Virent Energy Systems and Royal Dutch Shell say their collaboration has produced a pilot plant capable of producing gasoline from sugar water through a catalytic process similar to that found in current crude-oil-based refining processes.
The "BioForming" process is in use at Virent's Eagle Production facility in Madison, Wis., and has produced 130 liters of gasoline per day from various feedstocks such as sugar cane, sugar beets, corn and deconstruction of biomass. The technology uses 5 and 6 carbon sugars, diasaccharides and other water-soluble polysaccharides from sugar and energy crops, as well as agricultural and forestry wastes as possible feedstocks.
Lee Edwards, Virent CEO, says the process is readily capable of producing the same molecules that are in your car's gasoline tank today from sugar from all of the sources equally well. "This would allow us to use our product directly with current crude-oil-based gasolines and seamlessly use the same infrastructure of storage tanks, pipelines and transport trucks the current fuel delivery system . Since the end product is the same as those derived from crude oil, the cost of blending and delivering the sugar-based fuels is low. It's also price competitive with current petroleum-based fuels, he explained.
In addition, the process can be tweaked to produce jet fuel and diesel fuel in the same manner.
Shell officials say the process is economically promising enough to make a commercial (100 million gallons per day) operation feasible within the next five years.
Developed by Virent with support from Shell, Cargill and Honda, the process yields a high-octane gasoline that has performed well in laboratory engine tests. Fleet testing begins later this year for observation of drivability and "real life" use over the road.
"Atmospheric emissions from the process are roughly 50% of that of petroleum-based fuel production, and since there is very little sulfur in the sugar-based feedstocks, tailpipe emissions would be assumed to be quite clean," says Randy Cortright, Virent founder and chief technical officer.
Edwards explains the new process benefits from the fact gasoline, jet fuel and diesel fuel separate naturally from water separate, which saves the significant energy used in the "ethanol process" to remove water from alcohols. And, the byproduct of BioForming is a net production of water.