Virent biojet from Virdia cellulosic sugars passes rigorous tests

By Bryan Sims | March 26, 2012

Madison, Wis.-based biorefining technology developer Virent Energy Systems Inc. has successfully converted cellulosic pine tree sugar feedstock into drop-in hydrocarbon fuels such as biogasoline and biojet via its BioForming technology platform at its 10,000 gallon per year production facility in Madison. The feedstock was supplied by cellulosic sugar technology developer and provider Virdia, formerly HCL CleanTech.

The joint project is supported by a $900,000 BIRD (Binational Industrial Research and Development) Energy grant, a program for U.S.-Israel joint renewable energy development funded by the U.S. DOE, the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructures and the BIRD Foundation, which officially launched in January 2011. The grant supported nearly half of the $2.1 million total project cost of the collaborative effort.

According to Randy Cortright, co-founder and chief technology officer of Virent, the project demonstrates Virdia’s novel process technology to deconstruct cellulosic biomass into high-quality sugars and further validates the versatility of its novel BioForming technology to produce hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals from feedstocks other than pure biomass streams. Virent’s BioForming platform utilizes a combination of catalytic processes to convert water-soluble, oxygenated hydrocarbons derived from biomass into nonoxygenated hydrocarbon fuels and biobased chemicals. Virent’s catalysts and reactor systems are similar to those found in today’s oil refineries and petrochemical complexes.

“While Virent’s BioForming process has previously generated fuels and chemicals from sugars in cellulosic biomass,” Cortright explained, “the high-quality sugars generated from pine trees using Virdia’s process leveraged Virent’s conversion process, establishing a viable route to drop-in hydrocarbons from biomass.”

According to Virent, the biojet fuel produced from Virdia’s cellulosic pine tree sugars were sent to the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio for further analysis, where it passed rigorous testing.

“This fuel passed the most stringent specification tests we could throw at it (such as thermal stability) under some conditions where conventional jet fuels would fail,” said Tim Edwards, senior chemical engineer who leads AFRL’s efforts in its fuels branch. “This fuel is definitely worth further evaluation.”

Founded in 2007 as HCL CleanTech originally based in Israel, Virdia has developed a concentrated hydrochloric acid hydrolysis process—trademarked CASE—to convert a range of cellulosic biomass such as wood, energy crops and agricultural residues into high-quality cellulosic sugars and lignin; both of which serve as important feedstocks for biorefining companies.

Since last summer, Virida has been optimizing and refining its sugar conversion process at its pilot-scale cellulose-to-sugar production facility in Danville, Va., on the campus of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. The facility is capable of producing about a half a ton of cellulosic sugars per day.

“Passing the Armed Force’s arduous test requirements for jet fuel further substantiates the superior value proposition of the advanced carbohydrates that Virdia is introducing,” commented Philippe Lavielle, CEO of Virdia. “As demonstrated by the BIRD Energy project results, Virdia’s CASE process can deliver the high-purity, cost-effective cellulosic sugars needed as the primary raw material for jet fuels and other applications. We are pleased to work with Virent to prove that the value of cellulosic biomass can be unlocked.”