SynTerra Energy eyes Ohio for new biorefinery

| August 03, 2011

After nearly five years of research and development, the work of Pacific Renewable Fuels and Chemicals, and Red Lion Bio-Energy, has turned into a new biorefining company: SynTerra Energy Inc. SynTerra Energy combines pyrolysis and syngas technologies to produce synthetic diesel and renewable chemicals. In 2006, Red Lion Bio-Energy, a Toledo, Ohio-based company, began working with the Renewable Energy Institute International out of Sacramento to test the pyrolysis process developed by Red Lion Bio-Energy. During that time, Alex Johnson, chairman of the newly formed SynTerra Energy, said REII introduced him and his team at Red Lion Bio-Energy with the team from Pacific Renewable Fuels and Chemicals, and Johnson told Biorefining Magazine, “We will be announcing in the near future the location of our first plant in the Toledo area.”

The process involves steam reformation with pyrolysis, according to Johnson, that is followed by a Fischer Tropsch process that converts the syngas with a catalyst designed by SynTerra into synthetic diesel. “It made a lot of sense to merge ourselves into one company,” he said. “We had what they needed and they had what we needed.” The process, known as the Syntrex process, creates a syngas with a low volume of contaminants, which helps lower the cost of downstream purification, according to the company. The synthetic diesel contains zero sulfur and has a 50 percent higher cetane level compared to convention diesel fuel, all with a 50 percent greenhouse gas reduction. Nearly one ton of dry biomass can be converted to 54 gallons of the renewable diesel. Because the early research and development efforts utilized rice hulls and rice straw, Johnson said the future plants will focus on using those same feedstocks, but the process can use nearly any waste biomass.

Johnson said Red Lion Bio-Energy had submitted an application to the U.S. DOE’s biorefinery program and received a $25 million grant, and he added that the technology has been tested at a pilot facility at the University of Toledo, where at one time, the syngas was piped directly into the university’s boilers instead of going through the catalytic conversion process.

While Johnson points to the feedstock flexibility of the technology and the testing the process has undergone at the University of Toledo as major accomplishments, he also says the modular nature of the technology package makes the process unique. “We have a midrange thermochemical conversion unit, and it is modular,” he said, “I don’t want to say it is portable, but it is modular so we can move it down the road and set it up at the source of where the biomass may be.”

The initial plans for the newly formed SynTerra are to both license the technology and to set up plants in Ohio and California. “We’ve completely funded this internally to date between us and the DOE,” he said. “We haven’t been diluted by stockholders or anything, we are kind of in a different position then I think a lot of people at this stage.” The first plants will be in the 300 dry tons of biomass per day range, and because Johnson also owns another company in Ohio that he says requires a high volume of diesel fuel to run equipment and vehicles, a plant in Ohio could supply a significant portion of diesel fuel for his other company. “We’ve been under the radar,” he said, “intentionally, because we wanted to get everything in place and make it through a lot of hurdles. It is not easy at times,” he said, adding, “I feel good about where we are at to this point.”