Given the huge glut of natural gas in North America, you might think that biofuels developers and startups would throw up their hands and give up. Cheap, abundant natural gas produces electricity more economically than biomass, and can be used to make polymers, fuels, lubricants, and chemicals in a more straightforward manner than when using biomass or microbial approaches.
So why are biofuels and biomass companies persisting, swimming against the tide, as it were? Quite simply, it is because no matter how much natural gas exists in reserves, there are always limits. Natural gas prices are bound to increase as more and more uses are found for the valuable resource -- particularly gas to liquids (GTL) and the production of chemicals and polymers.
And when natural gas prices increase, biomass to liquids (BTL) and microbial fuels producers want to be ready to supply a high quality product -- using a feedstock that will never run out.
Two of the most promising projects in this area are UOP and Ensyn’s integrated biorefinery (IBR) pilot-scale project in Hawaii, and the IH2 project, led by the Gas Technology Institute (GTI),i with catalysts provided by CRI Catalyst. Here is another fascinating technological development in the quest for biomass energy.
Despite being pilot projects, both technologies are not far from commercialisation. Jim Rekoske, vice-president and general manager for Honeywell UOP’s Renewable Energy and Chemicals business, says UOP aims to be able to offer its system to customers for commercial sale in 3Q12, while the IH2 project is scheduled for commercial operation in 2014.
Vann Bush, managing director, energy conversion, GTI, told GTForum that based on an analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the anticipated cost on a product basis for fuel produced using the IH2 technology is around US$1.60/gallon for woody biomass, dropping to around US$1.36/gallon if a refiner has sufficient spare hydrogen capacity and opts to forego installing the reforming unit. This compares to the US Department of Energy’s goal of US$3/gallon.
...woody biomass tends to produce more gasoline than diesel via the IH2 process, while algael fuels tend to produce more diesel. Overall yields are also affected by feedstock. “The yields vary between say 70 gallons per ton to 157 gallons per ton. The worst yields we’ve had are with fairly high ash agricultural residues and the highest are with algae.”
Rekoske is particularly pleased with the yields UOP has seen so far – in the order of 300 gallons of renewable fuel per tonne of triglyceride feedstock, obtained from oil seed crops, algae and fats and greases. Given that overall yields are highly dependent on feedstock, direct comparisons between different biomass to oil product technologies cannot be made unless they both use the same feedstock.
“We’re achieving yields from the conversion facility and from our testing and laboratories that are much, much, higher than what we had anticipated, approaching the theoretical limits. We just did not expect to achieve yields that were that high,” he says
With both technologies, the final product slate is largely independent of the host-refinery’s complexity. This might make such systems more attractive to low-complexity refiners in regions with high biomass potential.
...In the future, there are two main options for refiners looking to use the IH2 technology. One involves the installation of both the main unit along with the components for conventional steam reforming/pressure swing absorption system, and the latter can be committed by a refinery with sufficient spare hydrogen capacity looking to reduce capital costs.
...Bush expects the IH2 technology to be built on a variety of scales. He expects that while many projects “would be at a scale that would be able to be fabricated in a shop and shipped to a site”, some “will be very large processing facilities and be built on site”. Bush says the scale would range between a few hundred tons per day to 2,000tpd “for most of the feed materials”. _Global Technology Forum
The biomass potential is immense, on this biological planet, and it is unlikely that entrepreneurs would overlook it for long.
There is always the problem of transporting large volumes of biomass from the field to the refinery. In the case of algae, you can always locate your growing facility close to the refinery, or vice versa. With bulkier biomass crops, you may have to use pyrolysis as a pre-treatment, as discussed in earlier postings here.
There is also the problem of hydrogen supply. The IH2 process is designed not to need outside hydrogen, although many other BTL processes will need outside sources of hydrogen to produce drop-in hydrocarbon fuels from biomass. As long as methane remains cheap, it is likely to be used as a hydrogen source for some BTL processes, as well as for CTL processes -- perhaps first in China, then spreading from there.
The potential global yield of advanced BTL is quite large, and should continue to grow as technologies improve and allow for larger yields on smaller areas of land or ocean. And since desert lands can be used for algae, drought-tolerant crops, and halophyte production, there will be no shortage of arable land for food production.
As you can see in the image above, it will take quite some time before humans exhaust the hydrocarbon resource -- particularly if they use high temperature gas-cooled modular nuclear reactors for industrial process heat in the conversion processes. But it is not likely that we will wait until finite resources are exhausted before we begin to utilise the essentially infinite resource of advanced BTL and microbial fuels.
Labels: algae, BTL, IH2