The Perfect Biofuel is Round the Corner

The Perfect Biofuel
The Perfect Biofuel is Round the Corner 

-Chetna Joshi

While addressing the members of the PM Council on Climate Change the PM Modi earlier this year said: “India looks at the climate change-related concerns as an opportunity for working towards improving the quality of life of its citizens and making a positive contribution for mankind”.

A closer look into the green technologies developed in a decade globally to fight climate change vouch for the fact that climatic concerns can indeed be an opportunity.

Technological developments in liquid biofuel production may prove a very good example of it. Our perception of liquid biofuel for transportation mostly runs around bioethanol and biodiesel. Many are even aware that biofuel production technologies have grown beyond and the fourth generation of biofuels have knocked on the door with the name of ‘Drop-in Fuels’. In simplest terms drop-in fuels are the fuels produced from biomass but chemically akin to conventional fossil fuels which are also made from biomass. To make fossil fuels Nature took millennia but for the new technologies, the production of drop-in fuels is just a matter of a few hours or even less.

Let’s have a look in the chemistry of fuels to understand it. The gasoline, diesel or jet fuels of fossil origin are a mix of different hydrocarbon compounds. It means that carbon and hydrogen exclusively join hands for making these chemicals. The same hydrocarbons also constitute drop-in fuels. The chemical similarity between the two is the most crucial thing as this empowers drop-in fuels with similar physical properties as fossil fuels.

This allows drop-in fuels to replace fossil fuels up to any extent in an engine structured to run exclusively on fossil fuels and still travel smooth. For me, it means that I can right away start fuelling my car with drop-in fuels without adjusting its engine according to the new combination of fuels. This ease is extraordinary. It is missing when we go for traditional biofuel like bioethanol which is chemically different from fossil fuels and where its introduction in the fuel mix beyond 15%means huge expenditure on engine modifications.

One of such fuel production technologies that caught my attention is developed by Fulcrum Bioenergy, a California based company. They use the organic part of the municipal solid waste (MSW) which traditionally goes to the landfills to make fuel. High temperature is applied to the waste to convert it into magical Synthesis Gas which is a mixture of carbon mono oxide and hydrogen. Subsequently, Synthesis Gas is subjected to a very famous process called ‘Fischer Tropsch’ named after the scientists who discovered it in 1925. The final outcome is a liquid that is further processed into diesel and jet fuels.

The cost to produce one gallon of fuel this way is less than a dollar. The company plans to turn the garbage of 1 million people into 30 million gallons of drop-in fuel per year. It means that the technology promises to address two issues, first the gigantic problem of solid waste management in the cities and the other the issue of feed stock for biofuel as allocating fertile land for growing fuel crops does not appear justified in a world running short of fertile land for growing crops for feeding its people.

The first big commercial plant based on technology will best rating in 2017. Waste service providers of the area will be providing MSW feed stock. Sensing the great value of waste the company is selecting the future production sites all nearby high population areas as they offer garbage generously.

Waste is new gold. Solena biofuels is another company turning waste into drop-in fuels. The non-recyclable urban wastes such as garbage to wood waste to agriculture wastes all can be turned into Synthesis Gas in Solena’s factory, all because of the virtue of the heat source they use. Their heat source ‘Plasma Torches’see no difference between the different cellulosic wastes and treat all of them equally. In the next step the mighty ‘Fischer Tropsch’ process follows.

The company is developing a project with British Airways‘Green sky London project’. The plan is to build a facility to convert 575 thousand tonnes of post-recycled waste into 120 thousand tonnes of clean-burning liquid fuels per year. Much of the fuel produced in the facility will be bought by British Airways.

There are so many companies working to produce drop-in fuels. Their technologies differ so as the feedstock. One of the interesting technologies is being developed by Amyris Biotechnologies. The company is making use of synthetic biology which is an infant branch of Biology. In synthetic biology, organisms are looked at as living factories. Just as we can change the machinery of a factory, in synthetic biology the internal machinery of the organisms are altered. This simply means that the organisms are genetically modified. They obey their altered machinery, respond to our requirements and produce the products we desire.

Amyris has changed the metabolic route that yeasts take to digest sugars. This means that their pet yeasts process sugars differently from the normal yeasts. They are grown in sugarcane syrup. The yeasts digest it and produce hydrocarbon farnesene. A milestone reached when last year Brazil permitted the use of diesel with 10% farnesene in the buses of Sao Paulo and Rio De Janerio. However, a major technical milestone yet to attain is to run the process with sugars coming from waste cellulosic resources instead of sugarcane syrup and enhance the worth of the process manifold.

There is a number of other technologies at different stages of development. Many of them are focussed on algae. But large scale commercialization of drop-in fuel production technologies is still an uphill task. Despite it is certain that a new era of green renewable drop-in fuels has already come.

This is good for India as the country is now investing in the need-based technological developments. The garbage management is already creating havoc here. This combines with climate change concerns are calling for speedy initiatives in this field.

Chetna Joshi:

At present Chetna works on climate change and environment related issues. Being a biofuel enthusiast she keeps an eye on the related developments worldwide and regularly posts about it in her blog. She has an experimental understanding of related areas andinher doctoral research at the Indian Institute of technology (IIT Delhi) she worked on biodegradation of toxins of Jatropha seed cake, a waste generated when Jatropha is targeted for getting oil for biodiesel production.Chetna has published on this issue in the journals of international repute.