Most fuel ethanol is currently produced from starch in the United States and cane sugar in Brazil, and new technologies are emerging for production of ethanol from cellulosic biomass such as wood, grasses, and agricultural and forestry residues. However, in the United States, most of the ethanol is used as 10% blends with gasoline, and current ethanol production in the United States has virtually saturated that market. The resulting “blend wall” and lack of vehicles that can run on higher levels of ethanol limits the opportunity for further expansion of corn ethanol production in the United States. It also means that introduction of emerging technologies for conversion of cellulosic biomass to ethanol must compete head on with corn ethanol for market penetration. The result is that cellulosic ethanol must have lower operating costs than corn ethanol to survive the inevitable price war and be able to realize satisfactory returns on capital at this operating cost. This situation presents a major challenge and potential barrier for introduction of cellulosic ethanol technology that would stymie emergence of sustainable fuels for transportation.

Ethanol has many superior properties as a fuel. For example, it has a much higher octane and higher heat of vaporization than gasoline, attributes that can improve efficiency in spark ignition engines. It is also far less toxic than gasoline with much lower potential for environmental damage from spills or leaks. And when made from cellulosic biomass or cane sugar, ethanol can produce much lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional hydrocarbon fuels. The latter is particularly important in that the transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

However, despite such favorable features, use of ethanol in higher-level blends with gasoline is stymied. One factor is that ethanol is not truly fungible with conventional hydrocarbon fuels. Thus, for example, it is not transported in pipelines but is moved with trucks and trains. It also has a two thirds the energy density of gasoline that results in up to 50% more ethanol being needed to travel the same distance as gasoline. Because of differences in properties, conventional vehicles are not warranted to run on greater than 10% blends with gasoline, and very few flex-fueled vehicles are on the road that can use up to 85% ethanol in gasoline.

The lower energy density of ethanol also prevents its use in aircraft that look to maximize energy content per mass of fuel. Ethanol is also not as well suited to use in diesel engines in heavy duty vehicles.

Vertimass Technology, Deployment and Team:

Vertimass LLC was recently awarded an exclusive license for novel catalyst technology developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory for conversion of ethanol into jet fuel, diesel fuel, and gasoline blend-stocks that are compatible with the current transportation fuel infrastructure. The blend-stocks produced by this technology are anticipated to fall under the Renewable Fuel Standard at the same level as the ethanol used as the feedstock. The process benefits from 1) single step conversion of ethanol into a hydrocarbon blend-stock with high yields, 2) no hydrogen addition, 3) production of minimal amounts of light gases, 4) mild (relatively low temperature and atmospheric pressure) operating conditions, 5) ability to process 5 to 100% ethanol concentrations, and 6) product flexibility to respond to changing market demands. Additionally, this operation can be bolted onto an existing ethanol plant with very low capital and operating costs while providing fuel flexibility and essentially replacing dehydration.

Vertimass seeks to commercialize this novel technology to overcome fungibility issues that limit ethanol use in gasoline for light duty vehicles. It would also open up new markets for ethanol for aircraft and heavy-duty vehicles. Vertimass plans to partner with ethanol producers to integrate this technology into existing ethanol plants (current U.S. capacity ~ 15 billion gallons/year) as rapidly as possible to overcome the blend wall. This novel catalyst can also help the airline industry achieve a target of 1 billion gallons of renewable aviation fuel by 2018. Overall, Vertimass technology has the potential to expand opportunities to use ethanol from corn in the United States, cane sugar in Brazil, and cellulosic biomass worldwide.

Vertimass has assembled a synergistic team of business executives, engineers, scientists, and consultants to move this technology to commercial use. The team is led by Bill Shopoff (Chairman), Charles Wyman PhD (President and CEO), John Hannon PhD (COO), Tom Mullen (EVP), Chaitanya Narula PhD (catalyst chemist), Brian Davison PhD, Martin Keller PhD (board member), and Sandra Sciutto CPA (CFO), along with an experienced team of consultants with expertise in catalysis, ethanol production, fuels, and scale up. Vertimass plans to work with catalyst manufacturers, engineering and construction firms, the market, and others to commercialize the technology as rapidly as possible.