Syntec acquires ethanol catalyst technology to convert biomass to alcohol

Have you noticed the change in the way biofuels have been promoted in North America over the last few months? When biofuels first started to become popular it was all about being better for the environment. Now that corn based ethanol and coal-to-liquids have been shown to be worse for the environment than petrol, diesel or jet fuel the mantra has changed to “energy independence” and “reducing dependence on foreign oil” etc.

This is a worrying trend indeed as it basically says to the world that in general North America, the US in particular, really doesn’t care about the environment. All they care about now is the reduction of oil imports.

One potential shining light in all of this is Canadian company, Syntec Biofuel Inc. (Syntec). Syntec has acquired ethanol catalyst technology which has been developed to convert biomass into ethanol, butanol, methanol and propanol. Biogas and syngas from wood waste, organic waste, corn stover, sugar bagasse, switch grass, poplar etc. is becoming economically viable for some producers so Syntec are starting to test their catalysts in an industrial environment in order to quantify the life of the catalysts prior to commercialization.

Syntec’s development team under the direction of Dr. Caili Su will be working on improving yield to achieve their target of 113 US gallons per ton of biomass. The variable cost per gallon of alcohol on current yield is USD0.48 per gallon which is expected to shrink to USD0.37 per gallon on reaching the targeted yield.

Syntec’s technology is based on thermo-chemical conversion of syngas, produced by gasifying biomass, and passing the gas over the catalysts in a fixed bed reactor. This process is similar to producing methanol which is an established and well known technology.

Michael Jackson, President of Syntec says:

The industry recognizes that production of corn to ethanol has a negative impact on consumer food prices and farm land while cellulosic conversion of waste products are going to spawn the next generation of growth in the Ethanol industry. With oil prices now exceeding $80 a barrel the use of ethanol as a fuel additive is currently one of the few options available to reduce our reliance on imported oil.

The press release makes no mention of the environmental benefits of the process or products. Even the Technology page on their web site bangs on about reducing a country’s dependence on imported oil required for petroleum derived fuels.

Syntec, we would really like to know how much energy your process uses per gallon of ethanol, butanol etc. How much water does it use? What are the waste streams and how they are handled? How truly green is your product when its whole life-cycle is considered.? It’s not all about the money all of the time.

Source: Syntec Biofuel

Update (15 Feb 08) – Syntec have responded to the above and the points you raised in comments by providing the following information:

To answer a few of the questions raised by Mr. Hallam and some of the commentors: The waste streams resulting from Syntec’s technology are minimal, the resulting CO2 less than what would have been produced had the material (eg. forestry waste) been left to decompose on its own. Metal contamination is not an issue as the process uses very little water, and what water is used is recycled through the process. You are probably aware of the recent media storm surrounding ethanol produced from agricultural crops (eg. corn, wheat, etc..). None of the environmental or ethical issues raised by the media apply to Syntec’s technology as we only use WASTE materials to produce our biofuel. Our technology is capable of converting virtually any solid or gaseous cellulosic material eg. forestry waste (bark, leaves, chips, dust), agricultural waste (corn stover, bagasse), and even municipal wastes into ethanol. We are proud of our technology and do not believe that food production needs to compete with fuel production.

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3 Responses

  1. This is the kind of “cellulosic” technology that I like, it is well understood and the products from thermal decomposition look easy to manipulate into sensible fuels. I think that most of the competition will take place in the area of yeilds and rates of reaction, which is where catalysis technology will be important.

  2. The Syntec process probably converts syngas (mix of CO and H2) into a series of alcohols. Syngas is generated by gasifying (i.e. partial combustion) of the biomass. This is then fed into a reactor under high pressure (typically 50 – 100 bar) at elevated temperature (probably 200 to 300 deg C). There is no water use in this type of operation, perhaps steam as a cooling medium for the reactors. The process typically produces water and a range of gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons (alcohols being the major product). Depending on the gasification technology and alcohol synthesis catalyst used, CO2 is a major side-product of this type of process. Methane selectivities could also be high. Catalyst production would use water and as the catalysts are heavy-metal based, contamination can be a problem.

  3. This is just another take on the Fischer Tropsch process developed in Germany in the 1920s for converting coal to liquids. Instead of coal they substitute bimass. The Fisher Tropsch plants located at Monwitz just outside of Auschwitz produced fuel for Germany’s Army and Air Force. It also produced fuel for South Africa when she was under sanctions.

    “It’s not all about the money all of the time”

    Yes it is, quite the contrary, I’m freezing in New England.

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