Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Catalysed Pyrolysis Yields a Faster Biofuel

Pyrolysis involves the rapid heating of a feedstock under pressure, in the absence of oxygen. When you add the proper catalysts to the right feedstocks, you can create valuable fuels and chemicals amazingly quickly.
KiOR’s President Fred Cannon described KiOR’s technology as being able to crunch into seconds the millions of years that it takes to carbonize biomass (turn it into fossil fuels) in nature.

Cannon said the company’s catalyst — a fine white powder that he showed to me in a tiny see-through vial after his talk — can turn any feedstock, including non-food cellulose, into a biocrude that has 92 percent lower carbon emissions footprint than fossil-fuel based crude. It can also act as a dr0p-in replacement for fossil-fuel based crude, said Cannon, and KiOR is already making it in volumes of 15 barrels per day at KiOR’s plant in Houston.

“We scaled over the last year from a few liters a day to a few barrels a day. Even on the more expensive feedstocks we use, we’re already competitive on oil prices at this scale,” said Cannon on a panel of execs of Khosla Ventures portfolio companies in response to a question from Tony Blair about how expensive the KiOR process is.

...KiOR was formed in 2007 as a joint venture between Khosla Ventures and Netherlands-based biofuel startup BIOeCON. While I won’t pretend to fully understand KiOR’s technology, the company calls it a “biomass catalytic cracking process” — a thermochemical process that produces biocrude from grass, wood and plant waste that can then be refined. The process was derived from the traditional oil industry, by Bioecon’s founder, Paul O’Connor, who started BIOeCON in early 2006 after developing catalysts for the petroleum industry, according to MIT’s Technology Review. _Earth2Tech

Another recent pyrolysis venture

The key to the economical production of biofuels using pyrolysis (or gasification) is to combine as many steps as possible into one step. The key to doing that, is the right catalyst.

The product of pyrolysis is typically a pyrolysis oil, black carbon char, and pyrolysis gas. The product of gasification (which involves higher heat and pressure, with low oxygen levels) is syngas -- a mixture of hydrogen, CO, CO2, and small levels of CH4 etc. The products of both processes require further processing to become useful fuels -- which can be very expensive.

But throw the right catalyst into the initial pyrolysis or gasification step, and you end up with valuable fuels or chemicals off the bat.

Realistically, thermochemical processes for making biofuels should not be competitive with microbial approaches to biofuels in the long run. But thermochemical processes should be more easily and quickly arrived at -- giving them between a 5 and 10 year headstart on microbial fuels.

Biological feedstocks are problematic in that they are not typically energy-dense, and can be expensive to gather, dry, densify, and pre-process. But cane bagasse and corn stalks may be collected as part of other processes, reducing the cost of collection. Once such a feedstock is in hand, it can be dried and densified using the waste heat energy from gasification or pyrolysis.

Robotic collection of forestry and agricultural waste will also become much more common in the future, as a means of reducing costs of densifying biomass.

In the long run, microbial biomass such as algae can provide higher yields than virtually any other form of plant.

Biofuels have a great future ahead -- particularly if they are viewed appropriately as a local and regional solution.

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Blogger Travellers Spice said...

Was interested to read recently that the UK Carbon Trust have a project to encourage research into fuel produced by pyrolysis -

3:41 AM  
Blogger Soylent said...

Corn already destroys soil carbon content at an uncomfortable rate if you use tilling.

If you want to take a large fraction of the stalks, cobs and other biomass you have to avoid tilling(which is possible with the combination of GM crops and herbicides).

With gasification you produce ash, with some nutrient(P, K and micronutrient) value.

With pyrolysis you also produce char, which fulfills many of the functions of biodegradable forms of soil carbon but is very stable(centuries to millenia average residency in soil). This allows you to take even more of the biomass and may be of use in rehabilitating poor soils.

It will never be cost-effective to make char for its soil ammendment properties or carbon-sequestration alone; but it is a very nice bonus to making high-quality liquid fuels or high-value chemicals.

3:48 AM  

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