DOE doles out $12 million for drop-in biofuel development

By Bryan Sims | September 07, 2011

The U.S DOE, through its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, awarded a total of $12 million to three small-scale biorefining projects in Illinois, Wisconsin and North Carolina that aim to commercialize novel conversion technologies and accelerate the development of drop-in advanced biofuels and biobased chemicals.

Each respective biorefining project will receive $4 million with intentions of employing thermochemical routes that are expected to improve the economics and efficiency of converting biomasses to drop-in replacements for gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other products. Companies selected for funding include Roselle, Ill.-based LanzaTech; Research Triangle Institute of North Carolina; and Madison, Wis.-based Virent Energy Systems Inc.

LanzaTech aims to develop a cost-effective technology that converts biomass-derived ethanol into jet fuel using catalysts in addition to producing biobased butadiene as a byproduct, which is expected to improve the overall economics of the fuel production process. The objective of the project is to integrate and optimize process steps in order to drive down the price of biojet fuel.

RTI intends to leverage the DOE-granted funding for two processes: a catalytic biomass pyrolysis technology that produces a bio-crude intermediate from biomass and a hydroprocessing technology that will effectively and efficiently upgrade the bio-crude oil into gasoline and diesel fuels. The project aims to demonstrate the long-term operation and performance of this integrated process with the goals of lowering costs and maximizing yields. RTI is an independent, nonprofit institute that provides research, development and technical services to government and commercial clients worldwide.

“This project will support the continued development of our catalytic biomass pyrolysis technology and further demonstrate its technical and economic potential for converting nonfood biomass into transportation fuels,” said David Myers, vice president of RTI’s engineering and technology unit. “The U.S. DOE’s support and our partnership with the global technology leader Haldor Topsoe are vital to bringing this technology closer to commercial reality.”

Other project partners include Archer Daniels Midland Co., which will provide corn stover for the project, and the Biofuels Center of North Carolina, which will facilitate the delivery of woody biomass and switchgrass. Shaw Group’s Energy and Chemicals unit will provide guidance for the project by supporting the development of a process design and technology package for a 2,000-ton-per-day integrated catalytic biomass pyrolysis hydroprocessing plant for advanced biofuels production.

“Renewable drop-in fuels produced from pyrolysis of biomass followed by hydroprocessing is a very interesting technology that will be able to produce substantial amounts of fuel without impacting the food supply around the world,” said Henrik Rasmussen, vice president of catalyst and technology for Haldor Topsoe. “We are excited about our collaboration with RTI to make this a success.”

Finally, Virent Energy Systems intends to leverage funding to deconstruct and convert cellulosic biomass into oxygenated chemical intermediates using an innovative thermochemical technology and upgrade the intermediates to a hydrocarbon, which can then be refined and blended into gasoline and jet fuel, as well as high value chemicals that can be used to make plastics, clothing, insulation and detergents. The three-year project objectives include demonstrating high yields of drop-in fuels and chemicals derived from three different types of biomass: corn stover, woody biomass and sugarcane bagasse. Virent intends to build upon the data obtained from this project to assess the viability for scale-up and design of a larger-scale production facility.

“This DOE award is very exciting for Virent—it’s going to allow us to meet some very important milestones,” explained Randy Cortright, founder and chief technology officer for Virent. “First of all, we will utilize a variety of cellulosic feedstocks and continue to demonstrate our flexibility with biomass. Second, Virent will have the opportunity to optimize our conversion process through a novel deconstruction technology. Lastly, we will continue to demonstrate our progress in the creation of both drop-in chemicals and fuels simultaneously.”

Virent has several initiatives underway that support the conversion of cellulosic biomass.

“Cellulosic feedstock alternatives are plentiful, and exciting conversion technologies are being developed and demonstrated here in Wisconsin,” said Andrew Held, direct of feedstock development for Virent. “Customer demand and federal support like this DOE award confirm that Virent’s feedstock-flexible technology is poised to meet the growing need for sustainable fuels and chemicals.”

The latest funding from the DOE’s EERE comes on the heels of a three-way investment commitment by the DOE, USDA and the U.S. Navy that invested $510 million over a three-year period by retrofitting existing industrial assets for the production biojet fuels in the aviation market.