Saturday, March 29, 2008

Virent’s Biogasoline

Virent Energy Systems announced its second collaboration with oil giant Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS.A) today, saying the two plan to work on developing a biogasoline that could be used in regular cars and take advantage of the existing gasoline infrastructure.

Virent said its BioForming technology, based on research started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, uses a solid-state catalyst to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon molecules like those produced at a petroleum refinery.

And the company said the technology can take in a broad menu of feedstocks. Virent said the sugars for its biogasoline can be sourced from non-food sources like corn stover, switch grass, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, in addition to conventional biofuel feedstock like wheat, corn and sugarcane.
This sounds very interesting. Instead of using bacteria or yeasts to convert sugars into alcohols organically, they are using a catalyst to convert the carbohydrates inorganically. Apparently they first created this catalyst to create hydrogen and now are switching their focus to biogasoline.

Ethanol has always had the disadvantage that it could not be sent down pipes used for gasoline and that it has 30% less energy per gallon as gasoline. I had become a fan of bio-butanol over ethanol for that reason. But, this sounds even better. I can't tell if this process is able to use cellulosic feedstocks, but if it can use non-food sources that is a big improvement over using corn.

My 3 questions for this technology are: what is the energy efficiency of conversion vs. ethanol, what is the cost per gallon, and how scalable is this solution?

As for energy efficiency, their website states:
Produces gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels with 2X the net energy yield per acre as traditional ethanol processes.
That sounds good.

For cost and economics, things are pretty vague with just this statement:
The system’s scalability enables the economical matching of production with available feedstock supplies.
I would have expected somewhere they would state the cost per gallon. The lack of information on the website and in the articles makes me wonder.

And for scalability:
Apfelbach said the company's pilot plants can produce about a gallon of fuel a day, and they would likely have a commercial demonstration size in the 10,000 liters range within a few years.
A gallon a day, that's it? That's not even a drop in the bucket of the 160 billion gallons of gasoline used in the US a year. And we have to wait a few years just to get to 10,000 liters?

Looks like we are still quite a few years off from this technology making any kind of serious impact, but if the energy efficiency of conversion and economics are good, I bet they will find a way to ramp this up pronto.

via CleanTech via TreeHugger

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