The New Gasoline

September 24, 2008 | 9 Comments

Competition might be a problem:

This is the same fuel we’re currently using, just from a different source. It’s not something that burns like it—it is it.

—James Dumesic

The breakthrough is a process developed by both Dumesic at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Randy Cortright of Virent Energy Systems, called aqueous phase reforming. In passing a watery slurry of plant-derived sugar and carbohydrates over a series of catalysts-materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process, carbon-rich organic molecules split apart into component elements that recombine to form many of the chemicals that are extracted from non-renewable petroleum.

James Dumesic was a co-founder of Virent with Randy Cortright in 2002. What happened to send Dumesic back to the university isn’t known, but the two scientists have researched two paths for the aqueous phase reforming of plant matter into hydrocarbons.

Jumping past the time heat and pressure needed to form fossil fuels or the effort and investment to create synthetic hydrocarbons has lead to a few chemical pathways fully developed to convert sugars, starches, or cellulosic biomass into highly functional fuels: fermentation (as a fuel) in the late 1800’s, Fischer-Tropsch in the 1920’s, pyrolysis in the 1950’s and – just now – the Dumesic process and Virent’s BioForming process.

Virent's Bioforming Platform

Virent's Bioforming Platform

Virent’s Aqueous Phase Reforming method, called BioForming, allows the company to address one of the key goals of National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program, uses heterogeneous (a mix of types) catalysts at moderate temperatures (450-575 K) and pressures (10 to 90 bar) in a number of series and parallel reactions to reduce the oxygen content of carbohydrate feedstock. The reactions include:

  1. Reforming to generate hydrogen;
  2. Dehydrogenation of alcohols/hydrogenation of carbonyls;
  3. Deoxygenation reactions;
  4. Hydrogenolysis; and
  5. Cyclization.

Recently an alliance with Royal Dutch Shell as a commercial collaborator for bio-gasoline, and attracting leading industrial companies as investors, including Cargill and Honda to bring these alternative fuels to market, and other investments from major automotive and agricultural companies from around the world are broadening the company’s impact.

Dumessic Process Layout

Dumesic Process Layout

Dumesic on the other hand offers that a key feature of his approach is that between the sugar or starch starter materials and the hydrocarbon end products, the chemicals go through an intermediate stage as an organic liquid composed of functional compounds. He says, “The intermediate compounds retain 95 percent of the energy of the biomass but only about 40 percent of the mass, and can be upgraded into different types of transportation fuels, such as gasoline, jet and diesel fuels. Importantly, the formation of this functional intermediate oil does not require the need for an external source of hydrogen,” he added, “since hydrogen comes from the slurry itself.” Having adequate hydrogen will be very important both from a cost and carbon full use and recycling position.

Dumesic’s uses a different approach, beginning the oxygen removal process by converting sugars and polyols over a Pt-Re catalyst to form primarily hydrophobic alcohols, ketones, carboxylic acids, and heterocyclic compounds. The new process does not require the separate formation of hydroxymethylfurfural, because they demonstrate that the ketones produced can undergo self-coupling reactions. The process also provides a route to highly branched alkanes and olefins, as well as alkylated aromatics, these compounds being high-octane components of gasoline. Plus intermediate compounds formed during the conversion of biomass-derived carbohydrates to liquid transportation fuels can serve as valuable compounds for the chemical and polymer industries.

In the initial step of the process, a fraction of the feed is reformed over Pt-Re/C to supply the hydrogen required to partially de-oxygenate the remainder of the feed to mono-functional hydrocarbons.

With both of these teams zeroing in on a pathway to take plant materials like switchgrass to light and mid distillate hydrocarbons in petroleum form one has to wonder, will the lawyers throw sand in the works?

With announcements within days of one another, a shared research background, sourcing to a common university and a division to commercial entrepreneurship and academia one has to wonder what amount of common information and intellectual property is going to be at legal risk. As consumers, taxpayers and stockholders, we deserve to know what the risks are.

When one looks at the two paths the similarity is quite interesting. While the process paths diverge, the basics and the chemistry look quite similar. This is good, sophisticated stuff, both at the beginning and at the process end, even though the steps between are different.

As thrilled as I am that these efforts will now be subjected to scale and commercialization tests, I wonder with concerns that the issues of intellectual property might stop both sides or eliminate one over the other without the tests of working in the field, the plant and at the fueling station. It would be best if both continue on each to find its own optimum place in the market.

Competition is great, but I wonder at this date if these two teams might be so close as too much intelligence is shared between them. May the cool heads rule, the money behind them get sensible and bring both to production letting the best technology win, or each finds it own best application.


9 Comments so far

  1. LA on October 20, 2008 2:11 AM

    Another Vetroleum?

  2. A New Way to Make Fuel | New Energy and Fuel on March 1, 2010 1:11 AM

    […] James Dumesic, the Steenbock Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with postdoctoral researchers Jesse Bond and David Martin Alonso, and graduate students Dong Wang and Ryan West have published details of a highly efficient, environmentally friendly process that selectively converts gamma-valerolactone, a biomass derivative, into the chemical equivalent of gasoline to jet fuel.  The paper has been published in the Feb. 26 edition of the journal Science. Professor Dumesic just continues to amaze at identifying new pathways. […]

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