Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference: Alternatives for Alternative Fuels

Advanced-Biofuels-Leadership-Conference-2010-Washington-DC

At last week’s Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, there was an excellent session highlighting a few of the many different approaches currently being commercialized to develop renewable fuel sources.

What was interesting, is that many seem to be capable of producing fuels or chemicals that are compatible with the existing infrastructure for petroleum refining or directly as petrochemical feedstock. And although the construction of demonstration and full-scale commercial plants might take years to complete, most of the key companies are in the process of planning to scale-up manufacturing within a year.

For my own purposes, I thought it might be useful to list the companies and the route that they are trying to follow towards bulk manufacturing of biofuels and bio-sourced chemicals. If you have additional insight into each of these technologies, or want to voice opinions on their scientific or economic feasibility, please comment below.

The order of this list is not intended to show any favoritism or endorsement of any of the companies – it is simply based on the speaking order in which they were presented at the conference.

PetroAlgae has taken an approach based on open-pond algae growth. They use native species of algae – not genetically engineered – to minimize the risk of cross-contamination with the environment. As a result, the algae they grow are not high in oils and are not designed to produce oils that can be converted into biodiesel. Instead, they harvest the algae to produce powders that are rich in either protein or carbohydrates. The protein-rich powder is a potential food source, and the carbohydrate-rich source has been proposed as an alternative “green” feed to the coker at a refinery (which converts – or “cracks” the heaviest residue from crude oil into useable chemicals). It was asserted that many cokers are running under capacity, and this alternative feed would allow existing refineries to operate at higher profit levels by making use of their latent capacity. Existing refineries would need to be retrofitted to handle the powder feed to the coker, and PetroAlgae has partnered with Foster Wheeler to develop a straightforward engineering solution.

Solazyme, Inc. also has an algae-based approach, but as different as night and day. Solazyme has genetically modified algae that is designed to produce high quantity and high quality of oil. Their approach involves the growth of algae in industry standard fermenters and bioreactors. Rather than relying on sunlight for energy and carbon dioxide for food, this process requires a feed stream for the algae to convert into oils. Using sugars derived from biomass, the engineered algae produce oils that can potentially serve a variety of purposes – from high value chemicals (such as nutraceuticals) to bulk fuels. Their proprietary algae strains, along with a high-energy feed stream and the controlled bioreactor conditions are designed to intensify and optimize production rates.

Joule Biotechnologies uses “highly engineered product-specific photosynthetic organisms” to directly convert carbon dioxide to useable fuels (diesel or ethanol) and other chemicals. The only feedstock required is waste CO2, allowing them to promote their technology as a means of reducing CO2 emissions. They have developed (and continue to improve) multiple strains of micro-organisms that can produce any of a number of desired products.

Sapphire Energy, Inc. uses an approach of open pond algae growth using algae that has been designed to directly produce oils that mimic a light sweet crude. This “Green Crude” can be directly processed in an existing oil refinery to produce diesel, gasoline and jet fuel.

I am sure there are still “bugs” to be worked out in each of these methods, but at least on the technical side these companies seem to be well underway. As the financing needs of large scale production are met, and once we truly understand the economic aspects of how these technologies compare to traditional sources of energy, it certainly seems we can realistically have supplementary sources of energy in the foreseeable future, and eventually alternatives to coal and crude oil as the primary sources of energy.

It was clear that there is a level of risk and uncertainty in bringing each of these technologies to market. It was not immediately clear which of these methods will still be seen as viable solutions ten years down the road. However, with the scientific, financial and business professionals devoted to this field, it at least seems likely that – as Hannibal said before crossing the Alps – “We will either find a way, or make one.”

Kudos to Jim Lane at Biofuels Digest for organizing a valuable and highly relevant meeting for the biofuels industry.