Battelle touts milestone in developing oil-treatment catalyst 

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, May 15, 2015

Research-and-development nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute says it’s making headway on technology to convert non-food plants into oil that can be upgraded into fuel.

In what it calls a major milestone, the company recently announced that the catalyst it developed for use in treating oil reached 1,200 hours, or about 50 days, of nonstop use. The Department of Energy says 1,000 hours is a big step toward companies being able to market the technology commercially and eventually compete with petroleum fuel.

“It’s mostly a big deal because no one’s been able to get more than a few hundred hours on these type of catalysts before they poison and stop working,” said Marty Toomajian, president of Battelle’s energy, health and environment group.

A top federal contractor and operator of several national laboratories, Battelle has been working for several years on developing a drop-in biofuel, or a fuel that can be used directly in existing infrastructure instead of being blended in small amounts into petroleum.

A few years ago, it launched a pilot project at its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, to build a mobile biofuel production unit on the back of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer. Battelle says its goal is to bring the biofuel production process to where inputs are grown, rather than build a large-scale production facility that can cost around $200 million (Greenwire, Jan. 21, 2014).

The problem with pyrolysis, though, is that it results in oil that’s high in oxygen, meaning the resulting fuel packs less energy punch than petroleum.

So one of the major goals of developing pyrolysis for biofuels production is finding chemical catalysts that can get the amount of oxygen as near to zero as possible in the oil during a treatment process.

Toomajian says that Battelle began working on developing catalysts in 2011 with the goal of finding a compound that’s “not too exotic.”

“The goal is use something that’s fairly common in the process industry,” he said.

DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory worked with Battelle to help develop the catalyst. DOE and Marathon Petroleum Corp. provided Battelle with support for the project.

“From the catalyst point of view, you should have a catalyst lifetime of at least 4,000 hours or 8,000 hours, so we can replace catalyst every year or half a year,” said Huamin Wang, a chemical engineer at the national lab. “If your process needs to replace your catalyst every week or every month, there’s no way to commercialize because cost will be significant.

“Normally for this kind of process, 1,000 hours really means something,” he added. “This really means that we’re one more step closer to our commercial process.”

DOE’s goal is to get drop-in biofuels down to around $3 a gallon by 2017. According to Battelle and based on its most recent data, the company’s process can produce fuel in the range of $2.30 to $2.50 per gallon.

Despite the progress in the area of fuels, Battelle has shifted its focus in the short term to developing chemicals, following much of the advanced biorefining industry in doing so, according to Toomajian. Although the market for chemicals is much smaller than fuels, there’s potential higher short-term value of companies because the profit margins are larger.

“The investment community was getting tired of biofuels projects and got excited about chemicals,” Toomajian said. “We expected to go to market first with fuels. We drove the chemical piece into pasture. We kind of changed which one would hit the market first.”

Battelle is partnering with Equinox Chemicals to convert its bio-oil into polyols, a process that does not require the same catalysts as fuels production. Polyols are used in foam packaging.

Battelle drove its mobile 1-ton-per-day production unit from Ohio to Georgia, where it is currently producing oil for chemicals applications. The next step is to create full-scale plants that will range from processing 5 to 20 tons of biomass a day.

Through chemicals, Battelle wants to drive down the cost of its technology and then shift back over to fuels.

“Biochemicals to enable biofuels,” said Drew Bond, vice president for technology commercialization for Battelle’s energy, health and environment business. “Simply put, that’s our strategy.”