Energy-dense biofuel from cellulose close to being economical

Jun 04, 2012 by Brian Wallheimer

A new Purdue University-developed process for creating biofuels has shown potential to be cost-effective for production scale, opening the door for moving beyond the laboratory setting.

A Purdue economic analysis shows that the cost of the thermo-chemical H2Bioil method is competitive when crude oil is about $100 per barrel when using certain energy methods to create hydrogen needed for the process. If a federal carbon tax were implemented, the biofuel would become even more economical.

H2Bioil is created when biomass, such as or corn stover, is heated rapidly to about 500 degrees Celcius in the presence of pressurized hydrogen. Resulting gases are passed over catalysts, causing reactions that separate oxygen from , making the carbon molecules high in , similar to gasoline molecules.

The conversion process was created in the lab of Rakesh Agrawal, Purdue's Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering. He said H2Bioil has significant advantages over traditional standalone methods used to create fuels from biomass.

"The process is quite fast and converts entire biomass to ," Agrawal said. "As a result, the yields are substantially higher. Once the process is fully developed, due to the use of external hydrogen, the yield is expected to be two to three times that of the current competing technologies."

The economic analysis, published in the June issue of Biomass Conversion and , shows that the energy source used to create hydrogen for the process makes all the difference when determining whether the is cost-effective. Hydrogen processed using natural gas or coal makes the H2Bioil cost-effective when crude oil is just over $100 per barrel. But hydrogen derived from other, more expensive, energy sources - nuclear, wind or solar - drive up the break-even point.

"We're in the ballpark," said Wally Tyner, Purdue's James and Lois Ackerman Professor of . "In the past, I have said that for biofuels to be competitive, crude prices would need to be at about $120 per barrel. This process looks like it could be competitive when crude is even a little cheaper than that."

Agrawal said he and colleagues Fabio Ribeiro, a Purdue professor of chemical engineering, and Nick Delgass, Purdue's Maxine Spencer Nichols Professor of Chemical Engineering, are working to develop catalysts needed for the H2Bioil conversion processes. The method's initial implementation has worked on a laboratory scale and is being refined so it would become effective on a commercial scale.

"This shows us that the process is viable on a commercial scale," Agrawal said. "We can now go back to the lab and focus on refining and improving the process with confidence."

The model Tyner used assumed that , switchgrass and miscanthus would be the primary feedstocks. The analysis also found that if a federal carbon tax were introduced, driving up the cost of coal and natural gas, more expensive methods for producing hydrogen would become competitive.

"If we had a in the future, the break-even prices would be competitive even for nuclear," Tyner said. "Wind and solar, not yet, but maybe down the road."

The U.S. Department of Energy and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research funded the research. Agrawal and his collaborators received a U.S. patent for the conversion process.

Explore further: Tiny power plants hold promise for nuclear energy

More information: Economic Analysis of Novel Synergistic Biofuel (H2Bioil) Processes, Navneet R. Singh, Dharik S. Mallapragada, Rakesh Agrawal, Wallace E. Tyner, Biomass Conversion and Biorefinery.

Fast-pyrolysis based processes can be built on small-scale and have higher process carbon and energy efficiency as compared to other options. H2Bioil is a novel process based on biomass fast-hydropyrolysis and subsequent hydrodeoxygenation (HDO) and can potentially provide high yields of high energy density liquid fuel at relatively low hydrogen consumption. This paper contains a comprehensive financial analysis of the H2Bioil process with hydrogen derived from different sources. Three different carbon tax scenarios are analyzed: no carbon tax, $55/metric ton carbon tax and $110/metric ton carbon tax. The break-even crude oil price for a delivered biomass cost of $94/metric ton when hydrogen is derived from coal, natural gas or nuclear energy ranges from 103 to 116/bbl for no carbon tax and even lower ($99–$111/bbl) for the carbon tax scenarios. This break-even crude oil price compares favorably with the literature estimated prices of fuels from alternate biochemical and thermochemical routes. The impact of the chosen carbon tax is found to be limited relative to the impact of the H2 source on the H2Bioil break-even price. The economic robustness of the processes for hydrogen derived from coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy is seen by an estimated break-even crude oil price of $114–126/bbl when biomass cost is increased to $121/metric ton.

Related Stories

New biofuels processing method for mobile facilities

Jul 07, 2010

Chemical engineers at Purdue University have developed a new method to process agricultural waste and other biomass into biofuels, and they are proposing the creation of mobile processing plants that would ...

Method makes refineries more efficient

Dec 22, 2009

( -- Refineries could trim millions of dollars in energy costs annually by using a new method developed at Purdue University to rearrange the distillation sequence needed to separate crude petroleum into products.

'Green' gasoline on the horizon?

Jan 13, 2009

University of Oklahoma researchers believe newer, more environmentally friendly fuels produced from biomass could create alternative energy solutions and alleviate dependence on foreign oil without requiring changes to current ...

Recommended for you

Obama launches measures to support solar energy in US

6 hours ago

The White House Thursday announced a series of measures aimed at increasing solar energy production in the United States, particularly by encouraging the installation of solar panels in public spaces.

Tailored approach key to cookstove uptake

7 hours ago

Worldwide, programs aiming to give safe, efficient cooking stoves to people in developing countries haven't had complete success—and local research has looked into why.

Wireless power transfer achieved at five-meter distance

7 hours ago

The way electronic devices receive their power has changed tremendously over the past few decades, from wired to non-wired. Users today enjoy all kinds of wireless electronic gadgets including cell phones, ...

User comments : 11

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (2) Jun 04, 2012
Why care about the economic comparison to Oil, what matters is the energy balance. what is the conversion efficiency of the BTU's in the biomass (including the energy necessary to farm, harvest and transport the crop) and the conversion process itself vs the usable BTU's of the end result fuel. You also have to factor in the cost of transporting the fuel to the people who might use it. Oil needs no energy subsidy to work, just an economic one to encourage the endeavor.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 04, 2012
Seems like it'd go well next to a nuke plant. Plenty of heat and H2 (from water electrolyzed) to spare.

2.1 / 5 (7) Jun 04, 2012
Shale Gas is much, much cheaper. The question is, which is cheaper. Converting NG to liquid fuel or using NG corn stover (which is fed to cows some of the time).

"Royal Dutch Shell RDSA 0.29% PLC is considering building a giant plant in Louisiana
that would convert natural gas into diesel fuel, several people familiar with the company's plans said.

The plant, which could cost more than $10 billion, would be similar in size to Shell's Pearl gas-to-liquids facility in the Mideast nation of Qatar, the people said. Pearl, which went into operation last June, turns natural gas into enough diesel to fill more than 160,000 cars a day."

3.4 / 5 (5) Jun 04, 2012
Oil does need subsidies, and it gets them by the billions or trillions. Free use of land or ridiculously low royalties, tax credits, diplomatic support for foreign development, etc. Plus, all of our transportation infrastructure is optimized for use of fossil fuels, so there's trillions in hidden subsidies there, too.
2 / 5 (4) Jun 04, 2012
This is good, some applications just cant do it with renewable energy and need dense oils. Also we still have a backup to go too when something goes wrong. But the ultimate goal is still hydro/solar/wind/geothermal/pyrolesis.
3.3 / 5 (7) Jun 04, 2012
Oil does need subsidies, and it gets them by the billions or trillions. Free use of land or ridiculously low royalties, tax credits, diplomatic support for foreign development, etc. Plus, all of our transportation infrastructure is optimized for use of fossil fuels, so there's trillions in hidden subsidies there, too.

Not in the real world.

3 / 5 (4) Jun 05, 2012
Oil does need subsidies, and it gets them by the billions or trillions. Free use of land or ridiculously low royalties, tax credits, diplomatic support for foreign development, etc. Plus, all of our transportation infrastructure is optimized for use of fossil fuels, so there's trillions in hidden subsidies there, too.

1. Free use of land where? On someone else's private land i wouldn't be sure of that. Maybe on public land.

2. Oil companies get tax credits just like my business and i'm a rancher. Businesses using tax credits can keep their earned money in the form of new capital. At the end of the year, oil companies only make a 10% net return compared to most technology companies making a 30% return.

3. Yes our infrastructure is built for oil because oil is the most scalable. The EROI for oil is still far more favorable than anything else. A lot of biofuels react with gasoline lines because biofuels typically have more water than energy content.
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 05, 2012
This is bad news for the Oil industry. No wonder ParkerTard and CapitalismHasFailed are against it.
3 / 5 (2) Jun 05, 2012
Cheap energy, like a cheap whore, have their side effects.

"Shale Gas is much, much cheaper." - ParkerTard

ParkerTard either thinks he is immune, or is already suffering.

Perhaps this explains his mental state.
2 / 5 (4) Jun 05, 2012
Cheap energy, like a cheap whore, have their side effects.

You may be an expert in the latter, but this is the second time you've tried to discuss prostitution on a science site.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 05, 2012
Oh ParkieTard... What do you have against prostitution? After all, it is sacred Libertarian Commerce. Especially Child Prostitution.

More news stories

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

( —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Researchers discover target for treating dengue fever

Two recent papers by a University of Colorado School of Medicine researcher and colleagues may help scientists develop treatments or vaccines for Dengue fever, West Nile virus, Yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and other ...