The Who, What and When of Advanced Bioprocessing Technologies

Policymakers are known to equate biofuels with first-generation ethanol, biodiesel, and cellulosic ethanol. More recently, they have embraced exotic technologies such as the algae platform for advanced biofuels. As one industry wag put it, “You tell them about first-generation, second-generation and third-generation biofuels, and then they tell you that the one that really want to get behind is fourth-generation.”

But there are as many as a dozen different unique processing technologies – some of them, like the Fischer-Tropsch process and fast pyrolysis, making a comeback as oil prices climb. Some of them, like plasma gasification, are more novel. What do they share – an interesting groups of companies pursuing each path, an ability to use sustainable, low-cost feedstocks and, usually, a complete lack of visibility.


Fast pyrolysis is not very new. Biomass is heated to high temperatures in a vacuum , which prevents combustion – instead, the biomass is transformed into a combination of bio-oil (comparable to bunker oils used for heavy marine transport), methane, and biochar (a substitute for fossil-based fertilizer, and similar to the terra prete used for centuries in the Amazon). The process has been steadily improved over the years, but what has really transformed the science in recent years are rising oil prices: the technology,l once thought to be scientifically interesting but hopelessly non-competitive, is getting close in some commercial applications to parity, on an unsubsidized basis, with gasoline.

Remediation Earth

Remediation Earth’s pyrolysis process is a proven commercial technology (over 15 years), and is enhanced using our patented real-time remote prognostic health monitoring (“PHM”) system. eThe company’s technology converts a wide variety of feedstocks into valuable energy products, including synthetic diesel, #2 fuel oil, transportation grade biofuels, electricity, carbon black and bio char, and H2 gas from pyro-liquids.

Continental Technologies

Continental Technologies specializes in pilot plant fabrication, focusing on fuels (including synthetic and biofuels), catalysts, chemicals and polymers process technology development and scale-up. The company has experience with equipment for virtually every fuels relevant process – gasification, pyrolysis, hydrotreating, fermentation, Fischer Tropsch synthesis, transesterification – as well as catalyst development, hydrogen production and chemicals development.

Continental Technologies was founded in late 2007 in Ponca City, Oklahoma to service the pilot plant needs of the energy and chemical industries with a unique value proposition – the entire staff has come from large company R&D departments so that the design and fabrication focus is from the end-user’s perspective. In addition, pilot plants are not a filler; they are what the company does. Continental Technologies is the only pilot plant fabricator who offers an option to operate the pilot plants at its facilities.


QinetiQ has been awarded $2.4 million, three year contract for a PyTEC containerised Pyrolysis Waste Disposal System for the US Army. The self sustaining thermal pyrolysis system will process up to 100kg of Municipal Solid Waste per hour, and reclaims up to 500 kW of the thermal energy from the waste per hour. The system will be fully commissioned by 2012 after field testing. The system produces 6.6 gallons of biochar per 100kg of waste.

According to QinetiQ, “the energy recovery aspect will also significantly reduce the amount of fuel needed to support the base camp and provide associated cost savings while reducing the number of trucks on the road and freeing logistics assets for more critical mission requirements. PyTEC will enable the US Army forward operating bases to move towards being more self sufficient in the management of their waste management requirements.”


Canada-based Dynamotive converts residual biomass from agricultural and forestry operations and/or dedicated non-food crops through a thermochemical process into BioOil and Biochar. BioOil and Biochar plants can coexist with existing forestry and agricultural facilities, providing an additional benefit to operations. Approximately $ 33 million will deliver a 15 year production capacity of approximately 67 million gallons of renewable transportation grade hydrocarbon fuels. Dynamotive’s pyrolysis platform is available today, with plants of 130 Mt and 200 Mt per day completed. The upgrading process uses conventional hydrotreatment equipment and process conditions allowing for rapid implementation at pilot and commercial scale


The University of Massachusetts at Amherst recently granted a biofuels startup company, Anellotech, exclusive global rights to the university’s catalytic fast pyrolysis technology developed by chemical engineer and UMass Amherst faculty member George Huber for producing clean, green “grassoline”. Huber will serve as chairman of Anellotech’s scientific advisory board.

Anellotech will offer a low-cost, single-step process for turning forest residues and waste biomass into gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil and renewable chemicals including benzene, toluene and xylenes.
Nick DeCristofaro, director of the UMass Amherst Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer, said, “Huber’s new technique has been the most sought-after technology the campus has licensed to date. We’ve noted unprecedented interest from a number of quarters. Also, we salute Anellotech’s choice of David Sudolsky to lead the new firm through its next phases, including development of a pilot production plant. This is a very solid business decision.”

Anellotech said that its technology would produce commercial amounts of biofuel at price parity with gasoline by 2019. The company is developing a 2 ton per day pilot project and raising Series A venture capital. The first plant is scheduled to complete construction by 2014, according to the company’s website.

KIT, Lurgi

Researchers at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have developed a $2.49 biofuel by using pyrolysis on wood waste and straw. The bioliq, produced by heating plant material in a vacuum at 500 degrees C, is then gasified, heated to 1400 degrees C, and catalytically converted into synthetic diesel, hydrogen or methanol fuel. KIT said that they will construct a pilot plant that will open in 2012, and have established an economic model with a production forecast of 272 Mgy.

Plasma gasification

In plasma gasification, biomass is fed into a closed chamber and superheated to temperatures of up to 20,000 degrees fahrenheit. The intense heat transforms biomass into syngas, which is then reformulated using into ethanol and green diesel, hydrogen, methanol or methane. A secondary process can convert the base materials into other industrial chemicals.

S4 Energy Systems

Waste Management Inc. and InEnTec announced a joint venture, called S4 Energy Solutions, that will produce renewable fuel, power and industrial products as well as to generate electricity, using plasma gasification.
S4 Energy Solutions’ initial focus will be to process medical and other segregated commercial and industrial waste streams. The company’s future commercialization plans may also include the processing of municipal solid waste once the technology has been demonstrated to be economical and scalable for such use. The S4 technology is designed with unique advances in plasma technology that increase the lifespan of high-cost elements such as the refractories. Tests of the unit have shown that there is no creation of dangerous dioxins, and the process produces hydrogen and carbon monoxide in a 1:1 ratio, while recovering 50-70 percent of the BTUs in the waste.

S4’s technology will be based on a distributed generation module – rather than large-scale facilities aggregating waste from mutliple clients the venture will focus on smaller markets with modules designed to handle 5 to 125 tons per day. Clients can deploy multiple modules to handle more waste. The distributed approach allows WMI to offer an alternative to clients who have to long-haul waste, or whose waste is too toxic to safely transport.
Clients are expected initially to offtake all of the power and fuel for their own use, but S4 said it expects that some clients in the future, especially for those producing large amounts of fuel, will seek to sell the fuels in the open market for added revenue.

The group reports exceptional interest from the WMI client base and said that it expects to announce multiple projects in 2009. The group said that it will offer a mix of regional short-haul facilities serving multiple clients, or on site projects for single clients if volumes make that feasible.
The company said it may also pursue a model whereby a single-client site is eventually opened up to other suppliers of waste as a cost-reducer for the primary client and also to acquire useful waste streams useful for specific applications such as high-value chemicals.


The INEOS Bio process is a combined thermochemical and biochemical technology for ethanol and power production. It is comprised of four main steps: (1) feedstock gasification, (2) synthesis gas fermentation (3) ethanol recovery and (4) power generation. The process utilizes a patented fermentation process, where cleaned, cooled synthesis gas is converted selectively into ethanol by a naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria. The pilot plant has been in operation for 6 years (2003-2009), and feedstocks successfully tested include: wood waste, MSW, sugar cane bagasse, corn stover, and auto shredder residue.

Fulcrum Bioenergy?

Fulcrum utilizes new emerging technologies to convert post-recycled municipal solid waste (MSW) feedstock to cellulosic ethanol. Fulcrum is deploying new technologies in a two-step thermochemical process. In the first step, MSW received from feedstock suppliers under long-term contracts, will be processed through a down-draft partial oxidation gasifier followed by a plasma arc. In the second step, syngas will be converted to ethanol through an alcohol synthesis process developed by Fulcrum using a new, proprietary catalyst technology. By recycling heat and energy within the MSW-to-ethanol plant, Fulcrum is able to reduce its cost of production to less than $1.00 per gallon. This represents a dramatic reduction in the cost of production when compared to both conventional ethanol production as well as other cellulosic ethanol production models using agricultural and wood-waste feedstocks.


Originally developed for the refining of heavy, sour oils with more than 2 percent sulfur content, catalytic hydrotreatment has evolved as a means of reducing nitrogen content and oxygen content – thereby convertng pyrolysis and bio-based oils to renewable diesel and renewable jet fuel.


Honeywell’s UOP has developed a renewable jet fuel processing technology, as well as a joint venture. UOP and Ensyn announced the formation of a new joint venture, dubbed Envergent Technologies, that will market technologies and equipment for generating power, transportation fuel and heating oil from biomass using pyrolysis. The joint venture will utilize forest and agriculture residues as feedstocks in a Rapid Thermal process, where feedstocks are heated in the absence of oxygen, to produce pyrolysis oils that can be utilized directly in heating oil or power gen. UOP also owns a Renewable Energy & Chemicals business that produced green diesel using its Ecofining process. UOP and Vaperma announced a partnership to bring Vaperma’s polymer membrane technology to the ethanol industry, where it will reduce energy consumption and emissions for for first-generation ethanol, as well as cellulosic ethanol and butanol.


Healy Biodiesel signed a letter of intent with Cetane Energy to convert from transesterification to Cetane’s hydroprocessing technology that will produce renewable diesel. Renewable diesel is a drop-in fuel that can be utilized in a standard diesel engine and does not require infrastructure or engine modification. According to Cetane Energy, its renewable diesel also produces lower emissions than biodiesel and has a higher energy density which can lead to greater fuel economy.

Cetane is operating a demonstration plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, while the Healy conversion is scheduled for April 2010. Cetane said that its process is feedstock-flexible, and is able to convert algal oils to renewable diesel.

Fischer-Tropsch Process

The Fischer-Tropsch process is a catalyzed reaction in which syngas, which contains carbon monoxide and hydrogen from superheated biomass, is reformed into liquid hydrocarbons of various forms.


The Rentech-SilvaGas biomass gasification process is the technology used in the only biomass gasifier operated at commercial scale in the United States. It can convert multiple biomass feedstocks into synthesis gas (syngas) for renewable power production, and can be integrated for conversion of syngas into complex hydrocarbons by the patented Rentech Process based on Fischer-Tropsch chemistry. The final products after upgrading are ultra-clean synthetic jet and diesel fuels, specialty waxes and chemicals. The company recently signed an agreement with 13 airlines to provide renewable jet fuel made at its proposed 250 Mgy Natchez, Mississippi plant.

ThermoChem Recovery International

TRI’s medium-BTU syngas can be converted into a wide range of downstream biofuel and biochemical products. Since 2003, a TRI gasifier has been in commercial-scale operation at Norampac’s Trenton (Ontario) containerboard mill, gasifying black liquor (solid biomass equivalent: 500 dry tons per day). Currently, TRI is the gasification technology provider for two separate DOE-funded biorefinery projects which will convert TRI syngas to Fischer-Tropsch waxes and diesel for market sale, and provide tailgas to offset natural gas use in the lime kiln.

Dynamic Fuels

Dynamic Fuels is a 50/50 venture between Syntroleum and Tyson Foods. It has a technology for indirect liquefaction of cellulosic biomass via gasification and Fischer-Tropsch conversion. Dynamic Fuels’ business model is “own and operate” bio-refineries based on Syntroleum’s Bio-Synfining process. The latter is a process for converting low value and waste fatty acid/glyceride streams (from spent vegetable oils used in food processing to palm oil fatty acid distillate) into high quality hydrocarbon fuels (diesel, jet fuel, naphtha, and LPG).

Jim Lane
Editor, Biofuels Digest
Biofuels Digest

Comments are closed.