Today Shell and a small biofuels start-up called Virent announced their collaboration on "biogasoline." According to the press release (here's the link to the free press kit):
Virent's BioFormingTM 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 ‘biogasoline’ 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. [emphasis added.]
I don't know anything about Virent's technology or what the "collaboration" with Shell really entails. (Apparently it has been going on for a year, so I'm not even clear what the news is that warrants a press release. For more on the business news angle, check out Cleantech.com. And here is some history from Cleantech blog and Biopact) But it's the last line of the quote above that I see as important.
While the technical challenges of dealing with ethanol's absorption of water and corrosiveness are eminently addressable, they do represent real costs. So it should surprise absolutely no one to see oil companies working hard to find renewable fuel molecules that fit into the existing system more easily. And, as I noted ages ago at the end of this post, this is great and should be warmly embraced by the biofuels industry and regulators alike.
We need to be wary of two things, though. First we need to test all new fuel molecules to make sure we address any unintended and currently unregulated emissions. Permeation of VOC from the fueling system and aldehyde emissions from ethanol are a perfect example of this. We need testing, and where necessary new regulations.
Second, we need to resist any calls to hold off on developing ethanol infrastructure while oil companies and startups work on these new molecules. The threat of having to invest in this infrastructure is one of main reasons that most oil companies will consider real investments in the biofuels sector.
The only other point of interest in the press release for me was the fact that Virent is using catalytic technologies to convert sugars to fuels--not gasification and not biotechnology. This goes to the point I made in this post about the explosion of different technology pathways currently being explored.
They haven't cracked the cellulosic conversion nut. They require water soluble carbohydrates; so someone else will have get the cellulose to that stage. In the end, who knows if this effort will pan out into something that is a better fit with our current infrastructure and has a better net energy balance as they claim? And what about water use and pollution and GHG emissions? But the more different pathways receiving real attention, the greater the chances are we'll find at least one that is a real improvement over the oil, ethanol, and biodiesel we have today.