Biorefining Gets a Boost

Combined process handles many feeds and makes a variety of products

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A method to convert oxygenated hydrocarbons into alkanes, ketones, alcohols and industrial chemicals promises an economical alternative to petroleum-based production, says its developer, Virent Energy Systems, Madison, Wis. In mid-September, the company filed an application for a U.S. patent on its BioForming technology.

 “Looking ahead, Virent is moving rapidly to prove the technology at a commercial scale,” says Randy Cortright, one of the inventors cited on the application and the company’s founder and chief technology officer. The approach already has attracted Royal Dutch Shell’s attention, which is licensing the technology and collaborating on developing it for bio-based gasoline.

Figure 1 -- Biorefinery: Teaming proprietary APR process with conventional catalytic processes can produce a variety of biofuels.
Source: Virent.
Click on image for a PDF of this chart. 


BioForming technology combines Virent’s proprietary Aqueous Phase Reforming (APR) process for converting sugars, starches or cellulosic biomass into fuels with conventional catalytic techniques such as hydrotreating and condensation — including ZSM-5 acid condensation, base-catalyzed condensation, acid-catalyzed dehydration and alkylation (Figure 1). (A white paper about BioForming can be found at www.virent.com.)
Each step can be optimized and modified depending upon the product required. For example, gasoline is produced using a zeolite (ZSM-5)-based process, jet fuel and diesel via a base-catalyzed condensation route, and a high-octane fuel through a dehydration/oligomerization scheme.

The biofuel product naturally separates from water, eliminating the energy-intensive distillation step required in ethanol processes and providing more net energy — while matching petroleum fuels in composition, functionality and performance, claims the company.

At the heart of the process is APR, which converts water-soluble carbohydrates into hydrogen, lower alkanes and high yields of condensable chemical intermediates. The latter undergo further catalytic processing to generate hydrocarbons for fuels or chemicals for use in other industrial applications.

The APR process uses heterogeneous catalysts at 450–575K and pressures of 10–90 bar in a number of series and parallel reactions to reduce the oxygen content of the carbohydrate feedstock. These reactions include: reforming to generate hydrogen, dehydrogenation of alcohols/hydrogenation of carbonyls, deoxygenation, hydrogenolysis and cyclization.

A key feature of the method is the in-situ use of generated hydrogen for de-functionalization of the highly reactive carbohydrate to a less reactive mono-oxygenated species. The company already had found that mono-oxygenated species such as alcohols, ketones and aldehydes could be converted to non-oxygenated hydrocarbons in a continuous process using conventional catalytic condensation and hydrotreating techniques.
Unlike fermentation, BioForming can effectively process complex sugars and mixed sugar streams, notes Virent. The method can handle a wide variety of feedstocks, including both food and nonfood materials. Indeed, it can transform any plant sugar once reduced to its water-soluble form, says the company. Potential carbohydrates include sucrose (from sugar cane or sugar beets), corn sugar (glucose from conversion of corn starch), sugars derived from hemicellulose and cellulose (including polysaccharides, organic acids and furfural byproducts) and water-soluble oxygenated compounds such as diols, glycerol and sugar alcohols.

Preliminary economic analysis by Virent suggests that converting sugars to conventional liquid fuels with BioForming is economically competitive with petroleum at crude oil prices higher than $60/bbl.
Figure 2 -- Lab-scale units: Work is underway on scaling up the process.
Source: Virent.

Virent currently is running a number of lab-scale units, each capable of producing 0.5–1 gallon/day of gasoline (Figure 2). The company now is working with Shell on the detailed design for a larger-scale unit capable of making 25–40 gallons/day of gasoline.

“It’s a totally scalable process. The chemistry works and a lot of our focus is currently on improving catalyst lifetime to improve overall process economics,” says Virent marketing director Mary Blanchard. “Hopefully within the next five to six years we will have a demonstration plant capable of 10 million gallons/year, maybe even 100 million gallons/year. In terms of commercialization, once we have proved the first larger-scale plant, they should really proliferate. While Shell has licensed the technology, we also have the rights to use it in our own plants,” she adds.

Virent currently owns or holds the exclusive rights to 58 pending or issued patents; 17 in the U.S. and 41 elsewhere.

Much of the company’s work has benefited from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research award, a point not lost on Cortright. “The early support of NSF helped lay the groundwork for our technical, and subsequent industrial, successes,” he says. “Our scientists now have years of expertise with our BioForming process and are rapidly moving the technology to commercial scale. We are quickly working to put our renewable, green gasoline and other hydrocarbon biofuels in fuel tanks all over the world.”
 “The technology developed by Virent is extremely promising, and has been refined over the last six years. The aqueous phase reforming process… is an innovative approach that may yield an important, positive impact on the energy demands of the U.S. and worldwide,” adds Rose Wesson, the NSF program officer who oversaw the grant.

For more on developments in bio-based technology, see our October cover story “Renewable Feedstocks are in the Bag” (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2008/180.html).
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