Verdict’s in for Vertimass: Yep, it’s commercially viable

November 26, 2019 |

From California the jury’s come in for Vertimass.

We received word of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which summarizes key attributes of Vertimass’ unique technology for the conversion of alcohols into hydrocarbons which are compatible for blending with jet, gasoline, and diesel fuels.

The analysis, published here, showed that this single-step process for converting wet ethanol vapor could produce blendstocks at $2/gigajoule (GJ) today and $1.44/GJ in the future as the process is refined, including operating and annualized capital costs.

That’s competitive with $100 barrel of oil today and $72 down the line, without a price for carbon.  These predicted unit energy costs are similar to those estimated for removing water from the same ethanol vapor to meet fuel grade requirements ($1.46/GJ), the researchers found.

About that carbon price

Get over it, skeptic. Given the fires, floods, flight-shaming, demonstrations, and what not, the social fabric will no longer tolerate the economy not putting a price on carbon. It may not have value in the conventional sense that a product attribute does, but think of it this way, do people really pay all that money for Lamborghinis so they can race up and down streets at 200 miles per hour along streets with a 25 MPH limit — that’s the product value — or for image-building, which is the intangible value. Carbon is different than brand value but it is an intangible with real value.

The secret sauce: it’s the technology

The paper also reports on the favorable impacts of improvements on the competitiveness and greenhouse gas emissions of this simple technology. Unlike prior processes for converting alcohols into hydrocarbons with steps for dehydration, oligomerization, and hydrogenation, the Vertimass consolidated alcohol dehydration and oligomerization (CADO) conversion is accomplished in a single reactor system using a metal exchanged zeolite catalyst.

Through the ability to process vapor containing about 40% ethanol in water that is released when fermentation streams are volatilized, overall CADO costs for conversion of wet ethanol into the hydrocarbon blendstocks are estimated at $2.00/GJ today with the potential to drop to $1.44/GJ in the near future.   Increased oil prices or current production incentives make Vertimass fuel cost competitive, and CADO-derived hydrocarbon blendstocks pass on greenhouse gas emission reductions of the ethanol feedstock.

The initial discovery was supported by the Center for Bioenergy Innovation at ORNL, which in turn is supported by the DOE Office of Science. Scale-up research and development were supported in part by the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and by Vertimass.

Comparing to other technologies

The researchers write:

Most technologies for catalytic conversion of ethanol into hydrocarbons involve 3 steps prior to fractionation to meet fuel specifications: 1) Ethanol dehydration to ethylene, 2) ethylene oligomerization to higher molecular weight hydrocarbons, and 3) hydrogenation to saturate these oligomers to produce a finished renewable fuel that can be blended at high levels into conventional fuels. Chemistries and processes for converting ethanol into middle distillate fuels have recently been comprehensively reviewed. Published designs generally require inlet reactor temperatures >400 °C, pressures of 30 to 40 atm, and externally supplied hydrogen. Companies such as LanzaTech, in collaboration with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Byogy Renewables are pursing processes based on this concept. The ethanol conversion costs to jet fuel via such 3-step approaches have been estimated at $3.38/GJ to $7.98/GJ ($0.11 to $0.26/L jet fuel), with similar values for diesel. When combined with ethanol priced at between $17.4/GJ and $52.1/GJ ($0.37 to $1.11/L ethanol) together with reported yields, the range of jet fuel costs for the 3-step process is $25.5/GJ to $86.7/GJ ($0.83 to $2.84/L). For comparison, prices for petroleum-derived jet fuel in the United States have ranged from $7.9/GJ to $26.2/GJ ($0.26 to $0.80/L) over the last 5 y

The blend ratio

Given current standards, the advanced biofuel could be blended at 20% with petroleum-derived jet fuel and somewhat higher for gasoline, subject to certification and verification.

The bad news, if any.

The best results were obtained using corn as a feedstock to make ethanol, from which the hydrocarbons would arrive into a market skeptical about corn as a feedstock.

More on the story

To access this paper, please visit:

Reaction from the stakeholders

“The robustness of the catalyst enables direct conversion of wet ethanol, which greatly simplifies the process, reduces the cost of ethanol purification and makes hydrocarbon blendstock production costs competitive based on the analysis,” said Zhenglong Li, staff scientist for biomass catalysis at ORNL and a collaborator on the project.

Professor Lee Lynd of Dartmouth College, who assembled the team of experts contributing to the paper and provided leadership in its development, noted that, “This report shows how ethanol, in addition to being a valuable fuel for cars, can be an effective intermediate for sustainable production of low cost fuels for air travel and heavy duty vehicles. The integration of biological and catalytic technologies shown here reflects the power of such hybrid systems.”

Vertimass President and CEO Dr. Charles Wyman noted, “Vertimass is thrilled to have the opportunity to share the significant progress made in this groundbreaking technology and its implications to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a low cost. Furthermore, the simplicity of the technology coupled with the ability to be quickly scaled up and bolted onto existing ethanol production processes make rapid impact possible.”

Tom Mullen, Vertimass Executive Vice President added, “This unique approach can help the airline industry, fuel producers, vehicle manufacturers, governments, and others committed to reducing our carbon footprint. We are particularly delighted that the Vertimass technology can help our home state of California meet its aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals.”

“The sustainability of bio-derived ethanol, now mostly produced from corn in the United States but with some now being made from corn stover and eventually dedicated biomass feedstocks like switchgrass, carries through with the catalytic process,” said Brian Davison, chief science officer for DOE’s Center for Bioenergy Innovation (CBI) at ORNL and a collaborator on the project. CBI is pursuing specific research targets for a thriving bioeconomy: sustainable biomass feedstock crops; advanced processes to break down and convert plants into specialty biofuels; and valuable bioproducts, including chemical feedstocks, made from the lignin residue after bioprocessing.

“Our scientists constantly push the boundaries of what’s possible to deliver breakthroughs for clean energy,” said Moe Khaleel, associate laboratory director for Energy and Environmental Sciences at ORNL. “The conversion of ethanol into hydrocarbon blendstocks takes advantage of an abundant domestic energy resource while supporting the development of thriving American bioeconomies.”

The Bottom Line

Since a few weeks ago we named Vertimass one of our Next 50 Companies to Disrupt the World, we’d be lying if we said we were dying of shock at this validation of Vertimass’ technology.

But, we think this is a major step forward and we certainly hope that Vertimass gets underway, immediately, with plans aiming towards a full-scale plant. It’s time.

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