Forge Hydrocarbons, a University of Alberta spinoff company in which Bressler is a partner and the lead scientific adviser, received the grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, which only funds groundbreaking, economically viable products.
“It’s a huge validation,” said Bressler. “It’s capital investment. It’s not a research project anymore.”
Bressler is not the first scientist to convert renewable feed stocks into fuel, but he’s the first to figure out how to do it cost-effectively. The trick lies in how oxygen is released from lipid molecules to create hydrocarbons, which produce energy when combusted.
To date, petroleum companies have used hydrogen and a mineral catalyst to remove the oxygen, producing what’s known as “green diesel.” But hydrogen and minerals are expensive and require a clean feed stock such as canola, that is also of high value.
Bressler’s method, done with high-temperature chemistry, needs neither a catalyst nor clean feed stock.
First, animal fat or crop seed oil is heated with water at a high temperature to create fatty acids and glycerol. The glycerol is removed and the fatty acids are heated again, at more than 400 C, until the oxygen within them is released. That makes the fatty acids into hydrocarbons that can be further processed to become various fuels, including gasoline.
“We can use really dirty fuels like brown grease [used cooking oil], and tall oils, which are the oils from trees when they separate out the pulp,” said Bressler.
“And because the [production] plant doesn’t need a catalyst, the plants are cheaper to build. Instead of having one big plant, we can have five smaller ones in various areas, contributing to economic development in those communities.”
The resulting fuel is also a “drop-in biofuel,” chemically indistinguishable from petroleum-based fuel. It does not need to be blended with petroleum-based diesel, the way ethanol does. Ethanol, which is made from fermenting corn and sugar cane and is oxygenated, was the first iteration of a biofuel, and is still the one most widely used.
Design on Forge’s commercial plant is projected to begin later this year after a location is confirmed, with construction slated for 2017. Once built, the plant will produce renewable liquid hydrocarbons at a capacity of 19 million litres annually.
That represents a significant increase over the 200,000 litres per year that have been produced at its pilot plant in northeast Edmonton, where Bressler’s team has been developing the method and its scale-up for two years, with investment from Western Economic Development Canada and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency.
Earlier basic research elements of the project were funded by Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions, BioFuelNet Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.