Nanoscale Blending

A California company develops nanotechnology combining ethanol with corn oil for a new blendstock that reduces diesel emissions. This article appears in the December print issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Debbie Sniderman | November 11, 2016

One of the biggest technology upgrades for the ethanol industry in the past decade has been corn oil extraction. If Virginia Klausmeier and the team she leads at Sylvatex have their way, the next will be upgrading that corn oil, combined with first-generation ethanol, into a new advanced biofuel, applying ethanol’s well-known oxygenate benefits to improve emissions in diesel fuels. 

The process for creating low-emission diesel fuels is similar to gasoline: Blend oxygenates with diesel fuel to reduce the overall carbon content and emissions of harmful substances released into the air. Klausmeier is CEO of San Francisco-based Sylvatex Inc., a company founded by her father, who developed a process to create an alternative diesel fuel that blends ethanol with free fatty acids (FFAs) to produce a low-emission fuel that not only reduces NOx (nitrogen oxides) and particulate emissions when blended with ultra-low sulfur diesel and B100, but does so without affecting engine performance.

Sylvatex’ process takes ethanol and encapsulates it in a nanosized particle that enables suspension in a mid-distillate product. It creates an alternative fuel blend that is not a mainstream renewable diesel nor biodiesel. “Using ethanol as the oxygenate in this alternative fuel blend allows for increased emission reductions. It also allows there to be a secondary use for a product that is available in large supply. Opening new markets for ethanol producers can increase energy security, use more local resources, and upgrade diesel fuel for the users,” Klausmeier says.

Nanostructure Key
The sizing aspect of this proprietary blending technology is what creates stability in the end product and gives it functionality. Nanoparticles behave as a small system and act as a whole unit with respect to its transport and properties, Klausmeier explains. “Sylvatex is a nanotechnology company. We know how to create nanoparticle applications that are important for industry, and understand how nanotechnology can be used with biomass as key inputs, which is a novel approach compared to other companies.”

The resulting end product, MicroX, is a blendstock that can be considered an additive, a blended fuel or a drop-in fuel that can be blended into gasoline and any diesel fuel, biodiesel or other middle-distillate fuels. “It is not used at 100 percent, but is blended. Successful demonstrations have been completed at 15 to 20 percent and more than 40 percent, but the current focus is to blend at 10 percent for use in diesel engines,” she says. “It also looks like a drop-in because it blends with existing diesel fuels and can go into current diesel engines as well as advanced diesel engines. Some consider it an additive, but the U.S. EPA reserves that terminology for substances that are blended with small percentages less than 1 percent, so Sylvatex calls it a blended fuel.” 

“It’s important to realize that ethanol is not blended directly into diesel fuel, it’s not stable,” she continues. “It’s separated out and encapsulated into a stable nanostructure. These nanoparticles are so small that they remain intact as they go through the fuel system until combustion. They’re not filtered out, and fuel that has these particles behaves the same until they combust. The nanostructure is an important part to creating a low-carbon fuel overall and lower emissions at the tailpipe.”

As produced, the blendstock is very dense. In order to measure the size, distribution and structure of the nanoparticles created, it has to be diluted in a base solution. The National Institute of Standards and Technology performed an optical analysis of MicroX that was blended into diesel fuel, showing the process produces 10 micron spherical particles. Other techniques that blend macrosized molecules or bubbles into diesel fuels cause problems because the molecules are so large that they are trapped when the fuel passes through fuel filters, which typically screen out particles that are larger than around 500 microns. Macrosized molecules are 100,000 times larger than nanoparticles, which is why nanoparticles have no problems passing through the system.

Easy Integration
Producing MicroX blendstock involves a simple process with two key inputs, a blending tool and one output. The ethanol and FFA inputs, both renewable, are combined in the microblend technology utilizing trace amounts of proprietary components that stimulate the reactions.

In the past year, Sylvatex and its partners developed a way to use FFAs from corn oil, which over the past five years has become a commodity coproduct of ethanol production. The eventual goal and advantage of colocation is to obtain both inputs from the ethanol facility. “A 50 million-gallon ethanol facility produces about 3 million gallons of corn oil, which after being hydrolyzed and treated, could be used directly as an FFA input,” Klausmeier says. “By being located on-site, it is possible that both key inputs can come from the ethanol production’s back end.”

Sylvatex has demonstrated the process with ethanol from a wide range of feedstocks and even FFAs that aren’t yet well-optimized for biofuel reactions. To produce the blendstock, low-cost, low-maintenance, splash-blending equipment mixes the liquid inputs together in a two-step chemical reaction at room temperature in Sylvatex’s proprietary blending module. “Being low cost and having a small footprint are two strong reasons to be located on-site at ethanol production facilities where space is at a premium,” she says. “It also creates a new value pathway for ethanol producers who use ethanol and corn oil and can take advantage of existing delivery logistics.” Blending modules can be added into whatever modular space is desired for producing clean diesel fuel, making it easy to manage, permit, control and scale up.

Not only does the process work with any type of ethanol, it also works with most nonedible corn oils from any extraction processes, both front end or after distillation. Currently, Valicor is supplying the corn oil coproduct for the colocation pilot testing. “We’ve evaluated a number of suppliers with multiple types of extraction systems and found them all to be suitable during small-scale piloting at the Advanced Biofuels Demonstration Facility in Berkeley and through grants from the USDA,” Klausmeier says.
Industry Potential
“Even though the ethanol industry is well-developed, there is an opportunity for first- and second-generation ethanol manufacturers to expand into new markets with an advanced diesel fuel. The diesel fuel base is extremely large, so this could be game-changing for ethanol producers. Like corn oil was in the past, this modular colocation approach is the next step for ethanol producers to create new clean diesel fuel products that can upgrade the industry so it can continue to grow and thrive,” she says.

Klausmeier believes using green nanoparticles for low-carbon diesel fuel will be a $1.8 trillion market that can meet the needs of the petroleum industry, end users and biofeedstock providers and provide many benefits. Ethanol producers creating low-carbon fuels can take advantage of low-carbon credits. End users who use low-emission diesel and marine fuels can extend the lives of their fleets and access emission-controlled areas quicker. Feedstock providers can diversify and enter new growing markets that value carbon. “Our process produces a very low-cost product and is scalable. Ethanol can come from any feedstock, so as ethanol producers evolve over time, they can continuously satisfy the diesel fuel market as they grow,” she says.

Sylvatex is working with biomass leaders on the West Coast and commercial ethanol producers to prove technical and commercial feasibility. “We are starting small, getting the process moving and obtaining accreditation before scaling up. We expect our colocation model will begin to produce fuel on-site in the pilot stage and generate modest revenue at our large ethanol producer partner in early 2018,” she says.

With testing labs housed at Lawrence Berkley Laboratories and collaborations across the U.S., including the USDA, NIST and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sylvatex is developing technical specifications, evaluating fuel properties and validating emissions and other mandated criteria. It has received funding from state and federal sources and grants as well as private angel investors and family funding.

Sylvatex is also working with a number of thought leaders to develop standards and pathways for approval at the state and federal level, and has been successful in California so far, Klausmeier says. It is also performing demonstrations of emission-reducing biofuels on the end-user side, with engineering partners and end-user support in industries such as mining.

Klausmeier welcomes working with ethanol producers who may be interested in colocation. She hopes that combining Sylvatex’s new technology with the innovative business structure of working inside existing ethanol producers’ infrastructures will create low-cost fuels that reduce pollution and have global impact.

Author: Debbie Sniderman
CEO, VI Ventures LLC