Cellulosic Biodiesel Research Effort Of ExxonMobil And REG Shows Promise

Renewable Energy Group and ExxonMobil have announced that use of the former’s patented fermentation technology by the two companies in a joint research initiative has paved the way for a new technique of converting sugars into biodiesel. The sugars in this case were obtained from biomass sources that were non-edible and therefore not competing with food.

According to the research and development vice president at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, Vijay Swarup, the first challenge that the two firms faced while conducting the initial research was determining the technical feasibility as well as the potential environmental benefits.

Feasibility and benefits

The research proved that the fermentation technology of Renewable Energy Group was indeed feasible and could be used across various cellulosic sugar compositions which have been manufactured using various methods and from a variety of biomass sources. It was also confirmed that the technology led to substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on comparison to traditional diesel.

Renewable Energy Group and ExxonMobil inked a deal last year in January with the aim of studying biodiesel production via the fermentation of cellulosic sugars obtained from such sources as agricultural waste. The joint research initiative will now be extended in light of the positive findings and the technology will continue to be explored with a view to finding ways of scaling it.

“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 lifecycle greenhouse gas implications of that process,” Swarup said.

Microbes in fermentation

The proprietary technology that REG Life Sciences has developed employs microbes in the conversion of cellulosic sugars into diesel during the fermentation process. Typically the cellulosic feedstocks which are present in agricultural waste have a variety of sugars and this includes xylose and glucose besides impurities which are capable of inhibiting the fermentation process.

The transportation sector could greatly benefit from a breakthrough in the production of biodiesel from cellulosic sugars. By the year 2040 the worldwide demand for energy in this sector is expected to grow by around 25%. Reducing the emissions that the transportation industry produces with new technologies would also go a long way in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Other technologies which are aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions that ExxonMobil is actively researching include carbon capture and algae biofuels. With regards to algae biofuels ExxonMobil has partnered with Synthetic Genomics.

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