Last week saw Cobalt Biofuels raise $25 million in a ‘C’ round of financing. Cobalt is developing a process for producing biobutanol. This is major news as butanol is a heavy alcohol at four carbon atoms and much more difficult to make than lighter products like one carbon atom methanol or two carbon atom ethanol. But its very desirable as butanol can nearly displace gasoline as transport fuel.
The quick refresher – butanol at a little more than 90% of the energy of gasoline, higher octane, non water miscible so it separates out and thus transportable through existing pipelines and could be a direct replacement for imported oil. Scaled fast enough when a technology comes through, butanol would be a direct competitor to fossil crude oil sourced gasoline so reducing oil needs and prices as well as being a carbon dioxide recycler. Great stuff if you can make it economically.
Cobalt is using the capital input to expand from laboratory scale production to a pilot scale facility that would output 35,000 gallons of fuel per year. Pamela Contag, the company founder and CEO says, “Our models tell us it is a very low-cost process that can be competitive with anything on the market today.” The process is claimed to be cheaper because it uses improved strains of bacteria to break down and ferment biomass, as well as improved equipment for managing fermentation and reducing water and energy consumption.
Cobalt Biofuels uses the bacteria Clostridium to break down components of plant matter, including cellulose, hemicellulose, and starch, and produce a combination of butanol, acetone, and ethanol. Clostridium naturally produces these chemicals and was employed in the early 1900s to make butanol for use in solvents and to make acetone for explosives and other products. What’s new, Contag said, is that a combination of fuel prices, government biofuel mandates, and the company’s new technology have made butanol competitive as a fuel. With oil prices collapsing so much lately one hopes Cobalt is thinking to be competitive at $40 oil.
Cobalt Biofuels’ key advance is in the technique for genetically engineering strains of Clostridium so that they produce a luminescent protein when they produce butanol. “When the Clostridium are happy and producing butanol, they’re also producing light,” Contag says. When they’re paired with light detectors, the company can quickly sort through new strains of the bacteria, as well as tailor their environment, to increase production. The company has further increased butanol production by engineering a bioreactor in which biomass flows in, the bacteria processes it, and a mixture of primarily butanol and water flows out.
The company’s webpage says, “Cobalt’s fermentation process differs significantly from the traditional batch processes used today to convert starch to alcohol fuel. Our patented reaction management technology poises our continuous fermentation process at peak production rates for extended periods of time. This Cobalt innovation substantially increases productivity and ensures optimum feedstock utilization. The result is a more efficient biofuel production process that has lower input costs, produces less waste material, and provides a more economic product for consumers.” Note they’re saying here starch, not sugar or cellulose. Some confusion might be in order.
With technology that increases butanol production Cobalt has two other tracks leading to lower production costs, the consumption of energy, and the consumption of water. Cobalt is claiming to have reduced both of these by 75 percent. For reducing energy, the company has licensed a new technology, called vapor compression distillation, for separating the butanol and water. Adding pressure to the distillation process, together with the use of an effective heat exchanger that reduces wasted heat, lowers energy consumption. For cutting water use the company has turned to proprietary water purification and adds back the recycled water to the system.
The webpage goes on to say, “Cobalt’s patented fluid separations technology (known as vapor compression distillation, or VCD) removes alcohol from the fermentation step using approximately one-half the energy required compared to typical separation techniques. Cobalt’s VCD technology has the additional advantage of drastically reducing water usage. By recycling the VCD-purified water back into the production process, Cobalt is able to substantially reduce the water requirement of biofuel production.” A little more inconsistency for our confusion.
Nowhere could I find the economics of the process and technology. Which is not to say that the effort would pay at any given gasoline price. On the plus side, if the writers were careful using starch without an enzyme to sugar step will save money too. Just what is possible in feedstock variety is yet unknown, but Cobalt has reports out that their species identification process can be used to target specific strains of Clostridium to specific feedstocks. That might greatly increase the range of crops and land that can be used for biofuel production. The cost of feedstock has shown in the ethanol industry to be a dominating factor, as corn is both an ethanol and feedstuff product grown on the best lands. If Cobalt does come through and get to some cellulose feedstocks the available land for fuel production would grow enormously and take some of the price pressure out of corn and some of the better land.
Cobalt isn’t alone in the ongoing effort to get to a near gasoline direct replacement. DuPont and BP are at work in the UK using sugar beets and expect to have commercial quantities for sale in 2010. GEVO in Colorado is running with the UCLA technology. Tetravitae from Chicago is commercializing the technology from the University of Illinois. But so far as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory knows no one has demonstrated a process making butanol cheap enough to compete – yet.
Cobalt looks close. Lets hope so, U.S. fuel production using a wide variety of feedstocks spread across a much wider range of available land would deeply dent imported oil costs.