Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday June 6th, 2014, 8:03pm

Renewable Gasoline From Wood: A Transportation Fuel Of The Future?

An innovative process to convert wood waste directly into renewable, high-octane gasoline has been developed successfully at the Des Plaines-based Gas Technology Institute (GTI), a non-profit that researches and develops energy technologies.

The recently-developed technology was crafted over a four-year period at GTI's gasification campus as part of a public-private pilot project supported by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) integrated biorefineries program.

At GTI's pilot plant, some 700 tons of woody biomass, such as mill and logging residue, were gasified and about 10,000 gallons of gasoline were produced.

"Gasification has a very checkered past," explained Jim Patel, president of the California-based biomass gasification company Carbona Corporation, a partner of the DOE-backed project. "People have made promises of gasification technology but (there have not been) too many successes. Here, we've proved that gasification works. We can clean up the gas, and the gas can be converted into gasoline." 

Leaders with the project say the use of renewable-based gasoline has the potential to reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change, by approximately 92 percent compared to conventional gasoline. They also say the woody biomass-based gasoline could potentially be produced commercially for a wholesale price of less than $3 a gallon. 

Reuben Sarkar, deputy assistant secretary for transportation at the DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said the department is focused on several goals: cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020, reducing net oil imports by 50 percent by 2020 and creating new jobs through clean energy. 

"This project achieves all of those things, with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions above and beyond fossil fuels, and doing it at a commercial scale," he said.

Those behind the effort say the newly-developed process of thermochemically converting woody biomass into gasoline is now ready to be scaled up to a commercial-sized production plant. But don't expect to see the renewable transportation fuel appear at the pump anytime soon.

Building a large-scale plant to produce this type of transportation fuel has an estimated price tag of $750 million. 

"To make that type of investment, the private industry needs some assurance of what the government policies are going to be (in) 10 years, 15 years, 20 years," Patel said. "So that's one of the things that has to be overcome" before the gasoline would be likely to hit the market. 

GTI is located in Illinois' 8th congressional district, represented by U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D), who took a tour of the facility's gasification campus Friday afternoon.

"The capacity to do this research and do this development is here," Duckworth stressed. "This is just one project, and I hope to try to fight and bring as many more as we can possibly get into this area. Because yes, this is wood to biofuel, but we have aviation fuel, we have O'Hare just down the street."

"There are so many limitless possibilities for the use of biofuels, and this is just one drop in the bucket of what we can be doing."

In addition to GTI and Carbona, other project partners include Haldor Topsoe, Inc., a catalysis company headquartered in Denmark; Texas-based energy company Phillips 66; international technology group Andritz, which is headquartered in Austria; and global forestry company UPM, which is based out of Finland.

"We are very excited about commercializing this technology," said Anders Olsen, CEO of Haldor Topsoe. "We think there is room for this type of technology to help with the fuel need in the future and ... to minimize our dependence on foreign oil. I think this is one of the solutions that needs to be part of the picture."

Merl Lindstrom, vice president of technology for Phillips 66, said the "company's vision is providing energy and improving lives." Phillips 66, he said, sees "this project as doing exactly that."

"At Phillips 66, we are a very strong proponent of all forms of energy," he said. "We're doing research in solar. We're doing research in fuel cells ... We were very much interested in this project."

About 7,770 gallons of the renewable gasoline produced at GTI have been sent to a blending facility in Michigan for preparation for vehicle fleet testing, which will take place at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. Four pairs of vehicles will each best tested for 75,000 miles to compare performance of the bio-based gasoline blend with conventional gasoline and to illustrate that car engines are not harmed by the gas. The testing results will be released this September, according to GTI.

The high-octane renewable gasoline developed at GTI will also be used by project partner Phillips 66 for a 10-year period of vehicle fleet testing, Sarkar said. The fuel will be used in eight vehicles for a total of 600,000 miles of testing.

Project officials said the testing should prove that there is no difference between the high-octane, bio-derived fuel and regular fossil fuel-based gasoline.

"The molecules [that] come out of the process that we're using here are exactly the same molecules you'll find in natural fossil fuels," Lindstrom said. "They may be in a little different ratios, but they're exactly the same molecules. You're not adding a different molecule like ethanol."

When asked about the potential of scaling up production of this bio-derived gasoline, Duckworth said she supports the idea of having federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, convert to the use of biofuels. And the newly-developed technology to produce gasoline from woody biomass provides a unique opportunity for federal agencies, she said.

"Think about all the military bases here in the United States and the amount of fuel they consume, the amount of military aircraft and vehicles that consume gasoline," the congresswoman said.  "This is something that could be applicable and save taxpayer dollars and be able to scale things up."

As Patel noted, Duckworth said getting private entities on board to develop this renewable gasoline will require "a reliable energy policy that private entities can count on." The congresswoman said she is "willing to work with anybody" on such measures.

"If you have Phillips 66, who's one of the largest producers of petroleum-based oil, and they're interested in it, obviously it's not just the oil and gas industry against environment. It's actually, what's the most commonsense thing to do?" she noted. "I think it's going to take a bipartisan effort to make sure we have a consistent energy policy that will allow private investors the chance to look ahead and say, 'Hey, I'm going to be able to recoup my investment on this.'"

In other news, reporters asked Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and former assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), if she has any interest in heading up the VA in light of Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation last week due to the scandal over the treatment of veterans. 

"I love my job. I just got elected to Congress, and I'm sticking right here," Duckworth replied, adding "I'm very, very happy where I am."

"I've only been in office for 15 months, and I have a lot of work to do here to promote things like (the work at GTI), and I think that someone who's run a major hospital network would be uniquely qualified" to replace Shinseki, the congresswoman said.

Top image courtesy of the Gas Technology Institute. Bottom image courtesy of Duckworth's office.

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