Researchers from the Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials (CNPEM), an institution overseen by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI), have just published a study revealing valuable data on prospects for developing innovative biotechnological processes to produce biofuels, especially hydrocarbons, which could potentially meet specifications for long distance transport (as what are known as drop-in fuels).
Long distance transport is currently powered by fuels like diesel and aviation kerosene, and is responsible for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change. Because of these concerns, biofuels offer a promising alternative and the potential to reduce emissions from the transport sector, which historically has depended on fossil sources.
The results of the study, available online in the Chemical Engineering Journal (CEJ), showcase sugarcane and soybean oil, two raw materials widely used in Brazil for large-scale production of biofuels, and assess the economic and environmental impacts in various scenarios.
The most technologically mature methods for producing hydrocarbons from biomass often require high temperatures and pressure, as well as chemical catalysts. The challenge is to make biologically based processes more feasible, integrating enzymatic stages into the metabolism of microorganisms in what is known as a cell factory, using proteins that can trigger reactions in a specific way under less extreme conditions.
“There is currently a worldwide technological race to make a new production and consumption model that uses biologically based raw materials more viable. Brazil has rich biodiversity and abundant, diverse, and economically competitive biomass. Efforts to develop industrially relevant biotechnologies that are sustainable could make the country an active player in the international scene,” notes Eduardo do Couto e Silva, director of the Brazilian Biorenewables National Laboratory (LNBR/CNPEM).
Recently in another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers at the CNPEM described the discovery of a new enzyme, which they named OleTPRN. This enzyme can convert fatty acids into alkenes (olefins), and shows promise for use in industrial processes. This conversion is important not only for producing biofuels from renewable raw materials, but also obtaining chemical intermediaries that are extremely important in the petrochemical sector, with potential impacts in additional manufacturing areas like food and beverage, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.
“Assessing these routes, even in the early stages of development, alongside comparing them with more mature conventional technologies, is essential to identify opportunities for metabolic engineering and process improvements (like potentially using this new enzyme) in order to make these routes more sustainable, with competitive costs and less environmental impact,” explains CNPEM researcher Tassia Lopes Junqueira.
For over a decade, the CNPEM has been perfecting an internationally validated Sustainability Platform that combines various databases with technical, economic, and life-cycle data and models of the different stages involved in production chains.
This platform makes it possible to simulate scenarios and conduct wide-ranging analyses, demonstrating how different raw materials, process configurations, and variations in technical parameters can impact economic outcomes such as the minimum sales price, and environmental results like carbon intensity and cumulative energy demand of biofuels.
The study published in the CEJ assessed the economic feasibility of different processes for producing drop-in biofuels, and considered the use of fermentation and enzymes with sugarcane and soybean oil.
Despite pointing out that improvements are necessary to make biological routes competitive with conventional alternatives, the findings indicated better prospects for scenarios involving sugarcane than those involving soybean oil.
The biological route using soybean oil as a raw material had higher operating costs and was more carbon intensive, mostly due to the biomass.
The improved biological process could yield a hydrocarbon-based fuel with a minimum sales price that is competitive with the market prices for traditional fuels and a carbon intensity similar to sugarcane ethanol, with an estimated reduction of more than 70% in greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels.
“With the consolidation of policies to value and establish markets for carbon credits, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from replacing fossil fuels with biofuels has become an important financial asset. In Brazil, RenovaBio establishes yearly decarbonization goals for the fuel sector and offers CBios, a new revenue source for biofuel producers. Additionally, international policies to reduce emissions and expand renewable fuels, like the RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard) in the United States and the RED-II (Renewable Energy Directive) in Europe, create markets willing to pay more for fuels with low greenhouse gas emissions. Factors like these are essential for driving innovative and more sustainable technologies,” notes Mateus Ferreira Chagas, a researcher at the CNPEM.
The next stage in the project involves assessing the availability of raw materials and regions that are better suited for production in order to guide decision making in strategic plans that can combine different alternatives for large-scale production of renewable energy.
“Based on the data available on climatic conditions and other factors, we can create maps showing priority areas for crop expansion and also considering various aspects of sustainability that will involve lower costs and better mitigation in producing biofuels via different technological routes. This integrated approach has been applied in several case studies and provides a broad view that can be useful to researchers, shapers of public policy, and companies in the energy and transport sectors,” states Edvaldo Rodrigo de Morais, a researcher at the CNPEM.
With a sophisticated and vibrant environment for research and development that is the only one of its kind in Brazil and found in only a few scientific centers in the world, the Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials (CNPEM) is a private, non-profit organization overseen by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI). The Center operates four national laboratories and is home to Sirius, the most complex project in Brazilian science and one of the world’s most advanced synchrotron light sources. The CNPEM is home to highly specialized multi-thematic teams, globally competitive lab infrastructure that is open to the scientific community, strategic lines of research, innovative projects in partnerships with the productive sector, and training for researchers and students. The Center is an environment driven by research into solutions that impact the areas of health, energy and renewable materials, agri-environmental, and quantum technologies. Through the CNPEM 360 platform, users can visit all the laboratories in Campinas (SP) in a virtual, immersive experience, as well as obtain information about the work conducted there and the resources available to the scientific and business communities. In 2022, with support from the Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC), the CNPEM expanded its activities with the opening of the Ilum School of Science. This interdisciplinary undergraduate program in science, technology, and innovation implements innovative ideas to provide a high quality free and full-time undergraduate program immersed in the research environment at the CNPEM.