Syntec biomass-to-alcohol process continues to improve yield

Syntec Biofuel Inc. (Syntec), the Canadian company developing biomass to fuel conversion technologies, has announced that it has achieved a yield of 105 gallons of alcohol (ethanol, methanol, n- butanol and n-propanol) per ton of biomass. This is not far short of their target is 113 US gallons per ton of biomass (previous post).

According to Syntec this yield is equivalent to revenues in excess of $27 million per year for a 300 ton per day biomass processing facility. Michael Jackson, President of Syntec made the following statement:

We are consistently seeing monthly improvements in our Biomass to Alcohols (B2A) process. This level of achievement makes the B2A process profitable in relatively small scale facilities using a wide variety of waste biomass feedstocks in any combination.

The Syntec B2A technology, initially developed at the University of British Columbia, is a second-generation cellulosic ethanol production process. The Syntec process parallels the low-pressure catalytic synthesis process that has been used by methanol producers.

Syntec’s innovative technology uses any renewable waste biomass such as hard or soft wood, sawdust or bark, organic waste, agricultural waste (including sugar cane bagasse and corn stover), switch-grass to produce syngas. This syngas, comprised of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, is then scrubbed and passed through a fixed bed reactor containing the Syntec catalysts to produce ethanol, methanol and higher order alcohols. The Syntec technology can also produce alcohols from biogas (sourced from anaerobic digestion of manure and effluent), landfill gas or stranded methane.

Recent media coverage on ethanol produced from agricultural crops, such as corn, has prompted an international questioning of the ethics and “hidden costs” of such alternative fuels.

Syntec technology only uses sustainable waste biomass to produce its biofuel. We believe strongly that fueling the worlds energy needs can be achieved without further impact to our environment, and that we possess the best and most ethical solution to bio-ethanol production.

This is the type of ethanol production process I like to promote because fuel produced from sustainable waste equals sustainable mobility. The fact that this technology is efficient in small plants co-located with waste streams and recycles water should also make it ideal for Australian conditions.

Source: Syntec

Butanol could supersede ethanol

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has published an article explaining why biobutanol is a much better fuel than ethanol and how the technology to produce it biologically is advancing.

The article references research being conducted by Jim Liao and colleagues at the University of California, UK-based company Green Biologics and of course the BP and DuPont joint venture (previous post).

I particularly like the Green Biologics approach of bolting biobutanol plants onto wood pulp mills and sugar mills to take advantage of their waste streams. Green Biologics have even gone to the trouble of trade marking Butafuel™:

Our Butafuel™ product is an advanced transportation biofuel, based on butanol, offering a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.

The RSC article suggests Green Biologics plans to demonstrate the process on effluent streams from a wood pulp mill in Scandinavia and molasses from sugar producers in South Africa. They are obviously confident in their technology and it would be great to see it succeed.

Source: RSC via Checkbiotech

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.

Call for sustainable fuel certification

Envirofuel celebrates its first anniversary on the 1st of January 2008. In the previous year I’ve spend countless hours reading, learning and writing about sustainable mobility and one of the things that really worries me is the sustainability of the currently available biofuels.

Don’t get me wrong, I support first and second generation biofuels. They are a necessary stepping stone to the third and fourth generations that will play a role in the post-oil future of transport. What I disagree with are first and second generation biofuels that are produced with no regard for their life-cycle environmental impact. Why produce a fuel that does more damage to the environment than the the fuel it replaces? That just doesn’t pass the common sense test, especially when Government subsidies are required to make production viable.

I know, I know, Governments, particularly in Europe and the US are mandating biofuel use. That doesn’t mean the likes of corn-based ethanol or palm-based biodiesel are sustainable. It just means Governments are acting on popular opinion, limited knowledge and in the interests of the vocal groups within their populations. Unfortunately that’s what Governments do.

To combat this seemingly senseless progression towards unsustainable biofuels I propose the development of a global certification system for sustainable fuels. All fuels, not just biofuels. This certification system needs to be realistic and unbiased in its assessment of any fuel and it needs to assess the complete life-cycle of the fuel including its impact on people as well as the environment.

Realism would demand the assessment criteria be made more rigorous as technology progresses in a similar manner to vehicle emissions laws. However, I see no reason why current fuels should not have to meet the following criteria before they can be labeled as sustainable:

  • be made from renewable sources or waste;
  • produce less carbon emissions through its complete production and use life-cycle than the oil-based fuel it replaces ;
  • not be made from products that would otherwise be made into food;
  • not disadvantage the population where the feedstock is grown and the fuel produced; and
  • not use large quantities of water during feedstock growth or fuel production;

I believe that any fuel producer that meets these criteria deserves to be rewarded for their efforts. They would be entitled to label their product as a sustainable fuel with a sustainable fuel logo and use that logo for marketing purposes.

Meeting these criteria is easier said than done and I suspect there would be few fuels available today that could boast of meeting all these criteria unless they are produced efficiently from the waste of unrelated industries. Still, you have to start somewhere and the sooner the world can put some realism and perspective into the production and use of fuels the better.

An independent global not-for-profit organisation will be required to implement this certification system. It should not be formed or funded by interested parties trying to justify why their fuel is sustainable. It should initially funded by the likes of the United Nations and become self funding through charging fees for memberships and certification activities.

What do you think? Am I on the right track? Am I dreaming?

D1 Oils asks for help in promoting sustainable biodiesel

Speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Bali, Karl Watkin MBE, founder of D1 Oils, called on the development non-governmental organisations (NGOs) present at the conference to stop their generic criticism of biodiesel. Mr Watkin asked that the NGOs be more rigorous in their differentiation of feedstocks for biofuels and to provide more support for the sustainable production of jatropha in developing nations:

Environmental and development NGOs are right to be critical of soya and palm that are produced unsustainably in areas such as Brazil and Indonesia. There’s no point in an energy crop that worsens the problem by destroying forest or grassland. Because these attacks don’t differentiate the sustainable biofuel crops like jatropha from the less sustainable like soya and palm, the NGO campaigns are undermining the industry as a whole. We are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We would like to see more of these groups backing research into sustainable jatropha and working with companies like D1 to enable jatropha to make an impact on both climate and poverty in developing countries.

Biodiesel produced from jatropha is one of the most promising solutions for tackling the growing carbon emissions from transport. D1 is working to encourage the adoption of jatropha as an additional crop to supplement the incomes of poor farmers in the developing world.

Source: D1 Oils

Jatropha and biobutanol form the basis of BP’s biofuels strategy

Reuters have reported that BP is focusing on developing jatropha and biobutanol for future sustainable biofuel production. Their head of biofuels, Philip New, has said that although BP are major users of ethanol, there is now scope to use biobutanol which can be made from biomass. He also confirmed that BP was counting on jatropha as a sustainable biofuel.

Mr New stated that BP was looking at a range of technologies aside from jatropha and butanol that included algae that converts carbon dioxide into a vegetable oil.

I’m not whether this strategy covers Australia. The Reuters article was written in Amsterdam and reported on Yahoo News India so it may be written with an Indian context. Regardless, it would be great to see BP buck the trend and introduce biobutanol to Australia.

Source: Reuters via The Big Biofuels Blog

Biobutanol to get a tax break in the UK

In their 2007 pre-budget report Delloite are saying that biobutanol will soon benefit from an excise reduction:

The Chancellor proposes to reduce the excise duty on biobutanol from 50.35 to 30.35 pence per litre. The reduction will apply to biobutanol used as a road fuel in specific pilot projects to be individually approved by HM Revenue & Customs. The measure will take effect 21 days after the associated statutory instrument is laid before Parliament.

No doubt BP are very happy to hear this as they are soon to market biobutanol blended fuel to motorists in the UK (previous post).

This TimesOnline article, while a little old, has more information on biobutanol and biofuel use in the UK.

Source: Delloite