Baseload, Bioenergy

MEGA-BIO and the Three Amigos: DOE Hands Out $11.3M — Who for, and Whyfor?

In Washington, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced up to $11.3 million for three projects that support the development of biomass-to-hydrocarbon biofuels conversion pathways that, as the DOE remarked, “can produce variable amounts of fuels and/or products based on external factors, such as market demand.”

That’s DOE code for — “it’s OK to produce chemicals and other bioproducts now, while you’re small, we get it. But let’s get back to drop-in fuels when market conditions improve.”

About MEGA-BIO

The project is called MEGA-BIO, which sounds suspiciously like a vitamin supplement sold on late night television, and as it happens MEGA-BIO may prove to be a much-needed vitality boost for the technologies selected and for the pathway to large-scale drop-in biofuels. By producing at almost any scale but large-scale, and producing any molecule expect a fuel molecule.

Hmm, a paradox. We’ll explore that in a moment.

And the Winners Are…

Dow Chemical, LanzaTech, Northwestern University, Amyris, Renmatix, Total New Energies, Research Triangle Institute, Arkema and AECOM.

Ah yes, grasshopper, if you counted nine winners and three projects, your math is correct. This reflects the DOE’s preference for collaborative partnerships. In this case, three separate groups of Three Amigos.

You might also remember the comic western, Three Amigos from the 1980s, in which three out of work western film stars are mistaken by Mexican villagers for real gunfighters: after a series of plot complications ensue, the Amigos live up to their Hollywood billing and indeed save the day.

It may be the case for renewable chemicals and bioproducts. Hardly the “real deal” for which the DOE is investing. You can guess the DOE’s ultimate target from it’s name, the Department of, er, Energy. But they might find themselves depending on some renewable chemicals and bioproducts as the kind of quick-win apps that drive profits, build platforms, and finance the commercialization of technologies that, at scale, will ultimately produce affordable drop-in fuels.

Not a bad way to weather the low oil price storm, as it happens. Project finance for large-scale drop-in fuels is scarce at the moment. Meanwhile, chemicals lack the protection of something like a Renewable Chemicals Standard and could use a lift.

More About The Winning Trios

The three trios are:

The Dow Chemical Company, in partnership with LanzaTech and Northwestern University, will develop a process for the bioconversion of biomass-derived synthetic gas (syngas) to fatty alcohols as a pathway to biofuels. The fermentation of bio-syngas and the production of intermediate fatty alcohols offer a unique opportunity to leverage the robust chemical markets and high-margin applications of fatty alcohols and their derivatives.

Amyris, in cooperation with Renmatix and Total New Energies, will develop a manufacturing-ready process to produce farnesene, a hydrocarbon building block used in the manufacture of a variety of consumer products ranging from cosmetics to detergents, as well as in the transportation industry for diesel and jet fuel. They plan to produce farnesene from cellulosic sugar at the same projected cost of current farnesene manufacturing using cane syrup. The project will accomplish its goal by engineering multiple new capabilities into its current farnesene manufacturing strain, and at the end of the project, Renmatix expects to develop a process to deliver cost-competitive sugars to produce farnesene.

Research Triangle Institute will partner with Arkema and AECOM to investigate the technical feasibility and economic potential, as well as the environmental and sustainability benefits, of recovering mixed methoxyphenols from biocrude as building block chemicals alongside the production of biofuels. These methoxyphenols can be used in the production of pharmaceuticals, food flavorings, and perfume products. Achieving technical success in recovering high-value methoxyphenols prior to upgrading to biofuels could provide a significant source of revenue to improve overall process economics and help meet the modeled $3/gasoline gallon equivalent production-cost target for advanced biofuels technologies by 2022.

Fascinating Facts

So, let’s summarize what’s interesting here.

Partnership #1. Lanzatech has a well-established process for making alcohols from syngas. Here’s the emphasis is on fatty alcohols. Something that was identified as an early quick-win for REG Life Sciences some time back.

Partnership #2. Amyris has a well-established process for making farnesene from cane sugar. Here, the emphasis is on making the same chemical, only from woody biomass using cellulosic sugars provided by Renmatix. Much cheaper source of feedstock — that’ll be needed to bring Amyris diesel and jet fuel down to affordable costs.

Partnership #3. Biocrude has been made by a number of companies including KiOR. Here the partnership has identified a series of high-value chemicals that can be produced from this blendstock. Worth noting that Ensyn has been making smokehouse flavoring for years using its RTP process.

The Bottom Line

With $42 oil — so, think $1 per gallon for a petroleum feedstock — drop-ins face tough sledding given the higher bioprocessing costs, unless there’s transformative advances made on reducing feedstock cost (e.g. woody biomass), or on producing higher-value companion products, such as flavors, fragrances, detergents, solvents and cosmetics.

So, clever of DOE to attack both ends of the bridge at once — seeking viable costs and revenues from the barrel of biocrude so that it can compete on cost with petroleum crude.

So, round up the unusual suspects. As with Three Amigos, we may well find that, unexpectedly, these roundabout paths to fuels may well be the very diversification that slices the Gordion Knot.

This article was originally published by Biofuels Digest and was republished with permission.