EERC develops advanced biofuel process

By Craig A. Johnson | January 04, 2010
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The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) Foundation has developed a new approach to producing cellulosic ethanol in a process that converts biomass and other recycled material into liquid biofuels. The process will be the centerpiece of a new plant design to be used by Mercurius Biofuels, a company formed by Whole Energy Fuels Corp., headquartered in Bellingham, Wash.

According to Atul Deshmane, CEO and president of Whole Energy, the EERC partnership will accelerate the process bringing the technology to fruition. "Partnering with the EERC and obtaining a technology license from the EERC Foundation will jump start Mercurius Biofuels, a new company formed with our help to develop and commercialize advanced biofuel technologies," Deshmane said. "Mercurius is developing the technology with the intent of building and operating a pilot plant to demonstrate what may be the most energy- and carbon-efficient process for making a cellulosic fuel."

According to Karl Seck, president of Mercurius Biofuels, the process the EERC has developed does not depend on changes to the enzymes, fermentation or extreme operating conditions when compared to existing ethanol plants. "This technology is more in line with the petroleum refining model and will benefit from many of the same efficiencies," he said.

According to senior research advisor Ed Olson, "This project presents an exciting opportunity for the EERC, as it is one of the very first involving the production of advanced fuel additives from cellulosic feedstocks. This technology will ultimately be used to improve engine performance using a renewable product, both in gasoline and diesel engines. In the case of diesel fuel, our additives will boost the cetane levels, improve flow properties and, most importantly, reduce particulate emissions."

The plant will be located in a retrofitted ethanol plant. Mercurius is in the process of applying for federal assistance to prove the technology and expects the project to come to fruition in the next two years.

Cellulosic materials that will be utilized by the company include wood, grasses, and the nonedible parts of crops including wheat straw, soybean hulls and corn cobs. Such diverse feedstocks will allow the company more flexibility compared to first-generation feedstocks such as corn or sugarcane.

Utilizing cellulosic materials as the primary feedstock for biofuels could give the flagging ethanol industry an advantage in that the feedstock is expected to sharply reduce costs and greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, cellulosic feedstocks are often seen as desirable because they are anticipated to be easier to source and may be derived from multiple materials, lessening an ethanol plant's dependence on a single feedstock, thereby reducing the company's risk.

The current federal renewable fuel standard requires that 36 million gallons of biofuels must be used in transportation fuel by 2022, including at least 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels and 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels.