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Cheap, high-octane biofuel discovered

Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a cheap method for producing high-octane gasoline from methanol. They recently published their method in the journal Nature Catalysis. Methanol can be synthesized from CO2 via various routes, as we reported last year. Biomass, such as wood, is one possibility.

The production of biofuels from wood, however, is too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. To find a solution to this problem, the researchers combined their basic research with an economic analysis. The researchers initially aimed at the most expensive part of the process. Thereafter, the researchers found methods to reduce these costs with methanol as an intermediate.

So far, the cost of converting methanol to gasoline or diesel was about $1 per gallon. The researchers have now reached a price of about $0.70 per gallon.

The catalytic conversion of methanol into gasoline is an important research area in the field of CO2 recovery. The traditional method is based on multi-stage processes and high temperatures. It is expensive, producing low quality fuel in small quantities. Thus, it is not competitive with petroleum-based fuels.

Hydrogen deficiency was the initially problem the researcher had to overcome. Hydrogen is the key energy containing element in hydrocarbons. The researchers hypothesized that using the transition metal copper would solve this problem, which it did. They estimated that the copper-infused catalyst resulted in 38% more yield at lower cost.

By facilitating the reintegration of C4 byproducts during the homologation of dimethyl ether, the copper zeolite catalyst enabled this 38% increase in product yield and a 35% reduction in conversion cost compared to conventional zeolite catalysts. Alternatively, C4 by-products were passed to a synthetic kerosene meeting five specifications for a typical jet fuel. Then, the fuel synthesis costs increased slightly. Even though the cost savings are minimal, the resulting product has a higher value.

Apart from the costs, the new process offers users further competitive advantages. For example, companies can compete with ethanol producers for credits for renewable fuels (if the carbon used comes from biogas or household waste). The process is also compatible with existing methanol plants that use natural gas or solid waste to produce syngas.

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Producing liquid bio-electrically engineered fuels from CO2

At Frontis Energy we have spent much thought on how to recycle CO2. While high value products such as polymers for medical applications are more profitable, customer demand for such products is too low to recycle CO2 in volumes required to decarbonize our atmosphere to pre-industrial levels. Biofuel, for example from field crops or algae has long been thought to be the solution. Unfortunately, they require too much arable land. On top of their land use, biochemical pathways are too complex to understand by the human brain. Therefore, we propose a different way to quickly reach the target of decarbonizing our planet. The proce­dure begins with a desired target fuel and suggests a mi­crobial consortium to produce this fuel. In a second step, the consortium will be examined in a bio-electrical system (BES).

CO2 can be used for liquid fuel production via multiple pathways. The end product, long-chain alcohols, can be used either directly as fuel or reduced to hydrocarbons. Shown are examples of high level BEEF pathways using CO2 and electricity as input and methane, acetate, or butanol as output. Subsequent processes are 1, aerobic methane oxida­tion, 2, direct use of methane, 3 heterotrophic phototrophs, 4, acetone-butanol fermentation, 5, heterotrophs, 6, butanol di­rect use, 7, further processing by yeasts

Today’s atmospheric CO2 imbalance is a consequence of fossil carbon combus­tion. This real­ity requires quick and pragmatic solutions if further CO2 accu­mulation is to be prevented. Direct air capture of CO2 is moving closer to economic feasibility, avoid­ing the use of arable land to grow fuel crops. Producing combustible fuel from CO2 is the most promis­ing inter­mediate solution because such fuel integrates seamlessly into existing ur­ban in­frastructure. Biofuels have been ex­plored inten­sively in re­cent years, in particular within the emerging field of syn­thetic biol­ogy. How­ever tempt­ing the application of genetically modified or­ganisms (GMOs) ap­pears, non-GMO technology is easier and faster to im­plement as the re­quired microbial strains al­ready exist. Avoiding GMOs, CO2 can be used in BES to produce C1 fu­els like methane and precursors like formic acid or syngas, as well as C1+ com­pounds like ac­etate, 2-oxybut­yrate, bu­tyrate, ethanol, and butanol. At the same time, BES inte­grate well into urban in­frastructure without the need for arable land. However, except for meth­ane, none of these fuels are readily com­bustible in their pure form. While elec­tromethane is a com­mercially avail­able al­ternative to fossil natu­ral gas, its volumetric energy den­sity of 40-80 MJ/m3 is lower than that of gasoline with 35-45 GJ/m3. This, the necessary technical modifications, and the psychological barrier of tanking a gaseous fuel make methane hard to sell to automobilists. To pro­duce liq­uid fuel, carbon chains need to be elongated with al­cohols or better, hy­drocarbons as fi­nal prod­ucts. To this end, syngas (CO + H2) is theoreti­cally a viable option in the Fischer-Tropsch process. In reality, syngas pre­cursors are ei­ther fossil fu­els (e.g. coal, natural gas, methanol) or biomass. While the for­mer is ob­viously not CO2-neu­tral, the latter com­petes for arable land. The di­rect con­version of CO2 and electrolytic H2 to C1+ fuels, in turn, is catalyzed out by elec­troactive microbes in the dark (see title figure), avoid­ing food crop com­petition for sun-lit land. Unfortunately, little re­search has been under­taken beyond proof of con­cept of few electroactive strains. In stark con­trast, a plethora of metabolic studies in non-BES is avail­able. These studies often pro­pose the use of GMOs or complex or­ganic sub­strates as precur­sors. We propose to systemati­cally identify metabolic strategies for liquid bio-electrically engineered fuel (BEEF) production. The fastest approach should start by screening meta­bolic data­bases using es­tablished methods of metabolic modeling, fol­lowed by high throughput hypothesis testing in BES. Since H2 is the intermediate in bio-electrosynthesis, the most efficient strategy is to focus on CO2 and H2 as di­rect pre­cursors with as few in­termediate steps as pos­sible. Scala­bility and energy effi­ciency, eco­nomic feasibil­ity that is, are pivotal elements.

First, an electrotrophic acetogen produces acetate, which then used by heterotrophic algae in a consecutive step.

The biggest obstacle for BEEF production is lacking knowledge about pathways that use CO2 and electrolytic H2. This gap exists despite metabolic data­bases like KEGG and more recently KBase, making metabolic design and adequate BEEF strain selection a guessing game rather than an educated ap­proach. Nonetheless, metabolic tools were used to model fuel pro­duction in single cell yeasts and various prokaryotes. In spite of their shortcomings, metabolic data­bases were also employed to model species interactions, for example in a photo-het­erotroph consor­tium using software like ModelSEED / KBase (http://mod­elseed.org/), RAVEN / KEGG and COBRA. A first sys­tematic at­tempt for BEEF cul­tures produci­ng acetate demonstrated the usability of KBase for BES. This research was a bottom-up study which mapped ex­isting genomes onto existing BEEF consor­tia. The same tool can also be em­ployed in a top-down ap­proach, starting with the desired fuel to find the re­quired or­ganisms. Some possi­ble BEEF organisms are the following.

Possible pathways for BEEF production involving Clostridium, 3, or heterotrophic phototrophs, 7, further processing by yeasts

Yeasts are among the microorganisms with the greatest potential for liquid biofuel production. Baker’s yeast, (Saccha­romyces cerevisiae) is the most promi­nent exam­ple. While known for ethanol fermentat­ion, yeasts also produce fusel oils such as bu­tane, phenyl, and amyl derivate aldehy­des and alco­hols. Unlike ethanol, which is formed via sugar fer­mentation, fusel oil is syn­thesized in branched-off amino acid pathways followed by alde­hyde reduction. Many en­zymes involved in the re­duction of aldehydes have been identified, with al­cohol dehydro­genases be­ing the most commonly ob­served. The corre­sponding reduc­tion reactions require reduced NADH⁠ but it is not known whether H2 pro­duced on cathodes of BES can be in­volved.
Clostridia, for example Clostridium acetobutylicum and C. carboxidivo­rans, can pro­duce alcohols like butanol, isopropanol, hexanol, and ketones like acetone from complex sub­strates (starch, whey, cel­lulose, etc. ) or from syngas. Clostridial me­tabolism has been clarified some time ago and is dif­ferent from yeast. It does not necessar­ily require com­plex precursors for NAD+ reduction and it was shown that H2, CO, and cath­odes can donate elec­trons for alcohol production. CO2 and H2 were used in a GMO clostridium to produce high titers of isobu­tanol. Typi­cal representa­tives for acetate produc­tion from CO2 and H2 are C. ljungdahlii, C. aceticum, and Butyribac­terium methy­lotrophicum. Sporo­musa sphaeroides pro­duces acetate in BES. Clostridia also dominated mixed cul­ture BESs converting CO2 to butyrate. They are therefore prime targets for low cost biofuel production. Alcohols in clostridia are produced from acetyl-CoA. This reaction is re­versible, al­lowing ac­etate to serve as substrate for biofuel production with extra­cellular en­ergy sup­ply. Then, en­ergy con­servation, ATP syn­thesis that is, can be achieved from ethanol electron bifurca­tion or H2 oxida­tion via respi­ration. While pos­sible in anaero­bic clostridia, it is hitherto unknown whether elec­tron bifurca­tion or res­piration are linked to alcohols or ke­tone synthesis.
Phototrophs like Botryococcus produce C1+ biofuels as well. They synthesize a number of different hydro­carbons including high value alkanes and alkenes as well as terpenes. However, high titers were achieved by only means of ge­netic engineering, which is economically not feasible in many countries due to regulatory constrains. Moreover, aldehyde dehy­dration/deformylation to alkanes or alkenes requires molecular oxygen to be present. Also the olefin path­way of Syne­chococcus depends on molecular oxygen with the cytochrome P450 involved in fatty acid de­carboxylation. The presence of molecular oxygen affects BES performance due to immediate product degrada­tion and unwanted cathodic oxygen reduction. In contrast, our own preliminary experi­ments (see title photo) and a corrosion experi­ment show that algae can live in the dark using electrons from a cath­ode. While the en­zymes in­volved in the production of some algal biofuels are known (such as olefin and alde­hyde de­formylation), it is not known whether these pathways are connected to H2 utilization (perhaps via ferredox­ins). Such a con­nection would be a promising indicator for the possibility of growing hydrocar­bon produc­ing cyanobacteria on cathodes of BES and should be examined in future research.
At Frontis Energy we believe that a number of other microorganisms show potential for BEEF production and these deserve further investi­gation. To avoid GMOs, BES compatible co-cultures must be identified via in silico meta­bolic reconstruc­tion from existing databases. Possible inter-species intermediates are unknown but are prerequisite for suc­cessful BES operation. Finally, a techno-economical assessment of BEEF pro­duction, with and with­out car­bon taxes, and compared with chemical methods, will direct future research.

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Mapping Waste-to-Energy

Most readers of our blog know that waste can be easily converted into energy, such as in biogas plants. Biogas, biohydrogen, and biodiesel are biofuels because they are biologically produced by microorganisms or plants. Biofuel facilities are found worldwide. However, nobody knows exactly where these biofuel plants are located and where they can be operated most economically. This knowledge gap hampers market access for biofuel producers.

At least for the United States − the largest market for biofuels − there is now a map. A research team from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) published a detailed analysis of the potential for waste-to-energy in the US in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.

The group focused on liquid biofuels that can be recovered from sewage sludge using the Fischer-Tropsch process. The industrial process was originally developed in Nazi Germany for coal liquefaction, but can also be used to liquefy other organic materials, such as biomass. The resulting oil is similar to petroleum, but contains small amounts of oxygen and water. A side effect is that nutrients, such as phosphate can be recovered.

The research group coupled the best available information on these organic wastes from their database with computer models to estimate the quantities and the best geographical distribution of the potential production of liquid biofuel. The results suggest that the United States could produce more than 20 billion liters of liquid biofuel per year.

The group also found that the potential for liquid biofuel from sewage sludge from public wastewater treatment plants is 4 billion liters per year. This resource was found to be widespread throughout the country − with a high density of sites on the east cost, as well as in the largest cities. Animal manure has a potential for 10 billion liters of liquid biofuel per year. Especially in the Midwest are the largest untapped resources.

The potential for liquid biofuel from food waste also follows the population density. For metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas, New York, etc., the researchers estimate that such waste could produce more than 3 billion liters per year. However, food leftovers also had the lowest conversion efficiency. This is also the biggest criticism of the Fischer-Tropsch process. Plants producing significant quantities of liquid fuel are significantly larger than conventional refineries, consume a lot of energy and produce more CO2 than they save.

Better processes for biomass liquefaction and more efficient use of biomass still remain a challenge for industry and science.

(Photo: Wikipedia)