BIO Conference Highlights Emerging Range of Pathways to Drop-in Renewable Hydrocarbon Fuels

The Biotechnology Industry Organization’s (BIO) World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing, held this week in Washington DC, highlighted a range of developing pathways for the production of renewable drop-in hydrocarbon fuels for transportation.

In many cases, the renewable fuel products are just one of a number of potential products envisioned from biorefineries based on these different technology pathways; the development priority for the fuel products varies according to the business strategy of each company. (Earlier post.) As one example, while Elevance’s olefin metathesis platform can deliver renewable diesel and jet from renewable oils (earlier post), the company’s primary initial commercial focus is on higher-value chemicals.

As another example, Cobalt Technologies, which produces n-butanol from biomass, is outlining a product strategy for drop-in chemicals and fuels derived from its core n-butanol product. Dehydrating n-butanol can produce 1-Butene derivatives, says CEO Rick Wilson, which can then be relatively easily processed to hydrocarbon fuels: via alkylation to gasoline, or via oligomerization to jet fuel and diesel.

The following list of companies presenting their pathways to hydrocarbon fuels at the BIO conference is not exhaustive; indeed, other companies at the same conference could take their platforms, which they are currently targeting at the lower-volume, higher-value chemical molecule market, to produce higher-volume, lower value transportation fuels. It’s a question of business strategy (and one which is seeing some companies that had initially focused on fuels now trying to move up the value chain to chemicals).

Avantium Technologies. Avantium has a process to convert carbohydrates into Furanics on the basis of novel chemical catalytic technology. Furanics are heteroaromatic compounds derived from the chemical intermediate HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural, C6H6O3) that can make polymers, chemicals and fuels. For fuel applications, Avantium has demonstrated the use of Furanics as a bio-based component for diesel, gasoline and jet fuel.

Elevance. Elevance Renewable Sciences, Inc. (ERS) uses olefin metathesis technology for the production of high-value performance chemicals, advanced biofuels and oleochemicals from renewable oils. Olefin metathesis swaps molecular fragments on either side of a carbon-carbon double bond.

A biorefinery based on the ERS platform will produce a range of green olefins, including a unique distribution of alpha and internal olefins for chemicals and hydrocarbon fuels. ERS just announced a joint venture with Wilmar International Limited (Wilmar) to construct a high-capacity biorefinery in Indonesia. (Earlier post.)

Global Bioenergies. Global Bioenergies has engineered a synthetic metabolic pathway for gaseous fermentation to produce isobutene, a key chemical building block that can be converted into transportation fuels, polymers and various commodity chemicals.

Global Bioenergies’s pathway involves enzymes carrying out reactions unobserved in nature. The process conceptually is essentially a low-temperature, biological analog of the Fischer-Tropsch process. It can be adapted for the conversion of various resources: sugar cane or sugar beet, glucose from cereal starch or sugars generated by the digestion of lignocellulosic material (agricultural or forestry waste). (Earlier post.)

Joule Unlimited. Joule is developing a single-step, continuous process for renewable diesel. Joule engineers its organisms as catalysts to synthesize and secrete fuel for weeks at a time, a development that overcomes the challenges of biomass growth, harvesting, extraction and refining to reach the end product.

Joule’ SolarConverter system manages the entire continuous process, and scales to desired output levels with no dependency on agricultural land, fresh water or crops. At full-scale production, the system can deliver 15,000 gallons of diesel per acre annually, according to Joule, at a fraction of the land use required by alternative methods and at costs as low as $30/barrel equivalent. (Earlier post.)

LS9. LS9 modifies the ACP pathway in bacteria to produce renewable hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals with optimized properties vis fermentation, including UltraClean Diesel and surfactants. The company recently won a 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for its “Renewable Petroleum” technology. (Earlier post.)

Sapphire Energy. Sapphire modifies algae to produce oil that its highly branched and undecorated—the way that fossil-derived crude is—to get a biological crude molecularly similar to light sweet crude. This Green Crude is then processed at a refinery just as traditional crude to make all three major end products: gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Solazyme. Solazyme uses proprietary strains of algae to produce optimized lipids which are then extracted and converted into drop-in fuels and chemicals at a refinery. SoladieselRD (renewable diesel) meets ASTM D-975 specifications for petroleum diesel fuels. SoladieselRD is output from a refinery, where a hydrotreatment stage deoxygenates the algal oil, resulting in a pure hydrocarbon product. (Earlier post.)

Terrabon. Terrabon is commercializing its MixAlco process, which uses a non-sterile, anaerobic fermentation of biomass into mixed carboxylic acids by a mixed culture of naturally occuring microorganisms. The carboxylic acids are then converted into the desired fuels or chemicals using conventional chemistry. (Earlier post.)

Terrabon is initially focusing on converting municipal solid waste and agricultural solids waste into drop-in biofuels (bio-jet and bio-gasoline). A pilot plant in texas has the capacity to process the equivalent to 5-10 tons per day of biomass and is able to generate enough fermentation products to produce 300 gallons per day of gasoline.

UOP. UOP, a Honeywell company, highlighted its Green Jet process, which is derived from its Ecofining process, which utilizes conventional refinery hydroprocessing technology and natural oils and fats as feedstock.

The basic process first removes the oxygen from the feedstock, resulting in diesel-range waxy paraffins. A second reaction cracks the diesel paraffins to smaller, highly branched molecules.

While the Ecofining unit can produce up to 15 vol% of synthetic paraffinic kerosene (SPK) jet fuel as a co-product with renewable diesel, the new Green Jet process is designed to maximize the yield of SPK to 50-70 vol%.

This is achieved by optimizing the catalytic processes of deoxygenation, isomerization and selective cracking of the hydrocarbons present in natural oils and fats to yield a high quality, ultra-low sulfur jet-range material fuel that meets all properties of ASTM D7566 (Specification for Aviation Turbine Fuels Containing Synthesized Hydrocarbons). (Earlier post.)

Virent. Virent’s BioForming platform technology—based on the Aqueous Phase Reforming (APR) Process—is a catalytic, low-temperature (180º–260º C) method for the production of hydrogen or alkanes from sugars and other oxygenated compounds resulting from the hydrolysis of biomass.

BioForming combines APR technology to produce reactive intermediates which are then processed with conventional catalytic technologies—such as catalytic hydrotreating and catalytic condensation processes, including ZSM-5 acid condensation, base catalyzed condensation, acid catalyzed dehydration, and alkylation—to produce a range of end products including gasoline, jet or diesel.

In March, Virent and Shell successfully started production at the first demonstration plant converting plant sugars into gasoline and gasoline blend components, rather than ethanol. (Earlier post.)

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