Toledo company develops technology for cleaner biofuelWritten by Duane Ramsey | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A local businessman believes he has the formula for a process and technical expertise to create the equipment for producing a biofuel that does not depend on food-chain material such as corn, burns cleaner than ethanol and requires little, if any, fossil fuel to produce.
Ford Cauffiel Sr., president and CEO of Cauffiel Technologies in Toledo, has developed a process to convert cellulosic plant materials into ethanol or butanol with metal processing machinery his company has built for 55 years.
“We are fully aware of the research and development that is taking place to convert cellulosic materials to ethanol,” said Cauffiel, who began developing his technology in 1978.
The U.S. Department of Energy has granted millions of dollars to companies and universities that are developing various methods for such conversion.
Although Cauffiel’s firm did not receive a grant due to a technicality, he said, it is continuing research.
“We have a research contract for $5 million from a New York investment group and received $500,000 after designing the process,” he said.
Cauffiel Technologies is now looking to develop laboratory-size pre-treatment plants for company or university research and development operations to convert cellulosic material to C5 and C6 sugars from algae, corn fibers, switch grass, wood chips and other plant life.
Cellulosic materials are commonly known as lignocellulose or hemicellulose molecules found in plant life such as fast-growing switch grass, which requires little water and grows 12 feet high with roots eight feet deep. Hemicellulose is found in corncobs and stalks known as corn stover, Sorghum trees and even fast-growing algae.
“There are many processes being used to convert cellulosic material into ethanol, but they are costly, require a large amount of energy to burn the material and create pollution,” Cauffiel said.
“Another recent process is using super bugs,” he said. “Everyone knows that fungus and termites love wood.”
Numerous companies and universities are researching the creation of super bugs with genetic engineering. Super bugs chew up wood or cellulosic material quickly and give off ethanol.
“Super bugs can be dangerous and must be confined,” said Cauffiel, who has developed a method known as steam explosion. The steam explosion will speed up the process of breaking down cellulosic material by helping super bugs digest material faster.
Heating the material up to 500 degrees at 500 pounds per square inch on a continuous basis causes the material to explode out of the machine and into a flash tank. The exploded material consisting of C5 and C6 sugars and lignin will be ready for the super bugs to digest easier.
“Once you have a good steam explosion, you can convert the C5 and C6 sugars into ethanol or butanol,” Cauffiel said. “Many scientists and universities around the country have heard about us, and we have received many phone calls about it.”
Because all plant life and wood products burn, the remains from the steam-explosion process can fuel the boiler to make steam and heat the tanks for super bugs with little or no additional energy required. That is a big problem when making ethanol from corn, Cauffiel said.
The challenge is to design and build machinery that will withstand the continuous high pressure and temperatures required for the process. With 55 years of experience designing and manufacturing steel-making processes and machinery, Cauffiel said he is confident his company has the solution.
“Our small plant for universities will be in operation in eight months to a year,” he said.
Once the cellulosic plant materials have been converted to C5 and C6 sugars, there are several possible byproducts, including butanol, which is similar to ethanol and has the same energy content as gasoline.
Ethanol is only about 60 percent as efficient as gasoline. Butanol or bio-butanol delivers clean emissions as well as any fuel, including ethanol, Cauffiel said.
“Butanol is easy to handle because it does not attract water as ethanol does. It can easily be distributed through pipelines whereas ethanol needs to be hauled by trucks from the Midwest where it is produced to refineries on the east, south and west coasts,” he said.
Many companies, such as Dupont and British Petroleum, are working to develop a super bug that is genetically engineered to convert the mixture to butanol that provides the same miles per gallon as gasoline.
“Our pre-treatment process is one of the keys because it breaks down that very strong hemicellulose molecule naturally found in all plant life. Those sugar molecules are protected by a wrap-around of ligneous material, the strongest molecule found in nature. Just look at trees when the wind is blowing,” Cauffiel said.
He plans to explode the micro hemicellulose molecule found in algae or any fast-growing plant life without affecting food crops such as corn. When the super bugs are done eating, they can make butanol that does not require additional energy from gas, coal or petroleum products.
Ethanol fuel production rose 34 percent in the United States during 2007, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, reaching a record high of about 6.5 million barrels. Energy industry experts expect similar growth rates in 2008.
A number of companies are commercializing second-generation biofuels such as butanol that may be cheap and clean enough to replace ethanol. Energy industry sources also report the new fuels could be produced by the same refineries that are now making ethanol.
Butanol is an alcohol that has been produced from petroleum for decades and used mostly as a solvent. It can now be made for less than ethanol and yields more BTUs of energy.
The demand for butanol is expected to increase dramatically since it can be produced economically from lost-cost biomass, according to a study conducted for the U.S. Department of Energy by Environmental Energy Inc. and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at The Ohio State University.
That study concluded that butanol’s application as a replacement for gasoline will outpace ethanol, biodiesel and hydrogen when its safety and simplicity of use are realized.
Not only has Cauffiel realized those factors, his company has also developed a process and is designing the machinery to produce butanol as a cleaner alternative fuel for gasoline.
Cauffiel continues to seek company or university sources for developing this emerging technology on a local or national level.
“We’re always happy to look at anything in alternative energy technologies and see what could be done to develop them here in this region,” said Steve Weathers, president and CEO of the Regional Growth Partnership (RGP).
Weathers indicated the RGP is interested in reviewing Cauffiel’s technology as a potential client for its Launch Program or funding through Rocket Ventures. The RGP is already working with SuGanit Systems, a spin-off company developing similar technology in the incubator facility at UT.
Cauffiel’s process is similar to the process UT researchers have developed for converting biomass into C5 and C6 sugars and then into alcohol. Researchers at UT are working with SuGanit Systems to commercialize the process licensed through the university, said Sasidhar Varansi, professor of chemical engineering at UT.
“There may be an opportunity for UT’s technology and Cauffiel’s technology to work in collaboration,” said Megan Reichart-Kral, director of the office of research and development at the Clean and Alternative Energy Incubator at UT.
Reichert-Kral said Cauffiel approached the university to seek assistance in applying for the Department of Energy grants. She referred him to Peter Hug of Recombinant Innovation, a UT incubation tenant who assists companies in developing technologies.
Hug worked with Cauffiel on the grant application with the Department of Energy.
“The next step for Cauffiel’s pre-treatment technology is to create a research facility in a university context to develop the entire process for producing biofuels,” Hug said.
He agreed with Reichart-Kral that some type of collaboration between Cauffiel and UT is still something that could happen. Hug said he would be working to facilitate an arrangement between Cauffiel and UT.
Hug founded Recombinant Innovation in 2004 to focus on the application of directing innovation to create successful technology-based startup companies. He previously worked as a research chemist and earned his Ph.D. in molecular genetics, biochemistry and microbiology.