16 July 2008

Skipping Ethanol: Going Directly to Gasoline

Ethanol as fuel for automobiles seems to work alright for Brazil. But modern infrastructure is built for gasoline, and most North American automobiles were built to run on gasoline. What if biofuels producers could go directly from cellulose biomass to gasoline, without producing alcohols? With the right sequence of processes and the proper catalysts, it could be done. The problem is doing it efficiently, with high yields.
By speeding up the formation of certain products and slowing down the formation of others, catalysts effectively steer a reaction to a subset of possible products. In the refinement of biomass-to-fuel, catalysts can steer reactions to the most valuable biofuels and bioproducts thereby minimizing costs associated with product separation and feedstock recycling. “This is the real magic and promise of catalysis,” Auerbach says.

...Christopher Jones, a chemical engineer at Georgia Institute of Technology, works from a number of different angles when it comes to biofuels research. The common thread to his team’s projects, however, is that they all focus on lignocellulosic feedstocks, mainly pine and switchgrass, as opposed to edible starches. One of their ongoing projects is gathering data on the behavior of mineral acids such as sulfuric acid in the pretreatment of biomass. “It’s not a particularly interesting or sexy catalytic process,” Jones says. “Mineral acids have been used for a number of years to break down biomass but there are only small, isolated studies in the literature.” Jones’ team is taking a single biomass and systematically studying the effect of certain types of acids and reaction temperatures to gain a greater understanding of how these catalysts act.

...Brent Shanks, a chemical engineer at Iowa State University, first gains an understanding of the characteristics of a reaction and then designs catalysts around that. He calls this “rational design.” His approach is one of bio-inspiration in that it aims to take certain characteristics of enzymes and build them into chemical catalysts. “Enyzmes are beautiful catalysts but they have some issues such as sometimes they’re too specific, too selective, and also you can’t go to high temperatures with them,” he explains. “With chemical catalysts you can go to higher temperatures but they’re not nearly as specific as enzymes.”

...In a different approach, the team at PNNL, which Holladay is a part of, uses high-throughput screening to test multiple catalysts at a time and to increase the number of experiments they can do over a given period of time. This method for identifying new catalysts is carried out at PNNL’s Combinatorial Catalysis Lab. Initially, robotic equipment is used to form each catalyst to be tested. Solids handling robots weigh and add an appropriate amount of solid support to a small well on a microtiter plate. Each plate holds 96 wells, so up to 96 catalysts can be developed and tested together. Liquids handling robots then add a salt solution of metals, which fill the pore spaces of the support. The liquid is evaporated leaving the metals embedded in the support. Once the catalyst is treated to set the metals in the active state, the plate is moved to a reactor system where the biomass to be tested is applied to each well. The reaction is carried out in a second reactor and then another set of robotic systems draws samples from each well for analysis, Holladay explains. _EthanolProducer
Different approaches are being taken by different research groups, because it is still very early in the game of thermochemical conversion of cellulose to hydrocarbon fuels. Ethanol producers will have at least a decade to prove what they can do--in terms of efficiencies and yields, not to mention making a profit.

In today's uncertain (and rather deranged) political environment, where entire blocs of nations chase after the "climate change" delusion, one can never predict what will be encouraged and what will be prohibited, politically. We live in an age of "political peak oil", which distorts energy costs significantly, and makes it much harder for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to plan new ventures and startups.

As usual, our friends at Oynklent Green [OTC:OYNK] are following the situation closely, putting themselves into a better position to react as situations warrant.

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Blogger Loren said...

Or you can just throw it through a thermal depolymerization plant, which is already proven to be able to process this stuff. It doesn't seem to be popular, as whoever wrote the wiki article reports that only the prototype and the test plant have been built. I'd think that at $140 a gallon, people would be lining up to buy into these plants.

Wednesday, 16 July, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Yes, thermal depolymerisation is similar to the process Oynklent Green [OTC:OYNK] plans to use on corrupt politicians to produce energy. It works well on organic wastes such as animal products, plastics, rubbers, excrement, etc.

Unfortunately, it will not work on cellulose/hemicellulose/lignin biomass very well. Some pulp mills are developing processes for turning byproducts of paper pulping into biodiesel using gasification and other thermochemical processes.

The processes in the article involves chemical pretreatment combined with fast pyrolysis and catalytic conversion to hydrocarbons.

If it were easy and cheap, we would be seeing a lot more of it by now.

Wednesday, 16 July, 2008  

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