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Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge: 2009 Small Business Award

Virent Energy Systems, Inc.


BioForming® Process: Catalytic Conversion of Plant Sugars into Liquid Hydrocarbon Fuels


Innovation and Benefits: Virent's BioForming® process is a water-based, catalytic method to make gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel from the sugar, starch, or cellulose of plants that requires little external energy other than the plant biomass. The process is flexible and can be modified to generate different fuels based on current market conditions. It can compete economically with current prices for conventionally produced petroleum-based fuels. Using plants as a renewable resource helps reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Summary of Technology: Virent has discovered and is developing an innovative green synthetic pathway to convert plant sugars into conventional hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals. Virent's catalytic BioForming® process combines proprietary aqueous-phase reforming (APR) technology with established petroleum refining techniques to generate the same range of hydrocarbon molecules now refined from petroleum. First, water-soluble carbohydrates are catalytically hydrotreated. Next, in the APR process, resultant sugar alcohols react with water over a proprietary heterogeneous metal catalyst to form hydrogen and chemical intermediates. Finally, processing with one of multiple catalytic routes turns these chemicals into gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel components. The technology also produces alkane fuel gases and other chemicals. Virent's BioForming® platform can generate multiple end-products from a single feedstock and enable product optimization based on current market conditions.

Compared to other biomass conversion systems, Virent's technology broadens the range of viable feedstocks, provides more net energy, and produces fuels compatible with today's infrastructure. The process uses either food or non-food biomass; it is scalable to match feedstock supply. Unlike fermentation, Virent's robust process can use mixed sugar streams, polysaccharides, and C5- and C6- sugars derived from cellulosic biomass. By using more plant mass per acre, the process provides better land use and higher value for farmers. The technology needs little energy input, and can be completely renewable. Virent's energy-dense biofuels separate naturally from water; as a result, the process eliminates the energy-intensive distillation to separate and collect biofuels required by other technologies. The hydrocarbon biofuels from Virent's process are interchangeable with petroleum products, matching them in composition, functionality, and performance; they work in today's engines, fuel pumps, and pipelines. Preliminary analysis suggests that Virent's BioForming® process can compete economically with petroleum-based fuels and chemicals at crude oil prices of $60 a barrel.

The BioForming® process can speed the use of non-food plant sugars to replace petroleum as an energy source, thus both decreasing dependence on fossil hydrocarbons and minimizing the impact on global water and food supplies. Fuels derived from the process can have a 20–30 percent per Btu cost advantage over ethanol. The BioForming® platform is near commercialization. During 2008, Virent produced over 40 liters of biogasoline for engine testing and began fabrication of its first 10,000-gallon-per-year pilot plant to produce biogasoline.

Podcast on the technology:

(MP3, 1.1 MB, 1:08 minutes)

Read the text of this podcast.

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