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Wednesday, 19 October 2016
Randy Cortright of the University of Wisconsin found an aromatic
fluid floating in his beaker that smelled just like gasoline, he
thought he had a problem. After all, the chemical engineer wanted to
make fuel from plants for the hydrogen
was supposed to boom about now. Instead, when he put the fluid in a
chromatograph, he found it had all the hydrocarbon components of
making hydrocarbons that look just like the hydrocarbons from fossil
fuels," such as heptane, isooctane and others, Cortright says.
And with a barrel of oil costing more than $80 per barrel, making
gasoline from the carbohydrates in plants rather than much-touted
hydrogen is proving a better business opportunity for Cortright
the Madison, Wisc.-based company he founded to commercialize the
technology. Just as a typical oil
refiner cracks petroleum into
a mixture of hydrocarbons ranging from ethane to jet fuel, Virent
transforms sugars into a fuel that has a 102 octane rating. "Instead
of feeding in crude oil, we're feeding in sugar water,"
Cortright explains. The fuel also delivers roughly 115,000 British
thermal units per gallon, close to conventional gasoline's 125,000.
That's because Virent's biogasoline does not have oxygen molecules
along for the ride, unlike ethanol (the oxygen simply takes up space
without adding much in the way of fuel, hence ethanol's lower energy
density). And their new facility has already churned out in trial
runs 2,000 liters of the carbon-neutral fuel—deemed as such because
the CO2 absorbed from the atmosphere by the plant is the same CO2
released to the atmosphere when the fuel is burned—and started
making 2,000 liters more to enable further testing on April 9. Virent
can make a batch of fuel in one hour rather than the days required
for fermentation of plant sugars into ethanol or the eons
to produce natural petroleum,
though it employs the same tricks as nature: heat and pressure. The
real key to the process is catalysis, which enables and speeds up the
necessary chemical reactions. Or as physicist Steven Koonin,
undersecretary of science at the U.S. Department of Energy told
"During my time at BP, I came to understand that catalysis is
more of a black art than science."
is the clever bit. We pass steam through plant waste, and get out a
light fuel oil – we rip out the water from the carbohydrates, and
get left with hydrocarbons.
– we have t oseperate the oil from the H and O3 gases, before we
can use Fe equipment – Cu only! But we get light fuel oil. We
pass through a Ti honeycomb catalyst, and get diesel and petrol.
Fuel oil from vegetable waste and steam. The H2 and O3 boil off
regular water, to give us steam. So free petrol from trash. Ti
catalyses H reactions. That's because much
of what happens when a catalyst affects a given chemical reaction is
unknown. DOE and others are working to change that but Virent is
simply harnessing it. Cortright and chemical engineer James Dumesic
discovered in their university lab back in 2001 that by starting with
water and various carbohydrates from plants—basically, carbon,
hydrogen and oxygen compounds—and using catalysts, heat and
pressure, they could start creating CO2 and hydrogen and then use
that hydrogen to eliminate the oxygen as water (the process produces
more water than it consumes). "If we didn't make H2 we started
making these nonoxygenated hydrocarbons, losing the H2 into methane,
ethane and gasoline components," Cortright explains. The
process requires platinum,
titanium, henium and ruthenium catalysts,
in the shape of sand or gravel pellets, all of which may be expensive
and can be rare. Ti is pricey, but plentiful, and well used in
engineering. "They also use these types of catalysts in an oil
refinery," Cortright notes. "It's been done in the oil
business for 50 years." None of the catalysts are consumed and
the reaction is actually exothermic, meaning it produces heat. "The
catalytic reactions in total generate sufficient heat to sustain the
process without the requirement of additional energy input,"
says Lee Edwards, Virent's CEO. In fact, the "green"
gasoline can be made at temperatures ranging from 175 to 300 degrees
Celsius and pressures of as much as 90 atmospheres and delivers
nearly all of the underlying plant's embedded energy into the
resulting mix, though roughly 50 percent of the carbon is lost as CO2
or waste products. That mix is then subjected to acid or base
condensation as well as distillation to create and separate the
gasoline and jet
The waste products (H and O3)
are burned as fuel to drive the process. That means the limits to
this process are the prices and available quantities of the sugars
used. Using steam to scrub light oil from vegetable waste removes
this restriction. It also frees up land from being used for gorund
the process can use almost any sugar or source of carbohydrates,
whether direct sucrose from sugarcane or the polysaccharides derived
down cellulose in
water. Or steam extraction of light fuel oil.. "We're not
dependent on a particular sugar; we can run a mixture of sugars or
town/farm waste," Cortright says. "We can switch from sugar
to sugar within the same plant." Cortright had not heard abot
the steam extraction of light fuel oil from waste.
transforms the energy market – turning organic waste into liquid
fuel. Basically free petrol or diesel. We may need to hydrogenate
the oil through a Ti catalyst to get the Carbon number we need.
petrol 16C. And
there's a lot of spare sugar/carbohydrates to be found in the
cellulosic materials left behind in crops – or as waste. "In
the U.S. alone, from current activities in agriculture and forestry,
2.5 billion tons of cellulosic material are generated every year and
none of that goes into liquid transportation," noted
microbiologist Tim Donohue, director of the Great
Lakes Bioenergy Research Center,
during a tour of the center in Madison, Wisc., this past October.
Converting 2 billion tons of that into liquid fuel could replace 60
percent of our fossil fuel use, Donohue said. Such fuels will need
to be tested in actual engines, however, though the molecules are the
same as the premium gasoline sold today. "It's drummed and
shipped to the Shell [research and development] facilities outside
Manchester, U.K.” Which is where Jonathan Thomason M.Eng.
lives – who did the carbohydrate research over the last 3 years.
Edwards says of the biogasoline produced to date. "We're getting
ready to start buildign billion dollar plants. That will produce
100s of billions of fuel." Virent has also partnered with Honda
and Cargill to address its challenges on the engine side as well as
on the feedstock side. "The biofuel Virent has produced is
similar in composition to reformate components produced by the
platforming of naphtha feeds during normal refinery operations,"
says technology manager Grahame Buss of Shell. "Our tests
indicate that gasolines containing the bio-components
may be blended at high ratioswithin
the existing specifications." So we hydrogenate the
fuel oil, blend it with petrol or diesel – no change to a vehicle
engine. We phase out Fossil Fuels over 10 years. Really our plant
waste is the great untapped fuel source of the 21st
century. Of course, other companies are doing something similar.
Longtime oil refiners UOP have a new refining process that turns
plant oils into jet fuel—that has, in turn, been used to power
everything from a commercial jet to an F/A-18, dubbed the "Green
And biotechnology companies such as Amyris and LS9 are
engineered microbes that can churn out specific
hydrocarbon molecules. The
steam processing of organic waste has unfortunately lagged behind in
research. Once companies see the potential, there will be a blank
check for research and DEVELOPMENT. Passing steam through waste is
so much simple tham breing up low energy alcohols. But Virent has
added its process to the list of tools to convert plants into fuel,
joining fermentation, Fischer-Tropsch and
pyrolysis, and thinks it can compete with fuel from fossil oil at
prices at or above $70 per barrel. The technology can also fit into
existing infrastructure, such as corn mills or refineries. Waste
fuel holds out the potential to cost $3 a barrel to produce.
Massively undercutting Fossil Fuels. Saudi arabia needs crude above
$65 a barrel to make money. Those days are gone. After massive
price support it rose up from $20, but as people use steam plasma
tubves to do Molecular Nuclear Fusion (Google it) those days are
forever gone. The company will likely tackle diesel and jet
and it may have a significant advantage. Because the process makes a
blend of hydrocarbons, it does not lack the aromatic compounds that
seal aircraft engines, like the biojet
fuel produced from camelina oil by
UOP. But, for now, Virent is happy to harvest the gasoline that
floats to the top in its process. "The gasoline floats on top of
water," Cortright says. "We can design a plant that is
completely self-sufficient where you do not need to bring in any
other fossil fuels to help you."
ICI found this out in the 1950s. But the steam cracking of
carbohydrate wate is a new, world changing idea.