Any Biomass into Oil

I have mentioned LS9 here on several occasions, because I think what they are trying to do is pretty cool. They are trying to engineer bacteria that can consume biomass and excrete hydrocarbons. I have said before that I think someone will crack this problem sooner or later.

Then today I just ran across this story:

Anything that grows ‘can convert into oil’

Company finds natural solution that turns plants into gasoline

After three years of clandestine development, a Georgia company is now going public with a simple, natural way to convert anything that grows out of the Earth into oil. J.C. Bell, an agricultural researcher and CEO of Bell Bio-Energy, says he’s isolated and modified specific bacteria that will, on a very large scale, naturally change plant material – including the leftovers from food – into hydrocarbons to fuel cars and trucks.

“What we’re doing is taking the trash like corn stalks, corn husks, corn cobs – even grass from the yard that goes to the dump – that’s what we can turn into oil,” Bell told WND. “I’m not going to make asphalt, we’re only going to make the things we need. We’re going to make gasoline for driving, diesel for our big trucks.”

The agricultural researcher made the discovery after standing downwind from his cows at his food-production company, Bell Plantation, in Tifton, Ga.” Cows are like people that eat lots of beans. They’re really, really good at making natural gas,” he said. “It dawned on me that that natural gas was methane.”

Bell says he wondered what digestive process inside a cow enabled it to change food into the hydrocarbon molecules of methane, so he began looking into replicating and speeding up the process.”Through genetic manipulation, we’ve changed the naturally occurring bacteria, so they eat and consume biomass a little more efficiently,” he said. “It works. There’s not even any debate that it works. It really is an all-natural, simple process that cows use on a daily basis.”

Is it for real? Hard to say. The concept is not science fiction. This is not that far removed from what I worked on in graduate school. Cows utilize microbes in their stomachs that break down cellulose into organic acids like acetic, propionic, and butyric acid. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the bacteria could be tweaked to produce butane instead of butyric acid.

However, longer chain hydrocarbons are going to be more difficult. It will take more than minor tweaks (IMO) to get rumen microbes to produce something like gasoline or oil. Long chain acids are produced, but in very low concentrations. Even if they got hydrocarbons produced instead of acids, the hydrocarbons in the gasoline range would be of very low concentration. I also find it a bit odd that “it dawned on him that natural gas was methane.” That’s not really a comment I expect to hear from someone on the cutting edge of biofuel research.

The article mentions a patent – presumably pending – but I have spent half an hour searching for it at the USPTO site without any luck. If anyone runs across it, let me know. That will give me a better idea of whether this is more like TDP – in that very big promises were made that never materialized – or whether there is actually something to this.

26 thoughts on “Any Biomass into Oil”

  1. This does not sound like it has knowledgeable researchers behind it, as you imply. Anaerobic digestion has been used for decades in the wastewater industry to convert sludge into biogas (methane and carbon dioxide, with a few nasties at lower levels). The technology exists. The biogas could be cleaned up and converted into a liquid fuel using all conventional technology.

    In general, I doubt we’ll see GM bugs used to produce fuel. GM bugs usually can’t compete with wild type. This means you have to sterilize the feedstock to keep the competition out. Fine if you are producing pharmaceuticals. OK if you are producing food. Not cost effective if you are making fuel.

    It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the bacteria could be tweaked to produce butane instead of butyric acid.
    More likely propane via:
    CH3-(CH2)2-COOH -> CH3-CH2-CH3 + CO2.

    And “tweaking” to get gasoline is not going to be simple. First, we are talking about inventing entirely new metabolic pathways. Anybody familiar with existing metabolic pathways will be skeptical. Also, the bug would need to be immune from the effect of high levels of hydrocarbons.

    A gasification system can achieve the same thing much easier, faster and get close to 100% conversion. I don’t see LS9 competing with that, cool tech or not.

  2. He expects to have the first pilot plant for the process running within two to three months, and will operate it for a year to collect engineering data to design full-scale production facilities. He thinks the larger facilities will be producing oil “inside the next two years.”

    I guess we wait 6 months and see what happens. But like you, I am highly skeptical.

  3. I hate to be the bearer of bad news for all of this, but making long chain hydrocarbons (LCHs) from microorganisms is not going to happen in the short or even the medium term. It will be a long time before it’s a viable process let alone economical.

    The main problem is TOXICITY to the cells, specifically binding and adhesion to the cell wall. When you look at the toxicity to the cells, whether we’re talking bacteria or yeast, they can only withstand very very low concentrations making them uncompetitive against yeast producing Ethanol. Though regardless, even if you could produce LCHs at the same efficiency as ethanol, you are constrained by the amount of available sugars (specifically glucose from corn, or sucrose from sugarcane). Just like producing ethanol from glucose, even if you took all the available sugars produced in the US and produced LCHs it is still a small % of the total used each year. If you try and do it from cellulosic material (cellulose/hemi-cellulose) you have an entire new set of problems to overcome, especially if you do the above process in yeast.

  4. Hi Robert,

    I was wondering what your thoughts are on the potential of pyrolysis oil. For those unfamiliar this is the unrefined liquid tar that results from a fast pyrolysis process.

    The advantages are that the conversion processes work (scalability is TBD), biooil is easier to transport, and it’s possible to perform pyrolysis local to biomass sources for improved energy density leading to better transportation economics.

    The disadvantages seems to be the high acidity (requiring corrosion proof storage tanks), instability over time (viscosity), contamination with solids such as char and ash, and current upgrading (cracking) challenges.

    New Hampshire has hired independent consultants to look at the potential of bio oil based on their wood wastes. The conclusion as of a few years ago was that it wasn’t going to work.

    References:
    http://www.nh.gov/oep/programs/energy/documents/PyrolysisOilBio-RefineryReport.pdf

    http://www.nh.gov/oep/programs/energy/documents/nhbio-oilopportunityanalysis.pdf

    In spite of this negative results I’ve noticed that a number of leading university groups continue to performing very interesting research in developing methods for extracting, upgrading and refining pyrolysis oil. Some have obtained improved results in terms of process efficiency, as well as improved product (less acidic and low solid content bio-oil without additional refining), and mobile pyrolysis systems for distibuted conversion.

    http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/biochar/WCSS2006/Brown%20presentation.pdf

    However the 2-3 commercial companies who are regularly touted as having pyrolsys oil capabilities including Dynamotive and Ensyn have yet to have a full scale commercial plant after several years of existence.

    And yet the following paper by a member of the IEA Bioenergy Task Force seems bullish on the long term market for Bio-oil. Note that this report does not consider storage remedies as onerous as the previous one. I’ve heard that at least one company has developed an inexpensive HDPE liner for tanks that would work.

    http://j.delavegal.googlepages.com/BioOilMarkets.pdf

    There also seems to be similar amount of research on bio-oil upgrading, including by companies including UOP.

    http://www.thermalnet.co.uk/docs/2FB%20Bridgwater%20Bio-oil%20upgrading.pdf

    http://www.ars.usda.gov/sp2UserFiles/Program/307/biomasstoDiesel/RobertBrown&JenniferHolmgrenpresentationslides.pdf

    Is this problem of bio-oil upgrading as challenging as the cellulosic ethanol problem? Are developing scalable catalysts as difficult? Does the existing petrocracking infrastructure work in its favor? Is the rate of innovation for pyrolysis/gasification technologies moving any faster than other biomass conversion technologies?

    As you’ve previously posted Kior seems to be addressing this as well (they supposedly have a partnership with Petrobras for refining). Although it seems their results are currently very small scale.

    Given the amount of funding and companies in other areas (ethanol, biodiesel), I’m surprised a larger commercial effort hasn’t been expending on a distributed pyrolysis and centralized refining model. Especially if bio-oil has the potential to become the transport and commodity trading medium of choice.

    westside.account@gmail.com

  5. I have actually written on bio-oil here before:

    BioOil Gains Traction

    I think bio-oil is very under-rated (as you seem to think as well), but has a lot of potential. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if efforts to commercialize are successful.

    Cheers, RR

  6. The main problem is TOXICITY to the cells, specifically binding and adhesion to the cell wall.

    On the other hand, since they are water insoluble at very low levels, the concentrations wouldn’t build up much before they phase out of solution. To me that’s the beauty of it, and why it is worthwile to research this area.

    I came to much the same conclusion when looking at higher chain alcohols: They are very toxic to the microbes. But a big prize awaits anyone who can solve the problem. As I have written about LS9, this is Holy Grail type stuff, but the odds are definitely long.

  7. Wow.. quoting from World Net Daily. You should have written on last week’s article, “Cars run on water: Miracle or scam?”, but why run your car on water, oil is abiotic.

    It would be nice if this were something of value, but it’s just anaerobic digestion and hype from a tabloid. It looks like it’s all about selling peanut butter. What exactly is an Agricultural Researcher? Would that be a farmer with a peanut butter website and a realization that when stuff rots it produces methane?

    The problem with biomass->fuel at anything past the recycling scale isn’t the chemistry, it’s dealing with the logistics of biomass transport.

  8. Wow.. quoting from World Net Daily.

    You know, it did sound quite a bit like the Weekly World News – the one where stories of alien abductions and mutant babies are splattered across the front page.

    Looking at those other articles, though, I suspect the story is BS. I think it would have been clear had I found the patent application, but it didn’t look to me like he has filed a patent application.

    The sad thing is that these kinds of stories are the norm: Someone is convinced they have invented some revolutionary new method of producing energy. The signal to noise ratio is probably 1 to 1000.

    RR

  9. The guy running PESWiki and Free Energy News is doing really well from Adsense after working at it for 3 years. They don’t discriminate against ideas following the laws of thermodynamics, they just post whatever comes down the pipe. It actually is a pretty good resource if you ignore the “noise”.

    It’s the same with Slashdot, The Oil Drum and TreeHugger. There is lots of good information and news on those sites, but you cannot forget the owners are running a tabloid and thrive on sensationalism, fringe and controversy.

    Actually… that’s why I show up here and disagree with everything you say. πŸ˜‰

  10. The sad thing is that these kinds of stories are the norm: Someone is convinced they have invented some revolutionary new method of producing energy.

    And when it proves unworkable, “big oil” gets the blame for its untimely demise or is somehow involved in a


    conspiracy to keep it off the market.

    BTW – I am using the 300 mpg carburetor for a footrest.

  11. Biomass to longer chain hydrocarbons strikes me as a step backward. The H2 to C ratio of those fuels is close to 2 to 1. Producing natural gas, methanol, or ethanol from biomass results in a fuel with a H2 to C ratio of 4 to 1, much cleaner.

    I think methanol might emerge as the fuel of choice. It has some toxicity and envirnomental issues, but it can be made easily from either biomass or coal. It is a great liquid transport fuel and can even be used in combined cycle gas turbines.

  12. DKRW – those would be the ex-Enron guys?

    Once you have methanol you could make it into a lot of things. But you would have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on the FT synthesis step to arrive at either gasoline or diesel. Methanol is just as good as gasoline in a flex fuel vehicle at less CO2 per mile.

  13. Biomass to longer chain hydrocarbons strikes me as a step backward. The H2 to C ratio of those fuels is close to 2 to 1. Producing natural gas, methanol, or ethanol from biomass results in a fuel with a H2 to C ratio of 4 to 1, much cleaner.
    Couple of things to note:
    1. Biogas is ~50:50 mix of CH4 & CO2. So taking everything into account, you have not changed the H:C ratio from the 2 in the feedstock. Unless you add hydrogen, that is not going change due to the fermentation route or biochemical pathway you choose.
    2. If the C is renewable (i.e. it was CO2 before being fixed by a plant growing recently) the process is carbon neutral and H:C ratio is irrelevant. We can have a field day arguing about the definition of recently, I know.
    3. Hydrocarbons have many beneficial properties which leads me to believe they will continue to be the fuel of choice, regardless of the success or failure of biofuels.

  14. Pure methanol (M100) will likely never be accepted as a motor fuel, due to the flammability hazard and low energy density.

    The Methanol-to-Gasoline (MtG) process was not developed by Enron or DKRW. It came from Mobil’s German R&D in the 1970s. It is not an FT process. It is a low-pressure process that uses an inexpensive zeolite catalyst.

    Optimist is right, hydrocarbon fuels are tough to beat.

  15. WND = Wing Nut Daily

    I thought everyone knew that!

    Of course, methane doesn’t smell, it’s the sulphur compounds that cause the smell. This has all the hallmarks of a scam: cute discovery story, magic technology, elusive patent. Sorry, it just doesn’t pass the smell test πŸ˜‰

  16. Then, there is also this!
    I’ve seen the pictures of it.

    Plasma gasifier turns landfill gas to ethanol (03/25/2008)
    Jenny Mandel, ClimateWire reporter

    Consider the potential uses of the “plasma enhanced melter.” It sounds like a weapon from Star Trek for zapping alien life forms.

    But Daniel Cohn, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist involved with the research behind it, says PEM technology is a solution for turning an odious waste with intense emissions into a liquid fuel that can displace them. How does he do this? By zapping municipal and hazardous trash.

    Cohn’s company, InEnTec, has patented a process for disposing of household, medical and hazardous wastes by plasma gasification. The material is super-heated to 1,200 degrees Celsius with a small amount of oxygen, vaporizing it into synthesis gas, a useful mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that can be turned into liquid fuels like ethanol.

    Waste that survives this process is superheated in an electrified plasma that is supposed to do away with any remaining organic components and spits out metals in one stream and inorganic substances, including toxic ones, in another lava-like stream that cools into inert lumps of glass.

    Unlike incineration, in which waste is burned and toxic components can escape into the air and remain in bulky waste ash, Cohn says plasma gasification controls those materials, reducing them into solids that can be easily handled. He hopes the glass will find a use in road paving surfaces. The process grew in part from research carried out at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and draws on the strategy of locking up low-level nuclear waste by vitrifying it into glass logs.

    Cohn said the basic process was developed about 10 years ago, and since that time he has been working to get capital to build plants that the company would own and operate. He blames the delay in large part on resistance to change in the waste industry, as well as distrust of the technology because it seems similar to incineration, which has not lived up to its early promise.
    Dow Corning buys it, but will small municipalities?

    Today, Cohn prefers to compare gasification with the production of second-generation biofuels. In contrast to making ethanol from switchgrass or corn stover, he points out, the plasma gasification process is fully proven and, because he can collect the tipping fees that would otherwise be paid to a landfill for disposal, the process is commercially viable today at about $1 per gallon.

    Last October, officials with Dow Corning Corp. announced they would use the system at a Midland, Mich., plant. The gasifier, slated to come online this year, will recycle chorine for the manufacture of chlorosilanes and is expected to reduce the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent and its total emissions by 75 percent, while generating fuel to displace 400 billion British thermal units of natural gas usage per year.

    Cohn is optimistic that seeing gasification adopted by a big commercial user will give others the confidence to try it. He says the system exceeds U.S. and Japanese standards for cleaning up PCBs, effectively removes mercury and dioxin from waste streams and is certified in Texas as a recycling technology. Now, he is aiming to convince several small municipalities — of about 20,000 people each — to make deals on modular units that would vaporize their municipal waste.

    Despite the system’s novelty, Cohn downplays the risks associated with such a change. “We like to think it’s a clever combination of existing technologies,” he said.

  17. The 4 founders of DKRW are all ex-Enron. They appear to be just project developers.

    M85 is more likely than M100. I think it would be a good fuel particularly for urban environments where the decreased range wouldn’t be as much an issue.

    As for the 4-1 H-C, that is after the CO2 is removed from the biogas or syngas. Fuel derived from biological sources would be better, but regardless of source the higher H-C ratio the better and less CO2 generated.

    I’m just saying that M85 is a perfectly good transportation fuel. All fuels have some undesireable properties. Methanol can be made cheaply from a wide variety of sources.

    If the XOM MTG process produces on-spec gasoline with a single reactor that wouldn’t add to much in cost, that might change my mind about.

  18. “What we’re doing is taking the trash like corn stalks, corn husks, corn cobs – even grass from the yard that goes to the dump – that’s what we can turn into oil.”

    OK, but what about the expense farmers will incur to replace this organic material? Farmers are already reeling at current fertilizer prices.

    But that’s not all. Collecting and trucking the feedstock to a biomass-into-oil plant requires a lot of fuel. Can the plant produce enough hydrocarbons to fuel the trucks that collect and transport its feedstock, and still come out ahead? If not, it’s just another operation subsidized by fossil fuels.

  19. On the other hand, since they are water insoluble at very low levels, the concentrations wouldn’t build up much before they phase out of solution. To me that’s the beauty of it, and why it is worthwile to research this area.

    I came to much the same conclusion when looking at higher chain alcohols: They are very toxic to the microbes. But a big prize awaits anyone who can solve the problem. As I have written about LS9, this is Holy Grail type stuff, but the odds are definitely long.

    Thanks for replying Robert, I have to say I disagree with you regarding the benefits gained due to the ability to phase into an organic phase. There are two problems unfortunately, firstly you have to actually get the LCHs out of the cell, which is the difficult step given how well they bind to the cell wall (try and change the cell wall and you mess with the viscosity of the membrane leading to leakage or locking in of other inhibitory molecules) and secondly while the LCHs will mostly phase out, there will still be a small amount left in the aqueous phase which will inhibit the cell, especially when you consider the amount of LCHs you will need to produce in a fermentation to compete on a productivity basis against ethanol. You can see this in experiments with E.coli and yeast where they have added LCHs into the medium over the course of the experiment and measured the growth rate. If it totally phased out there would be no inhibition but there is so the fact alone that the LCHs will phase out is not enough.

    As for the ability to do the above, I don’t agree that the prize is actually that significant apart from having a certain coolness factor of being able to produce LCHs in microorganisms on an industrial scale. When you actually look at the energy yield of LCHs versus ethanol you see that really, the additional yield in BTU is minor and that’s considering that you can have the same yield and productivity as producing ethanol.

    As an experiment if we just look at the yield of ethanol vs a LCH in BTUs per mole glucose consumed you see how minor the difference is.

    Theoretically, for every 2 moles of glucose you get 4 moles of ethanol (5231BTU total w/ 1L ethanol=22400BTU) compared to 1 mole of octane (5482BTU w/ 1L octane=33600BTU). An increase of 5%. This does not take into consideration the fact that cells with higher tolerance (needed for resisting LCHs) actually consume more sugar to maintain that tolerance.

    Now these companies are trying to produce different molecules which do not inhibit the cells as much and have a higher BTU yield per mole of glucose ,but really, the energy yield difference with ethanol is not jaw-dropping. Given the constraints of producing ethanol (lack of available sugar to significantly displace oil usage/ability to properly ferment cellulose/hemi-cellulose) and the fact that those same constraints (bar the energy required during ethanol extraction step) pertain to LCH production, it’s not really that great an increase. If you consider using sucrose instead of glucose, where you can use the energy created from burning the bagasse, you minimize the need to generate heat from gas to do the ethanol extraction which makes LCHs versus ethanol even less advantageous. This all takes into consideration that you can get the same yield which I don’t think is possible, at least not anytime soon.

    If anything one solution may be to produce vegetable oils which are the least inhibitory to the cell, such as oleyl alcohol or PPG1200. Unfortunately you still are only getting a mild increase in energy yield per mole glucose, though there is no guarantee you can even produce these molecules in the first place.

  20. As for the ability to do the above, I don’t agree that the prize is actually that significant…

    Ah, but you change the separation from a distillation to a phase separation – saving much energy in the process. That is the prize; not the difference in BTUs in the product. There will be a big difference in the net BTUs because of the distillation savings.

  21. Ah, but you change the separation from a distillation to a phase separation – saving much energy in the process. That is the prize; not the difference in BTUs in the product. There will be a big difference in the net BTUs because of the distillation savings.

    This is only the case when you use glucose as a carbon source. In reality, sucrose is the better carbon source, if only because the intermediate heat generated from burning the bagasse (which you can’t deliver to the grid anyway and is wasted otherwise) constitutes the energy input into the distillation step. Due to this, you eliminate the energy difference in the extraction step between producing ethanol vs LCHs, thus drawing us back to the issue that producing LCHs isn’t that much better than producing ethanol without taking into consideration the toxicity issue.

  22. In reality, sucrose is the better carbon source, if only because the intermediate heat generated from burning the bagasse…

    This isn’t so much a glucose/sucrose issue. You can get process heat from corn cobs, for example, which are easy to collect and transport alongside the grain. POET claims their “cellulosic” plant in Emmettsburg, Iowa will use something like 90% less fossil fuel. I’m pretty convinced that reduction comes from burning cob, and the cellulosic technology is just a sideshow to qualify for grant money.

  23. As for the 4-1 H-C, that is after the CO2 is removed from the biogas or syngas. Fuel derived from biological sources would be better, but regardless of source the higher H-C ratio the better and less CO2 generated.
    LOL! King, you are kidding, right?

    Let’s see, you propose to:
    1. Produce biogas.
    2. Separate out the CO2 and presumably release it.
    3. Take credit for the H: C ratio of 4 in the remaining product – as long as you ignore the CO2 released in step #2.

    Snap out of it, man! This is the kind of manure you get from hydrogen supporters.

  24. I have been closely monitoring the developments at Bell Bio-Energy, Inc. They have recently put up their web site. At last we have more detail about possibly the most important discovery in alternative energy ever.

    I believe that it is of crucial importance information about their work be spread immediately everywhere. . If they are successful we will be able at one stroke to sever once and for all our dependence on foreign oil.

    EVERYONE, please go to: http://www.bellbioenergy.com. For those who specialize in biochemistry and energy from Biomass, pay particular attention to their FAQ section. There you will find out specific details on how they intend to convert literally “Anything that grows” into oil.

    VLDdeSan:

    vldiaz@san.rr.com

  25. Hi Robert,
    Thank you for your blog; I learn something new at every visit.

    Bell Bio-Energy is back in the news:
    World Net Daily
    http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=72275
    "Bell Bio-Energy, Inc. says it has reached an agreement with the U.S. Defense Department to build seven test production plants, mostly on military bases, to quickly turn naturally grown material into fuel…"

    Did you ever locate their patent for review?
    Regards,
    Lois D.

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