that’s the reticence of the company to manage its progress from idea to scale via a public disclosure; also, there’s important work going on in their pilot facility in Texas to answer those questions with more precision. So, we’re left to guess.

Pyromaniax around the world

There’s some evidence mounting around the world about the cost of other catalytic pyrolysis reactors and systems, via the disclosures in academic literature. What’s the state of play?

The Gold Standard

Perhaps the best we’ve seen around is this study from some time ago with an Iowa State team including Robert Brown and Mark Wright. In 2011, they wrote:

“The modeling effort resulted in liquid fuel production rates of 134 and 220 million liters per year for the hydrogen production and purchase scenarios, respectively. Capital costs for these plants are $287 and $200 million. Fuel product value estimates are $3.09 and $2.11 per gallon of gasoline equivalent ($0.82 and $0.56 per liter). While calculated costs of this biofuel are competitive with other kinds of alternative fuels, further research is required to better determine the effect of feedstock properties and process conditions.”

That study is here.

So, excellent economics, some cautionary notes about scale. 

In 2015, the team resurfaced in Biofuels, and evaluated the techno-economic feasibility of three product portfolios from a biomass fast pyrolysis biorefinery: biofuel, biochemicals, and hydrocarbon chemicals.

They found:

We estimate MPSPs of US$3.09/gallon for biofuels, $433.7/MT for biochemicals, and $773.5/MT for hydrocarbon chemicals. The mean MICs are $162 MM, $610 MM, and $366.24 MM, and the net present value distributions are $-243.42±268.9 MM, $503.83±429 MM, and $242.44±30.1. Biofuel, biochemical, and hydrocarbon chemical portfolios have 18%, 100%, and 100% chance that net present values are positive respectively, which indicates that producing biochemicals and hydrocarbon chemicals could be more competitive than producing biofuels alone.

So, thats been the Gold Standard. What’s been seen since?

The Here and Now

A group led by famed catalytic pyro pioneer I.A Vasalos, from the Chemical Process and Energy Resources Institute in Greene had this to say in an article in WIREs Energy and Environment:

Experiments carried out with a woody biomass (Beechwood) and a commercially available ZSM‐5 catalyst in a circulating fluid bed (CFB) reactor are the basis for the design of a commercial unit. In the CFB unit, the catalytic pyrolysis step takes place at 482°C and at a catalyst to biomass ratio of 15–20. Following this step, the vapor temperature exiting the reactor is cooled from 482 to 340°C by recovering energy for steam production. The projected costs are valid only for an nth plant and they underestimate the cost for a first of its kind plant. Following procedures used for estimating investment and operating costs for a fluid catalytic cracking unit (FCCU), it is found that for BCP the estimated cost of producing CPO with 18 wt% oxygen is 615 US/MTor22 US/GJ. A sensitivity analysis showed that the price of CPO could vary from 615 to 841 US/MT(22–31US/GJ). On a crude oil energy equivalent basis, the bio‐oil cost lies in the range of 36–49 US$/GJ. 

Translated to $/gallon, $615/MT is roughly $2.05 per gallon and $36-49/MJ is roughly $3.35-$4.56. So, a very promising pathway but we are looking at an nth plant here. More about that study, here.

Making BTX from black liquor

In a recent issue of Applied Energy, we had this paper from a team led by Clayton Wheeler of the University of Maine’s Chemical and Biomedical Engineering department, focusing on the production of fuels and chemicals from black liquor — a waste substance produced in the pulp and paper process — using catalytic pyrolysis. Again, we see a focus on the BTX molecule group.

They write:

Bio-aromatics (benzene, toluene, xylenes, BTX) were prepared by the catalytic pyrolysis of six different black liquors using both in situ and ex situ approaches. A wide range of catalysts was screened and conditions were optimized in microscale reactors. Up to 7 wt % of BTX, based on the organic fraction of the black liquors, was obtained for both the in situ and ex situ pyrolysis (T = 500–600 °C) using a Ga-modified H-ZSM-5 catalyst…The zeolite catalyst used was remarkably stable and even after 100 experiments in batch mode with intermittent oxidative catalyst regeneration, the yields and selectivity toward BTX remained similar. The ex situ pyrolysis of black liquor has potential for large-scale implementation in a paper mill without disturbing the paper production process.

The economics? They add:

Total project investment is $457 million with annual operating costs of $142 million for a 2000 metric ton per day facility. A minimum fuel selling price (MFSP) of $3.69/gal is estimated assuming 10% internal rate of return. Twenty-nine percent of the capital outlay is the result of including a co-generation system to consume heat generated from burning part of the off-gases from pyrolysis and upgrading and all of the coke during regeneration of catalysts. Forty-five percent of the MFSP arises from the cost of biomass feedstock. Hydrogen required for the upgrading process is generated using the balance of the process off-gases.

What about algae?

A recent dissertation by Chamila Rajeeva Thilakaratne at Iowa State University, “Understanding catalytic pyrolysis of biomass for production of biofuels,” looked at the use of “microalgae remnant,” described as a low-cost by-product of microalgae lipid extraction. Interestingly, again we see an emphasis on aromatics. “Through catalytic pyrolysis, microalgae remnant is capable of producing aromatic hydrocarbons that could be used for the production of drop-in biofuels,” Thilakaratne observed.

Low cost biomass yes, but what about the fuels? Hmm, so far, not so good.  Thilakaratne writes, in paper authored with Mark Wright and Robert Brown in Fuel:

Results indicate that thermal drying prior to catalytic pyrolysis (TDCP) incurs capital costs similar to those incurred in partial mechanical dewatering prior to catalytic pyrolysis (MDCP) ($346 million vs. $409 million). TDCP and MDCP yield minimum fuel-selling prices (MFSPs) of $1.80/liter and $1.49/liter, respectively. Energy analysis shows that TDCP achieves 16.8% energy efficiency and MDCP achieves 26.7% efficiency.

What’s up with the algae that the costs soar to a minimum of $5.63 per gallon? As was once said of Olympia Beer, “it’s the water, and a lot more”. A lot more water, that is. “One of the most challenging barriers to this promising pathway is the high moisture content of harvested microalgae,” the team writes. It’s the old challenge of getting the water out of the algae or the algae out of the water. Something that our terrestrial plants solved for us by growing in the dry air. If only algae could learn to survive in the field instead of the water — then we’d have something. An evolutionary step Mother Nature forgot to provide for.

More on Thilakaratne’s analysis is here.

Looking at formate‐assisted pyrolysis

It’s called FAsP by the aficionados — in this approach, another team from Clayton Wheeler’s lab at the University of Maine looked at “formate‐assisted pyrolysis (FAsP) followed by hydrodeoxygenation processes. A process model was simulated using Aspen Plus to estimate material and energy balances for the conversion of 2000 dry MT per day of pine sawdust. Scenarios were considered for the regeneration of formate salts from either ‐biomass‐derived and natural‐gas‐derived carbon monoxide.”

Results, please?

The MSP of RGD fuels were estimated at $4.58 per gallon of gasoline equivalent (GGE) and $4.80 per GGE for natural gas and biomass‐derived CO scenarios, respectively. The total capital investments of these plants were $448 million and $497 million. 

Yikes, that capex is daunting. What happened? Good question, the authors don’t delve into it, but they do cite that the “feedstock cost was found to be the major cost contributor to the MSP of RGD fuel. Improving FAsP process yields will significantly reduce the production cost of RGD fuel. It has been learned that an increase in deoxygenation of bio‐oil in pyrolysis reactor decreases the capital and operating costs of bio‐oil upgrading to RGD fuel”

More on that study here.

And over in the UK

This study appearing from a team at the University of Surrey and Cranfield University and published in Biomass and Energy examined “the techno-economic analysis of biofuel production via biomass fast pyrolysis and subsequent bio-oil upgrading via zeolite cracking. The aim of this study is to compare the techno-economic feasibility of two conceptual catalyst regeneration configurations for the zeolite cracking process: (i) a two-stage regenerator operating sequentially in partial and complete combustion modes (P-2RG) and (ii) a single stage regenerator operating in complete combustion mode coupled with a catalyst cooler (P-1RGC).”

Results? Get ready for a doozy.

“The energy efficiencies of P-2RG and P-1RGC were estimated at 54% and 52%, respectively with corresponding minimum fuel selling prices (MFSPs) of £7.48/GGE and £7.20/GGE. Sensitivity analysis revealed…the likely range of the MFSPs of P-1RGC (£5.81/GGE − £11.63/GGE).”

The authors conclude that “the results provide evidence to support the economic viability of biofuel production via zeolite cracking of pyrolysis-derived bio-oil,” but we’re not so bullish on this approach. No one we know is keen on $10 fuel, or too many $10 chemicals either.

More on that approach, here.

The Bottom Line

There are some promising economics seen in the research. Not so in the UL study or with formate-assisted pyrolysis or remnant algae as a feedstock, just yet. The Vasalos team from Greece came up with the best economics we’ve seen in the public domain, so far.

More about Anellotech here in our latest Multi-Slide Guide

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