George Huber the professor leading the research at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst estimates that once perfected, his new technique would be able to produce the equivalent of three barrels of oil for between $30 and $100.  That’s a very bold shot from an estimate, making top dollar oil at or less than $35.00.  This is enough to make lots of folks pay attention.

In the Huber reactor the biomass mixes with a catalyst made of silica and alumina. The reactor heats the biomass to between 400 and 600 degrees Celsius, causing it to decompose. The product that comes out of a condenser is green gasoline.  Seems simple enough.

Huber is working to commercialize the technology through Anellotech Inc., which he cofounded in November of 2008. Anellotech doesn’t yet have a headquarters, but the fledgling company is applying for grants and raising funds from investors. Within two years it plans to open a demonstration plant that would employ 25 people. The company says the first commercial plant could be operating within five years.

Huber makes a striking observation, and right or wrong he casts a certain doubt on what can happen long term in petroleum type fuels.  Huber says, “When you look at biomass versus crude oil, biomass is significantly cheaper.’’ Just how he comes to that conclusion is a bit of a mystery, but on a raw BTU basis, biomass in the place of its growth is stunningly cheap.  Its what’s required to get the biomass from where it grew, reformed and to your fuel sales location that’s the problem.

Which makes Huber’s fast pyrolysis interesting.  Anellotech claims that its one-step process is far simpler than competing multi-step biological, thermochemical or processes used to make biofuels.  This is good news.  Using a catalytic fast pyrolysis technique that converts cellulosic biomass into benzene, toluene and xylenes, Huber comes very close to raw gasoline right out of the reactor.  This is good, too. Anellotech has already licensed the technique from UMass Amherst and within the next year hopes to build a pilot demonstration plant in Springfield, Massachusetts to highlight its capabilities.  Just as one expects.

What isn’t so quickly expected is that Anellotech is currently negotiating with biomass suppliers for one ton per day of feedstock for the pilot facility and expects to open a commercial biofuel production plant by 2014 in conjunction with commercial partners, as well as license the technology and supply proprietary catalysts to licensees.  Things are moving very fast, indeed.

Huber’s innovations have bypassed significant hurdles to bringing green gasoline biofuels to market.  He says, “It is likely that the future consumer will not even know that they are putting biofuels into their car.Biofuels in the future will most likely be similar in chemical composition to gasoline and diesel fuel used today. The challenge for chemical engineers is to efficiently produce liquid fuels from biomass while fitting into the existing infrastructure today.”  We now know that Huber gets the situation more clearly than most.

Technically the process isn’t any different than what we saw a year ago when the news broke about Huber and his competition at the University of Wisconsin, lead by James Dumesic.  A quick refresher is that rapidly heated cellulose particles in the presence of solid catalysts reacts into the noted petroleum chemicals. Then rapidly cooled, the products form a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline.

Huber and Dumesic. Click image for more info.

Huber and Dumesic. Click image for more info.

The entire process is completed in under two minutes using relatively moderate amounts of heat. The new information is that the heat is in the 400 to 600º C range and the catalyst is made from silica and aluminum, both common and low cost materials.  Maybe Huber is right, the biomass to gasoline might be much cheaper than much of our fossil sourced oil.

The compounds that formed in that single step, like naphthalene and toluene, make up one fourth of the suite of chemicals found in gasoline. The liquid can be further treated to form the remaining fuel components or can be used “as is” for a high octane gasoline blend.
The catch is getting the raw biomass into the reactor.

Biomass is bulky, comes naturally in large structures such as stalks, leaves, limbs and tree trunks.  The biomass will need to be dry and reduced in size to perhaps sawdust or less for the fast pyrolysis to function properly.  In a place with abundant electricity, the drying and grinding would be cheap. Otherwise there could be significant energy inputs to the total process from fields to fuel tanks.

Today Huber is again out in front, catching some press and riding what might have been a wave of high priced oil and succeeding in a time of cheap oil.  What he’s showing is that it may well be possible for his techniques to come in very low cost, use a very wide array of biomass and be sustainable across much of the planet.  Moreover, the fuels themselves are sourced from recycled atmospheric CO2 a form of temporary sequestration and recycling that if cheap enough could see the fuels just stored or parked away.

But don’t count the Dumesic team at UW just yet.  Over a year ago this was all fascinating, but its now seriously competitive.  I’m looking for their news with great anticipation as well.  One day we’ll get these guy’s process graphs and really get a feel for what happens.


10 Comments so far

  1. russ on July 16, 2009 4:32 AM

    I suggest you don’t hold your breath while waiting. For every thousand of the processes at this stage at least 999 will fail.

    His 35 USD per barrel number is possibly a tip off that he is being a bit unrealistic.

  2. Matt on July 16, 2009 6:25 AM

    Russ is right. But, it would be nice to have a compact machine that could turn biomass into gasoline economically. They would pop up all over rural America. Every large Farm Coop would want one.

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