Local Company Pioneers a New Generation of Biofuels Technology

Virent Converts Plant Material into Products Chemically Identical to Gasoline or Plastic

by Kursat Gok, age 17

     The local biotechnology firm Virent, recently profiled by Mike Ivey in The Capital Times, is developing an alternative to crude oil. Their patented process converts plant material into a solution with a chemical makeup nearly identical to gasoline. This fraternal twin of gasoline is called a “drop-in fuel” because it is already compatible with existing engines, but will not have the same harmful environmental impact as crude oil.
     Today’s plant material has one crucial factor in common with crude oil that makes it a drop-in fuel; plant material contains carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. It has a similar molecular structure to crude oil. Through millions of years of extreme heat and pressure, the oxygen atoms are forced out of fossil fuels, leaving only the carbon and hydrogen atoms in crude oil.
     The process of creating drop-in fuels is a unique and patented type of catalytic chemistry. Biomass-derived sugars are converted into a final product that is nearly identical to gasoline. This is done by removing the oxygen atoms from the plant sugars; providing an important potential substitute for crude oil.
     This new generation of biofuels might seem like the antidote to global warming, but there is another group of biofuels that is also praised for its eco-friendliness.  What distinguishes these other biofuels from drop-in fuels is their ease of access. This group of products is known as ethanol fuel, an alcohol-based fuel made by the fermentation of starch crops such as corn.    
     Despite ethanol’s wide accessibility, some are skeptical because the price of corn-based food increases as the demand for ethanol increases. The ethanol industry, however, argues that its product is already commercially available.
     The biofuels “that Virent and these other guys are working on is a great someday fuel,” says Chris Thorne, the communications director of Growth Energy, a successful ethanol trade group in Washington, D.C.
     The Obama administration has expressed varying opinions. Some think ethanol is a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Others say the up-and-coming biofuel industries of tomorrow, like Virent, should be supported.
     Tom Vilsack, the Obama administration’s Agriculture Secretary, has urged the mass installation of ethanol pumps into establishments dedicated to selling ethanol, sort of like an ethanol gas station. On the other hand, former Energy Secretary Steven Chu has publicly stated that ethanol is not the best alternative to crude oil. Chu said we should invest in the biofuels of the future, like that of Virent. New Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has not yet made a public statement about the debate.
     Ultimately, Thorne believes that any biofuel that provides cleaner emissions should be supported as an alternative to crude oil.
     Despite the hot political debates, the drop-in fuels of Virent are proving to be very appealing to ecocentric consumers. These fuels have the potential to replace various energy sources made from crude oil. Ethanol, on the other hand, can only replace gasoline.
     The similarities between crude oil and drop-in fuels led Shell Oil to announce the opening of a next-generation biofuel project in Houston. The project is based on the same technology used and licensed by Virent. Coca-Cola is looking to use the drop-in fuels produced by Virent to produce plant-based “green” soda bottles.
     “We believe Virent is a company that possesses technologies that have high potential for creating [plastic bottles] on a global commercial scale within the next few years,” says Rick Frazier, vice president of product supply of Coca-Cola.
     To meet Coca-Cola’s demand, Virent is considering building the world’s first commercial-scale plant. The facility would produce biofuels that can replace both gasoline and chemicals made from crude oil. The plant’s location is not yet determined, but it is expected to open in 2015 and could potentially produce  six million gallons of biofuel. Virent believes that it could theoretically replace one-third of the gasoline burned in the United States if all of its feedstock were to be devoted to biofuels.
     The emergence of companies like Virent has sparked much debate over the future of alternative energy. Virent has built bridges between the oil and biofuel industry. Although the company has done a lot in its short existence, Virent CEO Lee Edwards says, “we still have a long way to go.”

[Sources: The Capital Times; Wisconsin State Journal]