Monday, July 17, 2006

Syntec Set to Commercialize Biomass-to-Ethanol Gasification/Synthesis Process

Syntec Biofuels, a spin-off from the University of British Columbia, is gearing up to enter the second-generation biofuels market with a set of proprietary catalysts that produce ethanol from the syngas resulting from the gasification of biomass, according to Green Car Congress [GCC].

Established as a research company at the University in 2001, Syntec was recently acquired by NetCo Investments, which promptly changed its name to Syntec Biofuels, GCC reports.

In 2004, Syntec filed a patent for its first ethanol catalyst, which contained precious metals. The company expects to file a second patent for its commercial variant - based on non-precious metals - by year’s end. In parallel, Syntec Biofuel will commission its first bioreactor for the production of bio-methanol - a facility that will utilize the same production methodology as its biomass-to-ethanol process. This will also serve as a test bed for commercial-scale testing of Syntec’s proprietary ethanol catalyst, while generating revenue for the company from the production of bio-methanol.

Syntec’s process consists of a thermochemical conversion of synthesis gas (syngas) into ethanol in a bioreactor containing a catalyst. Syngas is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be derived from any carbonaceous material including: natural gas, coal bed methane, landfill gas, digester gas and biomass gasification.

The production process is similar to modern day methanol & GTL (gas-to-liquid) production processes; the key differentiating factors are the catalysts and their operating parameters. (The process is also similar to the gasification-based biomass-to-ethanol process being developed and commercialized by BRI Energy [see this GCC post for more]. BRI's process uses a specially tailored microorganism that eats the syngas and produces ethanol as a byproduct.)

Syntec believes that its patented technology will provide it with the leading production process for achieving high ethanol yields from biomass and it expects its costs to be much lower than those of conventional ethanol fermentation processes that use sugar and starch crops as feedstocks.

Relatively few studies have been done on selective catalytic synthesis of ethanol from syngas, according to Syntec. Moreover, it is the lack of selective ethanol catalysts and poor conversion ratios that have prevented the commercial realization of chemical production of ethanol according to the company.

Syntec anticipates that once perfected, its catalyst will enable the ethanol industry to use this well established chemical process to obtain production and efficiency metrics beyond what traditional grain based fermentation processes can offer.

Unlike bacteria, enzyme, and acid or other solvent-based processes which are usually particular about their feedstock, the Syntec’s low-pressure thermochemical process can use a wide variety of feedstocks, given appropriate modifications in the syngas production step.

These gasification-based biomass-to-ethanol process are very promising, in my opinion, as they offer very high yields, co-produce a considerable amount of electricity, and are tolerant of a variety of feedstocks (with a bit of tweaking to the preprocessing stage).

Gasification-based processes are emerging as the second main type of biomass-to-ethanol processes, with fermentation-based processes - such as the one being commercialized by Iogen - being the other main variety. Which wins out in the end will be a question the next five-ten or so years will decide...

[A hat tip to Green Car Congress]

1 comment:

Lalitt Kr Bhanndari said...

I also think the thermochemical route will be the most economical and using wide variety of feedstock as comparead to chemical route processes. It has further advantage that most of the equipment are commercially well accepted and available.The only thing which is to be proved is the economical catalyst and achieving the desired yields to make it cost competetive to the conventional processes.

I would like to know in detail about the new catalyst that has been developed by Syntec in contrast to their precious metal catalyst which is uneconomical. I would also like to know about when the company is starting their bio-methanol production facility with this new catalyst and what will be economics of producing bio-methanol from this process.

Please let me know about the patent status of the the new catalyst.