Syngas, or synthesis gas, is on fire lately, with new technologies making the most of waste products like CO2 or low-grade biomass and converting them into useful hot stuff like syngas that can then be turned into even better and hotter stuff like jet fuel, energy, and valuable chemicals.
The latest news in this area is from LanzaTech, Virgin Atlantic and partners who are one-step closer to building the world’s first large scale Alcohol to Jet (ATJ) facility producing commercial quantities of fuel in the UK. The commercial facility would convert low carbon ethanol produced from waste emissions, to jet fuel.
LanzaTech submitted a bid to the UK Department for Transport (DfT) Future Fuels for Flight and Freight Competition (F4C) for partial funding of this facility and has been selected for project development funding with a £410k grant from the UK government.
“This waste to jet fuel project has the potential to help transform the aviation industry by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the air quality around our country’s airports,” said Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary. “That is why we are providing support to this important technology as part of our £22 million of funding for alternative fuels, which will pave the way for clean growth in the UK. Supporting important developments like this is just part of our work to help ensure our aviation sector is greener than ever, and we will explore further measures as part of our Aviation Strategy.”
“The British government understands the importance of using waste feedstocks for flight to help decarbonize the aviation sector,” said Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech. “We are delighted to be part of this vision and together with our partners are looking forward to realising a commercial AtJ facility in the UK.”
The project includes many impressive partners including, Aviation (including airline partner Virgin Atlantic, as well as Boeing, SkyNRG, Heathrow and Gatwick Airports), Steel Mill Ethanol Supply (ArcelorMittal), Technical (Air BP; World Fuel Services; Pacific Northwest national laboratory (PNNL), a US Department of Energy Laboratory), Sustainability (Ecofys, a Navigant Company; the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials and Cerulogy) and Site (Tata Steel UK and Greenergy).
Craig Kreeger, CEO of Virgin Atlantic commented “At Virgin Atlantic, we’ve been committed to reducing our carbon emissions for more than a decade. Along with more efficient aircraft and operational procedures, we know sustainable aviation fuels are a key next step in this journey. As LanzaTech’s long-time partner, we’re excited to be able to support building commercial capacity in the UK, and look forward to our future flights being powered by this advanced, waste based solution.”
A separate Stage 2 Competition in late 2018 will provide funding for project implementation to successful award winners.
LanzaTech is keeping busy in other ways as well. They are working on the development of a sustainable green chemistry platform for production of acetone and downstream drop-in fuel and commodity products directly from biomass syngas via a novel energy conserving route in engineered acetogenic bacteria. It’s a potentially history-making process being developed by LanzaTech and partners that the DOE is supporting. LanzaTech CTO and co-founder Sean Simpson gave an illuminating overview of the project’s progress and promise at the DOE Project Peer Review meetings, which you can view here.
But that’s not all….
LanzaTech isn’t the only one making strides with syngas. Sierra Energy has created what is billed as “the world’s most efficient gasifier,” FastOx, developed in conjunction with UC Davis, US Army and California Energy Commission, as reported in the Digest in April. Gasification is the missing link between complex feedstocks and a clean synthesis gas for use in a wide variety of biofuel applications. The medium BTU synthesis gas is 70% CO and 30% H2. Check out Sierra Energy’s CEO Mike Hart’s overview of the technology’s promise and progress at ABLC 2018 in Washington DC here.
In the research arena, a chemist in the School of Molecular Sciences, Ellen Stechel is also deputy director of LightWorks and is using CO2 to make products by chemical means (not biology or photosynthesis).
“Carbon is very versatile,” she said. You can make anything with it that you can make from petroleum today, like plastic bowls. It forms more compounds than any other element in the periodic table (besides hydrogen). Carbon composites can substitute for steel or cement (and it will be much lighter and stronger).
She worked with a team at Sandia National Laboratories on a “Sunshine to Petrol” project. She also managed the Fuels and Energy Transitions Department at Sandia.
“Once we split CO2 or split water — or both of them — then we have a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which is called syngas,” Stechel said. “We can use that as our building blocks for making pretty much any kind of petroleum alternative you would like. We’re focused on diesel and aviation fuel, but it could be other things.”
But like any other alternative fuel, the cost makes it hard to implement. “I’d personally like to turn it into value before seeing it as burying waste,” she said. “The challenge is getting over the cost humps.”
Just last week, Sasol South Africa said it will use Honeywell technology at the Secunda refinery in South Africa. Secunda Synfuels Operations produces syngas through coal gasification and natural gas reforming at its manufacturing facility. The company converts syngas into synthetic fuel components, pipeline gas and chemical feedstock to support the production of downstream products such as solvents, polymers, comonomers and other chemicals.
In January, a major stepping stone to commercialization was achieved by Refgas which passed G59 testing with flying colors on the last of their three Jenbacher engines at the Swindon Energy site. This process is undertaken in order to verify that the Swindon generating plant can safely work in parallel or synchronized with the mains electricity utility grid (National Grid) and all three engines have now proven that they can run and export power, using syngas manufactured from a feedstock of low grade construction/demolition wood.
The wave of the future
According to a recent analysis by researchers from the University of Amsterdam’s Sustainable Chemistry and TNO research group, the industrial synthesis of syngas, as well as renewable hydrogen, methanol and diesel, could become competitive with respect to their fossil counterparts within the next two decades.
Remko Detz, Joost Reek and Bob van der Zwaan analysed multiple technologies required to produce renewable hydrogen, syngas, methanol, and diesel. By applying ‘learning curves’ associated with individual system components, they project decreases in investment costs and reductions in fuel production costs.
In the analysis, the three researchers conclude that all four renewable fuels can out-compete their fossil-based counterparts between 2025 and 2050. Detz told Nanowerk, “Whether they will truly become competitive depends on many factors, such as installed capacity, taxes, subsidies, other policies, and the price of CO2. Our results show, however, that the costs to produce renewable fuels can drop significantly over the coming decades. Efforts to improve the scalability, efficiency, integration, and affordability of the necessary components are all important aspects for successful large-scale deployment.”
What companies and researchers are doing around the world with syngas is simply amazing, and we only covered a few highlights here. Taking what was considered waste, like low grade biomass or CO2, and converting it into syngas and then into jet fuel, electric power, valuable chemicals and other useful products can help us reach a more circular economy. We look forward to more developments in this hot area in the coming months and years.