Shell biofuels take vehicles back to the future

When “Back to the Future” moviegoers in the 1980s saw a mad scientist refueling his car with discarded eggs, soda and other garbage, the idea may have seemed a little far-fetched.

But at a presentation from Royal Dutch Shell on Thursday, scientists talked up an advanced biofuel that will essentially fuel cars with trash.

The fuel, which Shell has produced from waste and inedible crops through at least two different methods, is being developed at a test plant in Houston and a small-scale demonstration project in suburban Chicago.

“I view biofuels as back to the future,” said Joe Powell, Shell’s chief scientist for chemical engineering. Powell said the technology was taking Shell back to the earliest days of energy consumption, when wood was the primary energy source until the early 1800s.

But Shell experts weren’t just talking about turning wood chips into gasoline and diesel. They have successfully used garbage and other waste materials to make biofuels that can be used as replacements for regular vehicle fuels.

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The projects are part of Shell’s $2.3 billion in spending on renewable energy and carbon capture technology over five years, said Matthew Tipper, vice president of alternative energies for Shell.

Tipper said the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which creates demand for advanced biofuels like the ones Shell is developing, was a key influence for pursuing the technology.

The industry trade group American Petroleum Institute has called for repealing the Renewable Fuel Standard and has specifically criticized government support for biofuel made from trash and inedible plants, which Shell has developed.

“We would not be where we are today, even having this conversation, were it not for the RFS,” Tipper said. “It sent out a very clear signal that the U.S. was serious about developing advanced biofuels.”

The vast majority of biofuels used in the United States today can only displace a small portion of petroleum-based fuels. That’s because most cars and trucks can’t run on high amounts of fuels like corn-based ethanol.

But advanced biofuels, such as the ones Shell is developing, could completely replace conventional gasoline and diesel in normal vehicles, said Alan Del Paggio, vice president of upstream research for Shell’s CRI Catalyst Company subsidiary.

“It has the potential to convert a wide range of wastes, including municipal wastes, things that aren’t being used for anything else, agricultural residues, municipal solid waste … energy crops, you name it,” Del Paggio said.

Shell hosted a presentation on the company’s latest advanced biofuels technology Thursday, drawing attendees from business organizations, academia and IndyCar, which is hosting two races in Houston this weekend sponsored by Shell.

Trevor Knowles, director of engine development for IndyCar, said he spoke with Shell experts at the presentation about the fuel, which could find its way into races. Shell says it is targeting large scale commercial sales of the fuel by 2020.

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The IndyCar events in Houston will consume nearly 4,000 gallons of E85 gasoline, a blend involving 85 percent ethanol made from sugar cane, Knowles said.

“If we can use a renewable fuel that’s not taking human feedstock then that’s a big benefit,” Knowles said, referring to the use of wastes and inedible resources to make fuel rather than food crops like corn.

He was interested in pushing for an IndyCar switch to 100 percent renewable fuel, like the biofuels Shell was presenting, he said.

“If it’s successful, it’ll be great, I think,” Knowles said. “It’s exciting.”

One Shell method being developed in the Chicago area takes trash or other materials through a set of boiler-like machines that vaporize and separate materials. The materials then go through reactors and other equipment to become fuels, Del Paggio said.

The process “does in minutes what Mother Nature takes millions of years to do,” Del Paggio said.

Another system, being tested in Houston, lifts wood chips by crane and drops them into a cylindrical steel digester that liquefies the materials and then runs them through a series of refinery-like processes, Powell said.


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