Biorefining in Boston

By Ron Kotrba
Posted August 10, 2010, at 8:47 a.m. CST

The Northeast Biomass Conference & Expo in Boston Aug. 4-6 featured an afternoon of biorefining panels that covered biomass conversion approaches and feedstock challenges. The first panel, "Cutting-Edge Conversion Approaches: Breakthroughs in Biorefining," was comprised of executives of leading biorefining-and in one case, petro-plastic recycling-companies.

Stephen Fitzpatrick, CEO of Biofine Technology LLC, discussed the Biofine process to convert virtually any biomass feedstock that contains cellulose to four main intermediate products: levulinic acid, formic acid, furfural and ligneous char.

The process utilizes a tubular reactor and the first stage of the process only lasts 15 seconds, and then the second stage lasts about 15 minutes, where dilute sulfuric acid is added and the reactor warms to 200 degrees Centigrade. He said the process yields levulinic acid at about 50 percent by mass, adding that the char produced can provide all the power for the process.

Levulinic acid can be used to make a wide variety of chemicals or fuels. Today it's mostly made in China, Fitzpatrick said, and it sells for about $3 a kilogram. About 4 million pounds of levulinic acid is sold annually, and is mainly used in food additives and perfume. Levulinic acid made from biomass can be used as a platform chemical to make a variety of renewable hydrocarbons, ketals and 2-Methyl Tetrahydrofuran. Biofine Technology is targeting 50 cents a pound for levulinic acid, and Fitzpatrick said production costs will be much less than that. Also, formic acid now runs about 50 cents a pound but Fitzpatrick said his company will be aiming at selling it for 25 cents a pound. "It could replace urea" for NOx-reducing aftertreatment systems in new diesels.

Regarding advanced biofuels, Biofine Technology is targeting production of ethyl levulinate as the "basis for advanced biofuel." He said it's a beneficial additive to methyl ester biodiesel, which can be used to reduce viscosity and double its shelf life. He said the ASTM approval process has already been initiated, and the National Oilheat Research Alliance is funding research for use as a heating oil additive, and Brookhaven National Labs is also conducting studies on ethyl levulinate for additive applications. Fitzpatrick heralded the co-location strategy for the Biofine process. "It plugs beautifully into pulp and paper mills," he said.

While recycling plastic waste may not fit in with conventional definitions of "biomass," recycling dirty, mixed, colored and No. 7 (nondesignated) plastics is part of a larger effort to reduce and reuse precious nonrenewable resources. Joseph Hensel, director of technology development for Polyflow Corp., said plastics get in the way of municipal solid waste (MSW) use and talked about Polyflow's process to turn waste plastics into fuels and chemicals. "Thirty-eight percent of all energy use is crude oil-based, 10 percent of which is used to create plastic and rubber," Hensel said, adding that this equates to $30 billion dollars a year spent to produce plastics and rubber.

Over the past two and a half years, the Polyflow pilot plant in Akron, Ohio, has converted 7 tons of plastic waste into one-third gasoline, one-third diesel fuel and one-third chemical intermediates. "The process can take all types of contaminants," he said, and uses no catalyst, no gasification, and works at low temperatures and pressures. "It's a short conversion directly to fuels." Hensel said 65 percent of all plastic is films, not hard plastic, "and no one recycles this," he said.

Hensel said when dirty contaminated plastic streams are used the yield is 67 to 72 percent; when clean streams are used, yield is 78 to 83 percent. "It's lighter and sweeter than West Texas Intermediate," the benchmark used for crude oil quality and pricing. "It's consistent even with feedstock variation," he said. The process produces about 13 percent char, which will be landfilled due to the fact that all the contaminants reside there, and 17 percent off-gas that's used to power the process.

The patent on the process was issued two years ago, and patents are pending in 11 countries. Hensel's vision is to position these small chemical plants near municipalities to utilize waste plastic streams picked out of MSW. The company's next step is to build a larger demo plant. He also said waste plastic costs about $20 a ton whereas crude oil runs $400 a ton. "This is an end-of-life solution," he said, for waste plastic.

The chief technology officer and senior vice president for Qteros Inc., Kevin Gray, said his company, whose technology is based on the clostridium phytoferme microorganism for production of cellulosic ethanol and chemicals, is going out for series C financing now and hopes to close on it in the next few months. "We're a capital-light company," he said, adding that Qteros will pilot the biomass fermentation process and then license it to others.

The other biorefining panel was titled, "Working out the Kinks: Addressing Feedstock Logistics in the Northeast." Randy Hill, CEO and president of Advanced Trailer and Equipment LP, discussed development work on his company's advanced biomass trailer, which was originally designed for drying peanuts. It's a trailer like what would be hauled by a semi-tractor, but has baffling on the floor and a place to hook up a dryer. He spoke of research on the trailer conducted at many different universities, including the University of Idaho, Iowa State University, North Carolina State University and Texas Tech. What's really needed, he said, is better air flow in the trailer than what's been demonstrated thus far, to dry a load of 25 to 30 tons in two to three hours at a total cost of $50. He said since biomass is valued at much less money per ton than peanuts, it is critical to bring the cost down through increased air flow via optimal design in trailer flooring and baffling.

David Dowler, the extension director at Penn State Cooperative Extension, discussed camelina planting and processing research that was initiated through an inquiry from in-state producer, Hero BX. With funding from the Sun Grant Initiative, and with partner Ernst Conservation Seed and Hero BX, the extension planted 600 acres of camelina in spring of 2008. Dowler said it the crop took 90 days to grow, which is fast compared with other regional crops, and provides an opportunity for double cropping. Some lessons learned by Dowler and crew include it's a good idea to kill existing weeds in the field before planting. He said farmers could plant camelina early but doing so is not really that helpful. Also, drilling the tiny seeds into the soil is more effective than broadcasting them onto the ground. Dowler also said about three pounds of seed per acre are all that's needed to plant, but the crop didn't take very well on wet, cold soils. Yields of 1,000 to 1,500 pounds, or 20 bushels, per acre were achieved. He said cover crops are essential to hold nitrogen in the soil and to prevent runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. They planted camelina and clover in same filed and it worked well, using no commercial fertilizers on the 600 acres. The extension is investigating growing corn in the next rotation without adding additional fertilizer to examine how well the system works in retaining nitrogen in the soil.

Maurice Hladik, president Biomass4Energy, forewarned the crowd that meeting the advanced biofuel portions of RFS2 will require a daunting amount of biomass. "We'll need to develop a wheat-sized industry in the next 12 years," he said. "And farmers aren't planting biomass crops ‘til there's a biorefinery nearby with steel in the ground." He said after initial planting of an energy crop, farmers can expect to wait 2½ years before getting the first full harvest, and up to six years before anyone can expect to see large commercial acreage on individual farms. He said for oil companies, shareholders determine value through proven reserves. "Perennial crops are proven reserves," he said. These projects need strong commercial backing, too, Hladik said, adding that there's more information available on growing mint than there is on growing biomass. What's needed is funding for trial plots to be established. He said the value from that would be the knowledge, not necessarily the biomass grown. "There are too many unknowns," Hladik said. "What land is available? ... Most don't even know."