ICIS Innovation Awards: Virent Energy Systems wins with BioForming technology

Icing on the cake

13 October 2008 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Correction: In the article headlined "ICIS Innovation Award: Virent Energy Systems wins with BioForming technology" please read Jim Dumesic in place of Eric Apfelbach as cofounder of Virent Energy Systems. A corrected story follows.

Virent Energy Systems wins the Best Innovation by an SME award for its BioForming process to turn plant sugars to biofuels and chemicals

Mark Whitfield/London

VIRENT ENERGY Systems' winning entry takes biofuel technology a big step forward toward the production of functional fuels in a single process.

Such is the novelty of the BioForming process from the company, based in Madison, Wisconsin, US, that it has attracted the interest of oil major Shell. The two companies have entered a joint research and development agreement to continue developing the process further, for the conversion of sugars directly into gasoline and gasoline-blend components, rather than ethanol.

US agriculture giant and biofuel producer Cargill has also invested in Virent, although it is not technically involved, along with Japanese carmaker Honda, which was initially interested in hydrogen generation but now concentrates on liquid fuels.

As well as gasoline, the process can generate diesel, jet fuel and molecules that can be used in petrochemical processes.

Randy Cortright, Virent's chief technology officer, executive vice president and a cofounder, says that since the company was established in 2002, "we have proved our technology using different sugars, being able to use mixtures effectively to develop routes to biomass deconstruction and achieving a product that is closer to gasoline."


The process uses catalysts that are similar to those found in traditional processes and refineries. Cortright says that the catalysts provide a wider processing window for cellulosic and mixed sugar streams and are orders of magnitude faster than enzymatic processes like fermentation, taking minutes rather than days. This increases throughput and reduces capital costs.

It operates at moderate pressures of 500-600 pounds per square inch and combines aqueous phase reforming with catalytic processing. Following processing, the hydrocarbon product can be easily removed from the water using phase separation.

A range of feedstocks, including corn stover, switchgrass, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, can be used for the process and Cortright says that reducing energy consumption and the overall carbon footprint of the process is very important.


"The food-versus-fuel issue is also a priority," Cortright adds. "We have not focused on corn starch, which can be used as food. Sugarcane is a viable alternative that has a good carbon footprint. We are looking at using wood waste as an alternative, and are planning an integrated project with paper pulp plants in Wisconsin.

"We're looking to replace feedstocks with biomass that can be produced with low fertilizer requirements and low tillage, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) release to the atmosphere."

Other energy-saving elements of the process include using bagasse to produce electricity and employing hydrogen produced in the process in the hydrotreating of the biomass before processing.

"In two laboratory-scale pilot plants, we are now producing high yields of gasoline using different sugars, including mixtures of sugars derived from cellulosic biomass," Cortright says. "Our biogasoline has the same range of molecules and properties as petroleum-based gasoline. We've proved the chemistry works, and are now in the detailed design phase for a larger-scale demonstration system."

Virent's work was initially directed toward hydrogen generation using the aqueous phase reforming (APR) process that Cortright and cofounder Jim Dumesic developed while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"We discovered that with the right catalyst, process parameters and sugars, we could produce hydrogen. However, the market for renewable hydrogen was rather limited, so in 2005, we began to look at ways to extend the APR process to produce hydrocarbons."


"Virent researcher Paul Blommel and I then discovered numerous routes to produce biogasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and chemicals from APR-generated chemical intermediates, and ultimately that resulted in the relationship with Shell," Cortright says.

"We now believe we can compete head to head with petroleum-based processes. We found the technological solutions and the macroeconomics went in our favor. By making a broad range of renewable hydrocarbon molecules, we have the potential to significantly impact the use of fossil hydrocarbons," Cortright says.

By: John Baker
+44 20 8652 3214

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