Shell signs US deal to crack biofuels challenge

Shell has signed up to a joint research and development agreement in the US that is intended to make biofuels more efficient and greener.

The work is timely as first-generation biofuels are coming under increasing criticism for failing to deliver on environmental promise.

The super-major will work with Virent Energy Systems of Madison, Wisconsin, USA, to find a way of converting plant sugars directly into gasoline and gasoline blend components rather than ethanol.

Shell says the collaboration could lead to biofuels that can be used at high blend rates in standard car engines and that this could “potentially eliminate” the need for specialised infrastructure, new engine designs and blending equipment.

Virent’s BioForming platform technology 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. These new “bio-gasoline” molecules have higher energy content than ethanol (or butanol) and deliver better fuel efficiency. They can be blended seamlessly to make conventional gasoline or combined with gasoline containing ethanol.

Shell and Virent point out that the sugars needed can be sourced from non-food sources like corn stover, switch grass, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, in addition to conventional biofuel feedstock such as wheat, corn and sugarcane.

The BioForming technology has been under development for some time and apparently advanced rapidly, exceeding milestones for yield, product composition and cost. Future efforts will focus on further improving the technology and scaling it up for larger-volume commercial production.

“The technical properties of today’s biofuels pose some challenges to widespread adoption,” said Dr Graeme Sweeney, Shell VP for future fuels and CO.

“Fuel distribution infrastructure and vehicle engines are being modified to cope, but new fuels on the horizon, such as Virent’s, with characteristics similar, or even superior, to gasoline and diesel, are very exciting.”

Randy Cortright, Virent’s chief technical officer, co-founder and VP, said: “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. Our results, to date, fully justify accelerating commercialisation of this technology.”