Oil Companies, Universities Investigate Alternate Paths to Biofuels
April 16, 2008
Shell and Virent Energy Systems, Inc. have made public their joint research and development effort to convert plant sugars directly into "biogasoline," avoiding the fermentation process used to produce ethanol in today's biorefineries. Virent, a biofuels company, has developed a catalytic process to convert sugars into hydrocarbons, the chemicals found in petroleum. This "BioForming" technology creates "biogasoline" molecules that have a higher energy content than ethanol, yielding improved fuel efficiency. After working together for a year, the companies report that the BioForming technology has advanced rapidly, exceeding milestones for yield, product composition, and cost, but the companies intend to further improve the technology before scaling it up for commercial production. According to Virent, the biogasoline matches petroleum gasoline in functionality and performance. See the Shell press release.
Shell and Virent also note that their biogasoline has a higher energy content than butanol, which is the biobased fuel being developed by BP and DuPont. Back in February, those companies announced that their biobased butanol, or biobutanol, can be mixed with gasoline to form blends with more than 10% biobutanol without compromising performance. Butanol is a four-carbon molecule with mostly hydrogen atoms bonded to the carbon atoms, except for one alcohol group (an oxygen and hydrogen atom). DuPont and BP have been developing catalysts to produce 1-butanol (a four-carbon chain with the alcohol group at one end), 2-butanol (a four-carbon chain with the alcohol group bonded to a carbon atom in the middle of the chain), and isobutanol (a branched chain with the alcohol group on one end). Isobutanol and 2-butanol have higher octane ratings, making them better fuels, and the companies have found that gasoline blends containing 16% high-octane butanols deliver fuel performance similar to blends with 10% ethanol (E10). BP and DuPont also claim that the 16% biobutanol blend has other characteristics that make it preferable to E10. See the DuPont press release.
Meanwhile, university researchers have found catalytic methods of converting plant materials to biofuels, similar to the path being investigated by Shell and Virent. On April 7, engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst published their research into a one-step process for converting biomass such as wood into a gasoline substitute. The process involves the rapid heating and cooling of the biomass in the presence of a catalyst, producing "gasoline-range hydrocarbons" in a minute or less. The researchers have garnered a $30,000 grant from the university to develop the process, as well as a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Researchers at the University of Madison-Wisconsin have employed a similar process to produce the chemical components of jet fuel. See the press releases from UMass Amherst and UW-Madison.