Mile Marker 105: Syntec Reaches for Economic Efficiency

By Jerry W. Kram
In a long and winding road, sometimes the only way to note progress is to watch the mile markers on the side of the road as they slowly tick higher. On the road to commercially producing cellulosic ethanol, Syntec Biofuel Inc. recently passed a significant marker. Its thermochemical method of producing ethanol and other alcohols reached a production efficiency of 105 gallons per ton of biomass.

According to George Kosanovich, chief executive officer of Syntec, the milestone was significant not only because it exceeds the threshold for the economic production of biofuels, but also because it exceeds the efficiency of fuel production from corn.

Syntec's B2A process is based on the gasification of biomass and the catalytic reforming of synthesis gas in a Fischer-Tropsch process. The original research on the process was conducted at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 2000. Syntec was formed to commercialize the technology coming from the university. "The research has been ongoing since that time, primarily on catalyst development," Kosanovich says. The company has gone through several ownership changes over the years; Kosanovich joined the company a year ago.

The B2A process produces mixed alcohols as a final product. Eighty-five percent is methanol and ethanol, and the rest is propanol and butanol. A year ago, the process produced 40 gallons of alcohols for each ton of biomass produced. Kosanovich uses rough estimates of 1,000 pounds of carbon per ton of biomass and a little less than seven pounds of carbon in a gallon of alcohol to calculate that the process was only approximately 30 percent efficient in converting the carbon in biomass into alcohols. With the improvements, the process' efficiency has surpassed 65 percent.

Kosanovich says advances in catalyst technology made it possible to make the 80-year-old Fischer-Tropsch technology more efficient. "We are changing from what I would call a chemistry focus to guide the lab advancement to an engineering/economic focus to improve the key properties and parameters of the catalyst," he explains. "We did this through a series of catalyst improvements, including getting away from very expensive components in the catalyst. That not only made the catalyst a higher performer, but less expensive to produce."

To improve the catalyst by more than 150 percent took a considerable amount of micro- and nanoscale engineers. "We made a whole series of detailed improvements to the catalyst's promoters and copromoters, plus detailed changes to the construction of the pellet," Kosanovich says. "We had to look at [the pellet's] porosity, pore size and composition to actually put the active sites down on the catalyst carrier pellet. Optimizing all those elements allowed us to create the improvements we did."

Syntec researchers worked to find the best balance among 15 different parameters to evaluate and improve the performance of the catalyst. Kosanovich says they actually underestimated the complexity of the task when all the substitution of ingredients was taken into consideration. "It's a highly multivariate composition," he says. "We are still in the midst of that task, but we have found a few key breakthroughs that allowed us to have that very impressive improvement. However, we haven't completely optimized it yet." Along with efficiency improvements, Syntec is investigating ways to increase its catalyst's longevity. The third goal is to increase the catalyst's productivity, which Kosanovich describes as the amount of alcohol produced per pellet of catalyst.

While Syntec continues to work on improving its catalyst, the economics are positive enough for the company to move ahead and develop a demonstration-scale plant. Kosanovich says the company is currently raising funds and evaluating sites for the demonstration facility. "We are at a point where, if the catalyst does not get an iota better, our economics are quite impressive," he says. "However, we know we are not done with that improvement cycle. There are a bunch of things we are going to do that we are confident will yield additional improvements."