Reading: Fuel for thought

While digging around the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) web site I discovered Fuel for thought, a publication by the Future Fuels Forum 2007. This June 2008 publication informs us how the Future Fuels Forum thinks transport fuels will pan out in our future with modelling from now to 2050.  It is an interesting document and I suggest you read it if you are at all interested in the future of transport fuels in Australia. Click the cover page below to download the PDF (1.5Mb).

challenges and opportunities (PDF)

CSIRO 2008: Fuel for thought - The future of transport fuels: challenges and opportunities (PDF)

Apart from being relatively easy to read and informative for those of us without a scientific or economic background it provides great insight into the conservative information upon which our governments are making decisions that impact your future and mine. It isn’t all conservative mind you. The modelling for a continuing rise in demand for oil and a sharp decline in supply shows we could pay as much as $8 per litre for petrol in the not too distant future and the authors do stress the urgency with which alternatives for oil must be found.

While the document was written before the global financial crisis really started to bite the bulk of it remains relevant. If you do read it I’d like to know what you think so please leave a comment.

Amyris opens a pilot plant for No Compromise™ renewable diesel

In a previous post we explained that Amyris, unlike other biofuels companies, was using their technology to create hydrocarbons from feedstocks like sugarcane. Instead of producing ethanol or biodiesel they are using genetically modified yeast to produce hydrocarbons similar to those in petrol, diesel and jet fuel.

The good news is that Amyris have recently announced that they have opened their first pilot plant for the production of what they are calling No Compromise™ renewable diesel fuel. The pilot plant, which was completed in September, is an important milestone in the commercialisation of Amyris’ technology. If the pilot plant is successful it will prove that the technology can work on a commercial scale and will generate essential engineering data for the design of Amyris’ full scale production plants.

No Compromise™ is planned to be commercially available as early as 2010. Amyris say that unlike conventional biodiesels it works well at low temperatures, does not clog filters and can be stored for a long period of time without degradation.

Amyris are also planning to commercialise a renewable jet fuel as early as 2012.

Source: Hybrid Living, Amyris

Shell and Virent convert plant sugars directly into biogasoline

Strangely this press release didn’t appear to get much coverage in Australia or many other countries for that matter. What’s it all about?  Shell and Virent have been collaborating for a year on technology that can convert plant sugars directly into petrol and petrol blend components, rather than ethanol.

Virent’s BioForming™ platform technology uses catalysts to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon molecules like those produced at a petroleum refinery.  Traditionally, sugars have been fermented into ethanol and distilled.  These new ‘biogasoline’ molecules have higher energy content than ethanol (or butanol) and deliver better fuel efficiency.  They can be blended seamlessly to make conventional gasoline or combined with gasoline containing ethanol.

The BioForming™ page on Virents web site says that their technology produces gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels with twice the net energy yield per acre as traditional ethanol processes and that gasoline made via the BioForming™ process will enjoy a 20% to 30% per BTU cost advantage over ethanol.

The companies have so far collaborated for one year on the research.  The BioForming™ technology has advanced rapidly, exceeding milestones for yield, product composition, and cost.

Virent liquid fuel laboratory

Future efforts will focus on further improving the technology and scaling it up for larger volume commercial production.

Dr. Graeme Sweeney, Shell Executive Vice President Future Fuels and C02 said

New fuels on the horizon, such as Virent’s, with characteristics similar or even superior to gasoline and diesel, are very exciting.

Dr. Randy Cortright, Virent CTO, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President said:

Virent has proven that sugars can be converted into the same hydrocarbon mixtures of today’s gasoline blends.  Our products match petroleum gasoline in functionality and performance. Virent’s unique catalytic process uses a variety of biomass-derived feedstocks to generate biogasoline at competitive costs.  Our results to date fully justify accelerating commercialization of this technology.

While this technology faces the same fuel for food issues any plant sugar based fuel technology faces I would have thought that turning plants directly into a gasoline substitute would be big news.

Source: Shell

Asia looking hard at coal-to-liquids

An article in The Australian today suggests that the ever increasing price of oil is encouraging Asia, holders of one-third of the world’s coal deposits, to have a good hard look at coal-to-liquids (CTL) plants for the production of synthetic petrol and diesel.

The article states that CTL offers cleaner fuels than those produced from oil. I’m assuming the author meant CTL produces fuels with higher purity than those produced from oil because as we all know CTL produces 119% more CO2 than petrol (previous post). Ideally all new CTL plants will incorporate some form of carbon sequestration to offset the CO2 produced but that I think that is fairly unlikely given the extra cost it would incur in such a price sensitive market.

One of the companies linked to CTL in Asia in the article is Shenhua Group who will start China’s first large-scale CTL plant, in the coal-rich region of Inner Mongolia, this year. The others are Sasol and Royal Dutch Shell.

Source: The Australian

The Price of Biofuels – Do we really have any alternative to biofuels?

This excellent series three part series written by David Rotman and published in the MIT Technology Review is well worth reading if you are at all interested in biofuels. It is very US and ethanol focussed but appears to be a well balanced summary of what I’ve been reading lately.

Biodiesel doesn’t get a mention for some reason but synthetic fuels do. The series is written with an academic flavour but there are interesting snippets from scientists, entrepreneurs and a few choice words from Vinod Khosla about electric cars being toys because they will be too expensive for widespread adoption in India and China.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Source: The Big Biofuels Blog

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.

Choren chooses site for biomass-to-liquids plant

Choren is currently building the world’s first commercial industrial scale biomas-to-liquid (BTL) plant at its site in Freiberg, Germany (previous post). This plant should be close to commissioning with production scheduled to start in 2008.

Choren’s future plans involve the development and commissioning of their first full scale BTL production plant in Germany. In a press conference held on December 18th Choren announced Schwedt as the intended site for the first of the so-called Sigma plants.

Schwedt provides Choren with the possibility to build adjacent to existing petrochemical refinery providing significant opportunity for synergy in production and delivery. The abundant agricultural surroundings were a further plus since Choren’s supply strategy anticipates that the majority of its one million tons per year of biomass will ultimately be sourced regionally.

The first soil will be turned in 2010 and the plant completed by late 2011. The Schwedt plant is expected to produce roughly 250 million litres of BTL fuel per annum, with the first fuel produced in 2012.

Source: Choren (thanks for the tip Geoff)