Sugar-based Fuel Has Pep, Backers Say
March 24, 2010
Shell and a Wisconsin firm said Tuesday they have made significant progress in jointly developing a sugar-based fuel that is nearly identical to gasoline and has advantages over other alternative fuels.
With the recent startup of a 10,000 gallon-per-year demonstration plant, the Dutch oil major, with U.S. operations headquartered in Houston, and Virent Energy Systems said they proved "biogasoline" can be reproduced outside the lab and on a bigger scale, bringing the technology a step closer to commercialization.
Now, the companies said they are focused on testing the fuel in vehicle fleets and exploring plans for large-scale production in coming years.
The announcement comes as oil companies are placing bets on a wide range of alternative fuel technologies to meet government mandates, in the U.S. and elsewhere, that aim to reduce dependence on oil and curb carbon emissions linked to climate change.
A 2007 U.S. energy law requires blending of 36 billion gallons of biofuels into the fuel supply by 2022 -- more than triple current levels and representing about a quarter of today's domestic gasoline consumption.
Shell and Virent, under a joint research and development project announced in 2008, will use catalysts to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon molecules like those produced at a petroleum refinery.
As such, it has several key differences from ethanol, the leading alternative fuel in the U.S. today, which is made through a fermentation and distillation process that converts starch found in crops like corn into sugar and then to ethanol.
Better than ethanol?
Biogasoline has higher energy content, making it more fuel-efficient than ethanol. It can also be used in high concentrations without modifying conventional gasoline engines, and can be stored and transported in existing oil industry infrastructure, the companies said.
Aaron Brady, an oil analyst with Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said that's why the technologies have attracted the attention of the world's biggest oil companies.
"They want something that looks like gasoline, that looks like diesel," rather than biofuels that require new infrastructure to produce and distribute, he said.
Last year, Irving-based Exxon Mobil Corp. made a $600 million investment in algae-based biofuels that hold similar promise, while San Antonio-based refining giant Valero Energy bet on a garbage-to-gasoline technology. Other oil companies are also exploring advanced biofuels.
But Luis Scoffone, vice president of alternative energies at Shell, cautioned that biogasoline is still in its early days and is just one of many alternative fuel pathways the company is exploring and that will be needed in the future.
Ultimately, cost of production will be a big factor in determining which technologies win, he said in a Shell-Virent conference call with journalists Tuesday.
Virent CEO Lee Edwards contends biogasoline already is cost competitive with ethanol and with conventional gasoline at current crude oil prices.
He also sees the opportunity to integrate biogasoline production at existing ethanol plants and oil refineries, as well use the technology to produce jet fuel and diesel.
And while the new demonstration plant at Virent facilities in Madison, Wis., is now producing fuel from sugar beets, he said, the companies are testing a range of non-food raw materials, including corn stover, wheat straw and sugar cane pulp.
Source: Houston Chronicle
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