The Second Generation of Biofuels
As the price of oil has become increasingly volatile in today's market, Americans are pursuing alternatives from electric cars to natural gas powered vehicles and biofuels. A laughing matter to the likes of some politicians like Newt Gingrich, biofuels have typically struggled to make serious headlines in commercial markets for many years. But the tides are changing. A second generation biofuel is on the rise.
Under the widely adopted Fischer-Tropsch process, many have sought to create commercially viable alternative fuels for over 50 years. The gas to liquids technology originally used to produce synthetic fuels in oil-poor Germany during WWII has undergone many upgrades since, yet its byproducts have remained hampered by high capital costs, high operational and maintenance costs, volatile prices of crude oil and low costs of natural gas. However, one company has been able to significantly improve the process enough to create a competitive renewable gasoline.
Through the conversion of biomass into high-octane gasoline, Primus Green Energy Ltd. can create drop-in gasoline that is virtually indistinguishable from gasoline produced from fossil fuels. It can be used directly in engines and does not require costly engine modifications, overhauls of the fuel delivery infrastructure or changes in consumer behavior. With the prices of crude oil well over $100 per barrel today, Primus estimates that its gasoline would only cost around $60 a barrel.
Using non-food crops such as herbaceous, woody biomass pellets or even miscanthus, Primus' process has a conversion efficiency of 25 percent—twice that of its closest competitor. Using one ton of biomass feedstock, or even natural gas, 90 gallons of renewable gasoline can be produced, making the process remarkably economical.
The 93 octane gasoline byproduct sells at 20 percent premium unleaded, meaning it can be used as a blendable component that refineries currently use. Ethanol, comparatively, runs into a 10 percent blend law. As for other alternative fuels, gasoline is generally a small portion of the product stream the same as it would be from crude oil at a refinery. That's what makes Primus so convenient.
“We only produce one thing,” says Dr. George Boyajian, VP Business Development at Primus. “A stream of pure gasoline.”
In terms of physical characteristics, Primus biofuels parallel that of a high quality gasoline. After being tested and analyzed in independent labs, the resulting product proved to be very stable with the lowest rates of conversion and corrosion of commercial gasoline.
In order for the process to be economical, the biomass would have to be sourced within a 50 mile radius of each plant and provide about a half million tons of feedstock annually. That's where miscanthus comes in. The EPA approved biomass crop can yield 10 to 20 tons of biomass per acre, while wood supplies about 1 to 2 tons per acre annually.
“Essentially, you could have dozens of these plants throughout the country that would be growing and supplying gasoline locally,” says Boyajian.
Attaining the right feedstock was a task Primus put a lot of time and research into, having tested some 20 other types of biomass over the years. Due to low ash and sulfur content, wood pellets and miscanthus have proven to be most ideal. Furthermore, should there ever be an interruption in feedstock supply, inexpensive natural gas can be used as a supplement.
In 2013, the company will begin breaking ground on its first commercial plant, which is expected to come online in 2015 and produce about 4.5 million gallons of gasoline annually. The cost of building the plant is crucial—an area where many others in the industry commonly fail. But because Primus plans on first scaling down from a commercial plant to a demo plant, the cost and engineering of a full-scale commercial plant will be much more predictable.
In terms of technology and business strategy, Primus owes much of its success to the failure of those in the industry before it.
“We believe it will be the most economic next generation biofuel on the market,” says Boyajian. “Ethanol was a good first step—if it weren't for ethanol, there wouldn't be a second generation biofuel. We've tried to learn lessons from others and further advance historic technologies. As with most science and technology, you're standing on the shoulders of someone else, and making improvements.”
Many of the “seasoned” developers at Primus also have decades worth of experience in the oil and refining industries.
“So, having seen a lot of the failures in the market before, we all came in with our eyes wide open,” says Boyajian. “And we're confident we have a winner.”
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere