Bio-Based Projects Blossom

Chemical companies nurture efforts to make fuels and feedstocks.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Significant developments in using renewable feedstocks to make fuels and chemicals are blooming. For instance, Shell International, Houston, and Cosan, Sao Paulo, Brazil, in February, signed a memorandum of understanding for a joint venture (jv) worth almost $12 billion to produce ethanol from sugar cane. The deal would create an organization with 2-billion-l./yr. ethanol capacity.

"We see joining with Cosan as a way to grow the role of low-carbon, sustainable biofuels in the global transportation fuel mix. The joint venture would also enable Shell to set up a material and profitable bio-fuels business, with the potential to deploy next generation technologies," notes Mark Williams, downstream director.

The jv includes some of Shell's major interests in next-generation technologies, such as its 50% stake in Iogen, Ottawa, Ont., and its 14.7% interest in Codexis, Redwood City, Calif.

Iogen has been producing cellulosic ethanol at an Ottawa demonstration plant since 2004. Production topped 581,000 liters in 2009, more than double 2008 output. For its part, Codexis focuses on developing highly efficient biocatalysts that replace costly chemical steps in low-carbon manufacturing processes.

Meanwhile, in late January DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE), Itasca, Ill., and it jv partners, the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville, Tenn., and Genera Engegy, Knoxville, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for their cellulosic ethanol demonstration facility in Vonore, Tenn., and hailed it as a world's first. The 250,000-gal./yr. unit relies on agricultural residue such as corncobs and bioenergy crops like switchgrass as feedstocks. So far the partners have invested more than $50 million in the plant (Figure 1).

"The University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative is the only fully integrated program that is working with farmers and agricultural industry to reliably supply the necessary feedstock so biorefineries can produce plentiful, affordable, renewable and sustainable fuels," notes Kelly Tiller, CEO of Genera Energy and director of external operations for UT's Office of Bioenergy Programs. Plans are in place for Tennessee farmers to devote an additional 4,000 acres to switchgrass this spring, bringing the total to 7,000 acres dedicated to that crop, she adds.

Meanwhile, Dow Chemical, Midand, Mich., which last June announced plans to work with Algenol Biofuels, Bonita Springs, Fla., to build and operate a pilot-scale algae-based integrated biorefinery at Dow's Freeport, Texas, site, has started a major promotion of new biodiesel technologies it has to offer following the acquisition of Rohm & Haas. These include Amberlyst BD20 solid catalyst esterification technology for production of biodiesel from inexpensive low-quality feedstocks and the associated Ambersep BD19WET feedstock purification technology which extends catalyst life time.

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This year also is proving to be a busy one for the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), based at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, N.D.

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