Energy Efficiency / Environmental Health & Safety

Biofuels Continue to Progress

The U.S. and Europe are making strides to advance biofuels technology.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

Biotechnology efforts in the United States and Europe are on the rise. For instance, Algenol Biofuels, Ft. Myers, Fl., developer of direct-to-ethanol technology for the production of advanced third-generation biofuels, has surpassed one of its own important yield milestones. Research and development (R&D) efforts have led to peak production rates in excess of 9,000 gallons/acre/yr of ethanol. This, says the company, compares very favorably with production from corn ethanol, which is typically around 400 gallons/acre/yr.

A demonstration plant has been built to produce jet fuel from 100% renewable plant sugars.

“This is a very important time for our company,” notes Paul Woods, Algenol CEO. “Algenol’s progress has positioned us to now acquire, plan and permit land for our first commercial facility.”

Direct-to-ethanol technology uses cyanobacteria and sunlight to convert pyruvate within the cells, together with carbon dioxide, into methanol and biomass. Pyruvate is a key molecule in a number of metabolic pathways.

A central component of the method is a proprietary flexible plastic film photobioreactor optimized for culture maintenance and ethanol production. Next, a proprietary vapor-compression steam stripping technology uses distillation to further purify the ethanol.

Another company making strides is Virent, Madison, Wis. Virent has delivered 100 gallons of its bio-based jet fuel to the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, for testing. The fuel will be validated against the standards required for qualification and approval of new aviation turbine fuels established by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The validation plan includes fit-for-purpose, fuel system and combustor rig testing.

Dr. Tim Edwards of the AFRL’s Fuels and Energy Branch says, “AFRL is looking forward to working with Virent and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to evaluate the performance of this fuel. This larger sample will help generate the performance data needed to advance the technology toward engine and flight testing.”

The jet fuel was produced at Virent’s new demonstration plant built to produce drop-in jet and diesel fuels from 100% renewable plant sugars. The plant was constructed at the company’s facility in Madison under a $1.5-million award received in 2011 from the FAA and U.S. Department of Transportation, through the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, and commissioned in January. It has the capacity to produce up to 5,000 gallons of fuel per year. This is the second operating demonstration plant built by the company. Its Madison facility also houses a 10,000-gal/yr system that’s optimized to produce gasoline and aromatic chemicals.

“The successful operation of our new distillate demonstration plant and the validation of Virent’s plant-based jet fuel will advance our efforts to achieve ASTM-certified jet fuel and to prepare for commercial scaling,” says Virent co-founder and chief technology officer Dr. Randy Cortright.

Meanwhile in Europe, the ever-growing importance of bio-based processes has resulted in the formation of a new body called the European Society of Biochemical Engineering Sciences (ESBES), Frankfurt, Germany. ESBES is a membership body open to European professional, scientific and technical societies, academic and R&D institutions and other organizations concerned with the biochemical engineering sciences.

The organization focuses on a range of fields in biochemical engineering such as bioreactor performance, biocatalysis and downstream processing — together with modeling, measurement and control.

ESBES receives secretariat support from three European engineering organizations: the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), Rugby, U.K.; the Gesellschaft für Chemische Technik und Biotechnologie e.V. (DECHEMA), Frankfurt, Germany; and Société Française de Génie de Procédés (SFGP), Paris.

Speaking at its inaugural meeting on April 21 in Den Haag, the Netherlands, IChemE chief executive David Brown said, “We warmly welcome the creation of ESBES and the new opportunities it provides for academia, industry and biochemical professionals to work more closely together across Europe. International cooperation is essential to maintain success and developments in the fields of applied biosciences, biochemical engineering, biotechnology, bioengineering and related engineering topics. ESBES will have a very important role to play in these advancements.”

On the same day, the organization selected its first president, Guilherme N. M. Ferreira. Currently assistant professor at the Faculty of Sciences and Technology, University of Algarve, Portugal, Ferreira is a chemical engineer with a particular research interest in bioengineering, biosensors and nanobiotechnology.

ottewell.jpgSeán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at