NextFuels plans to introduce drop-in biofuels

FUNGIBLE OPTION: The people behind biofuels trader Enagra Inc, based in the United States, were pioneers in shipping biodiesel to the US from Malaysia back in 2005. In leapfrogging towards a ‘greener’ initiative, they are looking to produce ‘drop-in’ biofuels derived from palm biomass, Ooi Tee Ching writes.

MICHAEL Petras scrolls through his smartphone for trading updates as he prepares for a chat session on making money from turning biomass to biofuels. 

“We’re looking to partner oil palm plantation firms to produce biofuels that are fungible with existing petroleum infrastructure,” the founder of Enagra Inc said in an interview here recently.

Fungible is a word rarely used in everyday conversation but it is common in the petroleum industry. It refers to the ease of mixing two fuels and not having any worries of how they will behave in the pipelines, tanks and engines. Two fuels of identical chemistry are fungible.

Currently, a handful of process engineering companies in Malaysia are experimenting with the development of second-generation biofuels from palm biomass. 

Here comes Petras purporting he has the right technology to catapult the industry to produce third-generation biofuels very much welcomed by petroleum companies.

Sensing scepticism, Petras quipped: “We were the pioneers in shipping palm biodiesel to the US. We had to deal with strong criticisms. I know ... it’s a constant battle with disbelief. After a while, we kind of got used to taking arrows shot in our chests!”

Petras said the third-generation biofuels venture is being spearheaded by sister company NextFuels LLC. His team is pioneering an initiative of converting biomass to biofuels that are chemically identical to their petroleum-based cousins and can, therefore, be immediately fed into petroleum refineries as transportation fuel because they are compatible with current engine technology. 

“First-generation fuels cannot be used in unmodified engines above small blends and are not applicable to the jet fuel market,” he said.

In leapfrogging into the production of third-generation biofuels, Petras explained the resultant fuel called GreenCrude is fungible hydrocarbon-based molecule and can be used seamlessly in cars, trucks, buses, planes, boats and trains. 

These advanced biofuels are consumer ready and do not require significant changes to current petro-leum refinery infrastructure, such as separate pumps, new flex fuel cars, or pipelines.

Based on current technology, Petras believes advanced biofuels can help meet the world’s future energy needs because they are scalable, commercially viable and affordable for consumers. 

“Since the chemical molecules of advanced biofuels is the same as fossil fuel, they are packed with more energy per litre than first- or second-generation biofuels,” he said. 

“You could basically drop in these biofuels into the oil majors’ distribution channel. With third-generation biofuels, oil majors don’t need to spend additional capital to build a parallel distribution system,” he added.

To put third-generation biofuels into perspective, Petras outlined the similarities and differences from the first- and second-generation biofuels. 

First-generation biofuels are created largely from feedstock that have traditionally been used as food. Biodiesel from vegetable oil and animal fats; and ethanol from corn have been subjected to vehement criticisms and often labelled the culprit behind rising food prices. 

Second-generation biofuels are made from biomass and this circumvents the heated debate of food-versus-fuel dilemma. Feedstocks include wood chips, palm biomass and municipal waste like garbage. 

Petras believes there is a better path forward in the form of third-generation biofuels. These fuels are produced from non-food sources like biomass and yet chemically identical to their petroleum counterpart.

In comparison, there are several technological pathways to converting biomass into liquids. For example, when biomass is processed at low temperatures, ranging from 250 to 350°C without oxygen, it undergoes a torrefaction process and the major conversion product is biochar. 

At greater temperatures of between 550°C and 750°C, also without oxygen, the process is known as pyrolysis (either fast or slow depending on the heat exchange rate with the biomass) and the major product is bio oil. 

At even higher temperatures of between 750°C and 1,200°C with limited inputs of oxygen, gasification occurs, producing mostly syngas with biochar and bio oils as by-products.

NextFuels’ approach is quite different. Instead of operating in a dry environment, NextFuels’ bio-liquefaction process heats the biomass in a liquid-water slurry at high temperatures and pressure. 

The bio-liquefaction process expels most of the oxygen from the biomass. The final product is GreenCrude, a renewable fuel that has identical molecular structure as that of petroleum.

Also present at the interview was NextFuels vice-president of sales for southeast Asia, Milton Leong. He emphasised the cost-saving advantage in NextFuels' technolgy is not having to dry the biomass before processing.

The bio-liquefaction method is specifically designed to work with wet biomass. As a result, the energy balance achieved is around 65 to 70 per cent. By contrast, processes like Fischer-Tropsch are only able to achieve energy balances of up to 40 per cent.

Leong said NextFuels plans to put up its pilot plant in Malaysia by mid-2014. “We’ve not finalised the exact location but it will be near to a biomass source.” 

Leong noted that the bio-liquefaction technology allows NextFuels to commercially produce bio-based petroleum at US$75 to US$85 (RM239.50 to RM271.40) a barrel out of wet biomass.

“One can distill 960 barrels of GreenCrude per day (bpd) from the biomass churned out from a typical 60-tonne palm oil mill,” he said.