All I Need is the Air That I Breathe: The search for better sources for octane and better uses for aromatics

June 11, 2019 |

In Washington, a new report concludes that emissions from petroleum-based gasoline “are one of the biggest health threats facing the American public”. The report links a wide range of respiratory and even neurological diseases to toxic carcinogenic compounds refiners used to increase octane in gasoline.

A fact book — entitled “What’s in Our Gasoline Is Killing Us:  Mobile Source Air Toxics and The Threat to Public Health” is the result of research and review of hundreds of studies and medical and technical reports, and was produced by the Clean Fuels Development Coalition, in cooperation with the Urban Air Initiative, as we reported recently in the Digest.

Let’s look in more depth at the topic of what we do with aromatics. You see, they do have high-value uses though combustion may not be one of them.

The fact book

The fact book, which can be downloaded here, documents the alarming rise in air pollution and the direct correlation to increasing concentrations of benzene and other toxic compounds in gasoline that have replaced lead. The report indicates that “compounds have been strongly linked to health issues such as cardiopulmonary disease, lung cancer, breast cancer, asthma, premature birth, low birth weights and even autism.”

The report aims at benzene and other aromatic compounds, and contends that “benzene is classified as a known carcinogen. The American Petroleum Institute as long ago as 1948 testified before Congress that there was no safe threshold for benzene. The other aromatic compounds in gasoline are toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene are suspected carcinogens. This combination of aromatics is referred to as BTEX.”

The Aromatics alternative: The Anellotech story

Using aromatics for renewable chemical applications, and making them from renewable resources, that’s the thesis from technology pioneer Anellotech, Axens and IFP, and customers like Suntory who want to make renewable clear plastic bottles.

Anellotech is now planning the construction of its first commercial plant and is engaging in partnership and funding discussions with existing and new strategic partners. Engineering work is expected to begin this summer and once funding is secured, the next phase of construction will begin in the second half of 2020.

We reported this month that the company has now demonstrated process yields of 22-24% by weight of liquid products from loblolly pine feedstock. And “supplemental carbon monoxide (CO) output provides potential for an additional 3-5% yield by weight of cellulosic ethanol via third-party technologies or production of renewable electricity”.  The Bio-TCat reactor produces a liquid product containing over 98% C6+ aromatic chemicals directly from the MinFree-pretreated feedstock.

The clean air backstory

In April we reported that ethanol blends reduce toxic tailpipe emissions by up to 50%, significantly improving air quality and protecting public health, according to two new studies. The separate studies were conducted by the North Carolina State University (NCSU) and the University of California Riverside (UCR). The Urban Air Initiative (UAI) commissioned both independent studies to evaluate tailpipe emissions using fuels similar to what consumers can buy at the gas station, instead of laboratory created test fuels.

And, last month we reported that the Urban Air Initiative released a report that found that most vehicles on the road today can adapt to mid-level ethanol blends, helping cars run more efficiently while reducing greenhouse gas emissions along with other pollutants. The study was conducted by North Carolina State University and commissioned by the Urban Air Initiative.

Researchers tested regular E10 with 10% ethanol to a mid-level blend with 27% ethanol or E27. They found that when splash blending or simply adding ethanol to regular consumer fuel, ethanol lowered particulate matter (PM), CO and CO2. The vehicles were also able to adjust ignition timing and properly control air-to-fuel ratios.

In April 2017, we reported that the Urban Air Initiative called the results of a new Coordinating Research Council emissions study one more example of the biased and flawed testing procedures used to penalize ethanol. The CRC’s match blending of test fuels fails to recognize how ethanol truly performs in real world fuels, the group said. And this inaccurate data will be used by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to continue limiting the use of higher ethanol blends.

Reaction from stakeholders

“Light duty vehicle exhaust emissions are the predominant source of hazardous air pollutants that represent an exposure risk to urban residents and anyone living near a major roadway,” said David VanderGriend, president of the Urban Air Initiative. “These lethal pollutants can be directly traced to the 25-30% of gasoline additives that petroleum refiners use to increase octane.”

CFDC member Doug Sombke of Farmers Union Enterprises said, “This research makes it clear that mobile source emissions are out of control—literally. Current EPA programs and models are faulty and fail to recognize the impacts of real-world fuels. If we did not learn anything from Dieselgate (the Volkswagen emissions scandal), when computers told us all is well when in reality we were polluting the air, then shame on us because the same thing is happening with gasoline.”

Further Reading

Where’s ethanol going to go?

Are high ethanol blends going to be essential, and mandatory, for super high fuel-efficient engines?

The Bottom Line

Renewable fuels generally are advocated for four avowed societal benefits: energy security, environmental performance on greenhouse gases, emissions related to air health, and employment — known as “the Four Es”. In recent years, we have seen more industry and public action around environment and employment — rural jobs and climate change. Emissions in the form of healthy air have been pushed to the sidelines, and this report puts the spotlight back onto this issue.

Perhaps even more critically, Anellotech’s advances are showing that their renewable aromatics are becoming a reality and that cleaner, better uses such as renewable, clear plastic bottles (that, we might add, can and will be recycled in great numbers) offer an interesting “circular carbon storage” option that stands in contrast to efforts to develop permanent carbon storage through practices such as injecting CO2 into oil wells to reduce the cost of petroleum production.

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