The Oklahoma State University Biofuels Team’s ability to think small – microscopic, actually – stands to provide great dividends for consumers, a renewable energy company and one of the nation’s foremost automakers.
Biology based renewable energy company Coskata Inc. and automotive giant General Motors announced their cooperative plans to reduce fossil fuel consumption this past weekend, thanks in part to Coskata’s “next generation ethanol” process based on research and technology developed by the OSU Biofuels Team and licensed exclusively to Coskata.
“Coskata’s unique three-step conversion process addresses many of the constraints lodged against current renewable energy options, including environmental, transportation and land-use concerns,” said Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer and vice president of business development for Coskata.
In the three-step process, carbon-based materials are converted into synthesis gas using well-established gasification technologies. After the chemical bonds are broken using gasification, microorganisms licensed to Coskata as part of the OSU Biofuels research convert the resulting syngas into ethanol by consuming carbon monoxide and hydrogen in the gas stream. Once the gas-to-liquid conversion process has occurred, the resulting ethanol is recovered from the solution using “vapor permeation technology.”
“The Coskata process has the potential to yield more than 100 gallons of ethanol per dry ton of carbonaceous feedstock, reducing production costs to less than $1 per gallon,” Bolsen said.
According to an independent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, Coskata’s process – using the OSU Biofuels Team microorganisms – can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 84 percent compared to conventional gasoline.
The process also has no back-end solid waste to dry and handle like enzymatic approaches to ethanol production and uses less than one gallon of fresh water per gallon of ethanol produced, according to Coskata.
Corn-based systems typically use three gallons to four gallons of fresh water per gallon of ethanol produced, and enzymatic approaches can use as much as seven gallons of fresh water per gallon of ethanol produced.
Development of the technology licensed to Coskata is the result of OSU’s longstanding commitment to biofuels development, said Robert E. Whitson, vice president, dean and director of the university’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.
“DASNR scientists and engineers have been breeding improved feedstock with an eye toward biofuels development since the early 1990s. Our first cellulosic ethanol team was put together in 1998, and has been making great strides in technology development ever since,” Whitson said. “Biofuels has come into widespread public consciousness only recently, but we’ve been addressing renewable energy concerns for many years.”
The OSU Biofuels Team quickly became a multi-college, multi-institutional effort, with the current team encompassing scientists and engineers with DASNR; the OSU College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology; the University of Oklahoma and Brigham Young University.
“We in the division have long believed and promoted that an interdisciplinary outlook is the best way to develop solutions to the challenges facing society, and solving real-world issues is a vital part of the land-grant mission and the reason why OSU exists,” Whitson said.
Vinod Khosla and Advanced Technology Ventures, the leading renewable energy investors in the country, recognized the potential of the work being done by the OSU Biofuels Team and wanted to invest in the technology. The technology was exclusively licensed to Coskata Inc. for the production of biofuels.
The licensing agreement between OSU and Coskata includes the microorganisms used in syngas fermentation, with a companion research agreement for any aspects of the syngas fermentation technology that would aid them in production. Since providing the initial three strains of microorganisms in 2006, Coskata-funded research with the OSU Biofuels Team has provided two additional microorganisms for the company.
Bolsen likened it to “running the Kentucky Derby, with the OSU Biofuels Team helping to put horses in the race to reduce this country’s dependence on oil.”
“Our system is somewhat unique in that we’re not considering a single feedstock or competing with agricultural food, feed or fiber needs; we’re using the entire plant in underutilized biomass,” said Ray Huhnke, OSU Biofuels Team leader and agricultural engineer.
According to Coskata, the proprietary microorganisms do what syngas conversion from chemical catalysis cannot do, which is make a pure stream of ethanol at the lowest cost target in the industry.
In addition, the process is net energy positive, providing up to 7.7 units of ethanol energy per unit of fossil fuel input, compared to 1.3 units provided by corn ethanol and 0.8 units from gasoline, according to the Argonne National Laboratory.
“OSU is proud to be part of a technology that will not compete with food for the production of ethanol,” said Stephen McKeever, OSU vice president for research and technology transfer. “Use of alternative feedstocks such as switchgrass and municipal solid waste will be of ultimate benefit to the consumer.”