The march to the petro-bio switch continues. This morning it was Cargill and chemical manufacturing, this afternoon it’s Shell using biomass to make gasoline. Shell has entered into a five-year partnership with biofuel startup Virent Energy Systems to research and develop technology that would convert plant sugars directly into gasoline, bypassing all of the pesky infrastructure modifications that ethanol requires.
The financial details of the collaboration were not disclosed, but this is the second time Shell and Virent have laid out plans to work together. In May 2006, the two announced a five-year deal to commercialize Virent’s technology for making biomass a feedstock for hydrogen production. The hydrogen hype has since faded, and now Virent is using its so-called “bioforming” technology to replace crude oil with biomass and make fuel for the world’s gas-guzzlers.
Madison, Wisc.-based Virent has collected $10 million in government grants and a sizable $40 million in venture capital from Stark Investments, Venture Investors and Cargill Ventures (yep, them again).
The company’s bioforming technology is a thermochemical process that catalyzes sugars into hydrocarbons, creating molecules similar to those produced in oil refineries. The company says their process can use a variety of feedstocks including sugars, starches, cellulose and glycerin (a byproduct of biodiesel production).
Virent is not alone in trying to brew gasoline from plant matter. Khosla-backed LS9 is working on what they call “renewable petroleum,” which uses a proprietary microbe to convert biomass into hydrocarbon fuels that are chemically compatible with petroleum fuels. LS9 has its own ties with Shell Oil, as the company’s president is Robert Walsh, formerly Shell’s European general supply manager, who oversaw the substitution of ethanol for the additive MTBE in the company’s supply chain.
Processing biomass into petroleum-like substances avoids all of the infrastructure sticking points that ethanol and biodiesel face, allowing for the leveraging of a century’s worth of petrol-centric infrastructure. The sector will likely see more investments from agricultural interest like Cargill, which hope that breakthroughs in synthetic biology and industrial biotechnology will open up their agro-industrial facilities to a wide variety of new markets. Meanwhile, with oil reserves in decline, big oil companies like Shell will have to get creative in order to keep producing the petrochemicals that currently power the globe.