Progress on cellulosic biodiesel research reported

ExxonMobil and REG agree to extend research program that uses microbes to convert cellulosic sugars into biodiesel.

November 3, 2017

3 Min Read
Progress on cellulosic biodiesel research reported

ExxonMobil and Renewable Energy Group (REG) announced that, by utilizing REG's patented fermentation technology, their joint research program has demonstrated the ability to convert sugars from a variety of non-edible biomass sources into biodiesel.

ExxonMobil and REG signed an agreement in January 2016 to study the production of biodiesel through fermentation of renewable cellulosic sugars from sources such as agricultural waste.

During their initial research, the companies successfully validated the feasibility of the REG Life Sciences fermentation technology across multiple cellulosic sugar compositions produced with a variety of methods and from various non-edible biomass sources, according to the announcement. The research also confirmed that the technology is capable of achieving substantial reductions of full life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional diesel fuel.

“Our first challenge during the initial research was to determine technical feasibility and potential environmental benefits,” said Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research & Engineering Co. “We're optimistic, as the results indicate good potential for advancing the technology, and we look forward to continuing our work with REG Life Sciences.”

The companies have agreed to extend the research program based on their positive findings and will continue to jointly explore the technology's potential for scalability.

REG Life Sciences developed the proprietary technology, which relies on microbes to convert cellulosic sugars into biodiesel in a one-step fermentation process. Cellulosic feedstocks derived from agricultural waste contain multiple types of sugars, including glucose and xylose, as well as impurities that can inhibit the fermentation process.

“Biofuels today are made largely from food sources, such as corn and sugarcane,” Swarup said. “ExxonMobil is challenging that paradigm by exploring a portfolio of large-scale biofuels solutions that do not compete with food and water. Our work with REG Life Sciences has been critical to better understanding the potential for converting cellulosic feedstock from agricultural waste into a commercially viable diesel fuel, as well as the life-cycle greenhouse gas implications of that process.”

Eric Bowen, vice president of REG Life Sciences, said, “The Life Sciences team — led by Fernando Sanchez-Riera, senior director, fermentation process development — made key discoveries in advancing the commercialization of fermenting diverse cellulosic sugars into renewable, clean-burning diesel fuel. We are excited to take these discoveries to the next level. We believe our REG Life Sciences technology holds great potential as an innovation platform across multiple industries and can think of no partner better than ExxonMobil to help us realize that potential in fuels.”

A breakthrough in cellulosic biodiesel production could have broad implications for the transportation sector, according to the announcement. Global demand for transportation-related energy is projected to increase by about 25% through 2040, and accelerating the reduction in emissions from the transportation sector through technologies like biodiesel will play a critical role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

ExxonMobil said it is also actively researching other emission-reducing technologies, including algae biofuels and carbon capture and sequestration.

In June 2017, ExxonMobil and partner Synthetic Genomics Inc. announced a breakthrough in joint research into advanced biofuels involving the modification of an algae strain that more than doubled its oil content without significantly inhibiting the strain's growth.

In 2016, ExxonMobil announced a partnership with Connecticut-based FuelCell Energy Inc. to advance the use of carbonate fuel cells to economically capture carbon emissions from natural gas power plants while generating hydrogen and additional electricity.

ExxonMobil is one of the largest refiners and marketers of petroleum products, and its chemical company is one of the largest in the world.

REG is an international producer of biomass-based diesel, a developer of renewable chemicals and North America's largest producer of advanced biofuel. REG utilizes an integrated procurement, distribution and logistics network to convert natural fats, oils, greases and sugars into lower-carbon-intensity products. It has 14 active biorefineries, a feedstock processing facility, research and development capabilities and a diverse intellectual property portfolio.

REG Life Sciences is developing renewable products for partners across multiple markets by applying its state-of-the-art microbial fermentation platform to hard-to-solve problems, with a goal to bring low-carbon, cost-competitive and performance-advantaged products to market.

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