The leap from Bio Fuels to Solar Fuels.

About six years ago I left my steady job working for a multinational and founded a new company called BIOeCON, with the vision to work on breakthrough innovations in the area of converting non edible biomass into fuels, chemicals and/or electrical power.

BIOeCON has been quite succesful; working with an international network of creative scientists we have developed essential breakthrough concepts laid down in more than 100 patents which are now being scaled-up and commercialized. In November 2007 BIOeCON and Khosla Ventures founded KiOR to develop and commercialize the Fluidized Biomass Fluid Catalytic Cracking (BFCC) process; BFCC produces renewable crude oil products. KiOR is presently constructing the first commercial BFCC plant in Columbus, Mississippi. In 2010 BIOeCON and PETROBRAS announced a partnership to develop the BiCHEM technology, for the selective conversion of agricultural wastes such as sugarcane bagasse, into high value chemicals that can be used to produce green plastics or further transformed in advanced fuel or food additives. Furthermore BIOeCON is also developing a biomass-based fuel cell, to convert cellulosic waste into electricity with a high efficiency. This project is code-named BiCEPS. I am proud to be an inventor or co-inventor of these three new technologies.

Last year I founded a new venture called ANTECY together with one of my BIOeCON colleagues: Sasa Marinic, with the vision and the mission to convert solar energy directly into a storrable and transportable liquid, also suitable as fuels and/or as   feedstock for the chemical industry.

At a recent guest lecture to University students on renewable energy, one student asked me why I had left the biomass arena to work in solar to liquid fuels? Did this mean that I did no longer believe in biofuels? Was ANTECY not competing with BIOeCON?

So, why the leap away from biofuels to solar fuels?

To answer these questions I first would like to take you back to my own career; Since my graduation as Chemical Engineer I have worked at Shell, Akzo Nobel and most recently at Albemarle. In all three cases I have been active in developing catalysts and/or processes to convert low value heavy oils into usefull clean products like lead-free gasoline and/or low sulfur diesel. My focus at the time was to make as good use as possible of the existing resources on earth, primarily being fossil crude oil.

Now we should realize that crude oil basicly comes from biomass which over millions of years, under certain conditions has been naturally aged and convertred (“fossilized”) into oil, gas and coal. The original biomass was formed by the process of photosynthesis whereby CO2 and water is convertred with the energy of the sun into biological building blocks (sugars, cellulose, oils etc). So in crude oil is solar energy which has been captured via photosynthesis millions of years ago and after rotting and fossilization of the biomass has been converted into a liquid oil. We could call it a kind of “Time-delayed solar fuel”.

With the amount of fossil crude becoming less abundant, or at least more difficult and expensive to extract from this earth, it has become important for us to search for alternative means to produce our fuels and chemicals in an alternative way which also contributes less to the increase of green house gasses (GHG): CO2 (Carbondioxide) and CH4 (Methane).

The conversion of biomass is one of these alternatives; In agriculture and in forrestry a lot of waste biomass (mainly cellulosic material) is produced which now is either burned producing CO2, or sits rotting away producing CH4 and CO2. Keep in mind that CH4 is an even worse GHG than CO2!  With biomass conversion processes we can make use of this biomass waste and convert it into transportation fuels (BFCC) and/or chemicals (BiCHEM). Infact we are speeding up or bypassing natures fossilization process to produce the desired product in seconds or minutes in stead of millions of years. The “trick” we apply to do this is to use a catalyst. A catalyst is a special chemical component which can either speed up and/or direct a chemical reaction in a certain direction. The enzymes which are very active in our boddies and are also used to convert sugars into ethanol (First generation bio-oils) are also catalysts, infact organic bio-catalysts which are very selective but unfortunately not so active and very sensitive to changing conditions. In the BFCC and BiCHEM processes we are applying inorganic catalysts which are much more active and very robust to handle adverse feedstocks or conditions.

The timeframe for biomass based fuels and chemicals is starting TODAY; we have enough biomass waste available and the processes to convert the biomass are coming online. As was confirmed my several major oil companies recently (a.o Shell, Chevron and Petrobras) biomass is the only significant source of renewable fuels and chemicals in the next 10-15 years.

But what about longer term? While the present biomass conversion processes speed up or bypass the natural fossilization of the biomass, they do not address the fact that the conversion of the original solar energy into biomass (photosynthesis) remains a very slow and inefficient process. The fastest growing terestial biomass (e.g. sugarcane) only captures about 1% of the available solar energy.

In the case of aquatic biomass (algae,seaweed) 5 to 10% seems possible at laboratory scale, but the costs of growing and harvesting is still prohibitive if the products are commodities like transportation fuels. Converting Algae to higher value food additives and/or comsmetic seems to be economically feasible. At BIOeCON we struggled to find a way to produce low cost algae based fuels, but although the conversion of the algae or seaweed is quite promissing, the growing and harvesting remains the stumbling block.

One way to go is to consider genetic modification (GM) of the biomass: According to Craig Vetter (Nobel prize winner, genomics scientist) Biofuels made from algae that will be able to scale, and compete with oil, will have to be synthesized and will not come from nature. Venter and his research team, successfully created the first synthetic bacterial cell, which was controlled completely by a synthetic genome: The first cell “to have a computer for a parent,” or “designed DNA on a living system.” Venter now says he has realized that a fully synthetic cell is the way to go to create competitive algae fuel. When it comes to tweaking naturally occurring algae cells, he says, “you’ll never get there with that. We need a fundamental change to how we approach all this.” This is definitely an interesting approach which is also being supported by among others ExxonMobil. Exxon Mobil is investing $600 million in Venter’s venture.

Still the genomics approach seems rather complicated and may not be without great safety and environmental risks: what if for instance these oil producing mutated species escape the laboratory or GM-Algae oil production plant and start polluting our oceans with oil? Isn’t there an easier and safer way to convert solar energy into liquid fuels? What if we could skip the biomass altogether and do the photosynthesis ourselves?

Yes! The holy grail of chemistry: Artificial photosynthesis?

Artificial photosynthesis here implies the direct conversion of CO2 and water into a  liquid carbohydrate or hydrocarbon, making use of solar energy. This is not a new subject, and many academics are working on this subject, albeit most of them are trying to simulate exactly what nature is doing in so called “Artificial leafs”. Here again I believe it may be better use nature only as our example and not to imitate it, but to invent more simple, cleaner and robust ways to do the same job that nature teaches us in the art of photosynthesis.

So what if we can capture the solar energy and use it in a simple catalytic process to convert green house gasses like CO2 and CH4 into a liquid fuel? Yes I think it will be feasible in the near future. First the cost of capturing energy from the sun is dropping fast. The projections are that the costs of electricity from photovoltaics will be the same or lower than the cost of electricity from coal or gas by the year 2020?

If we now use this solar electricity to produce hydrogen from water or methane and use the hydrogen (H2) produced to convert CO2 into methanol, than we have our first solar liquid fuel or chemical. This is not a new process, it has already been invented, so why aren’t we doing this already? The answer is that the existing processes to produce hydrogen from water and to capture and convert CO2 are very inefficient and costly. Knowing this we founded ANTECY with the objective to increase the efficiency by at least 100 times!

An Impossible task? Just as impossible as turning waste biomass into oil and chemicals?  At ANTECY we are working with a crack team of creative scientists and technologists to force the breakthroughs required and to put the technology all together in an economical and environmental friendly way!

So now back to the question: why the leap away from biofuels to solar fuels?

I do not see it as a leap away from biofuels, I see it more as the logical next step in the history and continuous development of our energy resources, whereby the sun has always been the providor, and we have been reaping her fruits in different ways: first as fossil fuels, now as biofuels and in the future as direct solar fuels.

I also do not see any competition, we will need all (energy) hands on deck! Definitely we will still need fossil fuels for the next 50-100 years, hopefully biofuels will start picking up  at least 10 to 20% of the load soon to contain the present rise of green house gasses. The next step will be the emergence of direct solar fuels which in time will be able to replace all fossl fuels and open up several new opportunities in the ways we live and work with our energy resources.

– Paul O’Connor, October 2011 –

This entry was posted in Biofuels, Innovation, Renewable Energy, Solar Energy. Bookmark the permalink.

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