Shell and Virent Energy Systems of Madison, Wisconsin have announced a joint research and development effort to convert plant sugars directly into petrol and petrol blend components, rather than ethanol.
The collaboration could herald the availability of new biofuels that can be used at high blend rates in standard petrol engines. This could potentially eliminate the need for specialised infrastructure, new engine designs and blending equipment.
Virent’s BioForming technology is based on the Aqueous Phase Reforming process, which Virent has exclusively licensed from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. It uses catalysts to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon molecules like those produced at a petroleum refinery.
Traditionally, sugars have been fermented into ethanol and distilled. But Virent claims that these new ‘biogasoline’ molecules have higher energy content than ethanol (or butanol) and deliver better fuel efficiency. They can also be blended to make conventional petrol or combined with petrol containing ethanol.
The sugars themselves can be sourced from non-food sources like corn stover, switch grass, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, in addition to conventional biofuel feedstock like wheat, corn and sugarcane.
‘Virent has proven that sugars can be converted into the same hydrocarbon mixtures of today’s gasoline blends. Our products match petroleum gasoline in functionality and performance. Virent’s catalytic process uses a variety of biomass-derived feedstocks to generate biogasoline at competitive costs. Our results to date fully justify accelerating commercialisation of this technology,’ said Dr. Randy Cortright, Virent CTO, co-founder and executive vice president.
The research effort between Shell and Virent will now focus on further improving the BioForming technology and scaling it up for volume commercial production.