Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image

Start-up Turns Sugar Beets Into Alternative to Gasoline




A biofuels start-up, working with oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC, has begun turning sugar beets into a gasoline substitute compatible with existing engines and pipelines.

Virent Energy Systems Inc. is expected to say Tuesday that its process of converting plants into liquid fuels is working at a 10,000-gallon-a-year pilot site in Madison, Wisc. “At today’s crude-oil and biomass costs, our process is competitive,” says Lee Edwards, Virent’s chief executive.

Virent’s catalytic-conversion technology has attracted backers such asCargill Inc. and Honda Motor Co., which both have equity stakes in the privately held company. Shell has funded a significant portion of Virent’s research over the past couple years.

The U.S. government is heavily promoting the development of biofuels, through a combination of blending mandates, grants and subsidies, as a way to create jobs and an alternative to imported crude oil.

The fuel being made by Virent can be blended right into existing pipelines, gas stations and automobile fuel tanks without problems. The industry calls this a “drop-in” biofuel.

This is a large change from the current crop of biofuels. Corn-based ethanol, the dominant biofuel in the U.S., cannot be moved through petroleum pipelines because it is too corrosive. What’s more, no more than 10% of a gallon of gasoline can be ethanol by law, a limit set to prevent engine problems.

By comparison, Virent says it believes existing engines can operate on its fuel without any problems, while generating fewer carbon-dioxide emissions.

The successful start-up of the Madison facility shows both the promise and problems with biofuels. The Virent announcement underscores the technological progress being made to create low-carbon fuels from domestic crops. But at the same time, the facility is still quite small. The 10,000-gallon annual output is less than one barrel a day. By comparison, Shell’s part-owned refinery in Norco, La., churns out 75,000 barrels of gasoline daily and an equal amount of diesel.

Samhitha Udupa, a research associate at Lux Research, a Cambridge, Mass., firm that analyzes emerging technologies, sees great potential for drop-in fuels to elbow aside corn-based ethanol. “Ethanol only has a market because it is being forced upon us by the government, not because it’s a good fuel,” she says. “We will always need diesel and gasoline. The sooner people can come up with biobased drop-in replacements that are cost competitive with petroleum, there is no reason why consumers wouldn’t adopt that.”

Still, she worries that too many companies are hoping to use plant sugars—whether from sugar beets or inedible stalks and grasses—to make biofuels. “The cost of sugar is definitely going to increase in coming years and that will affect their bottom line,” she says.

Virent’s Mr. Edwards says the technology can convert a number of plant sugars into fuel and the company is working on making diesel and jet fuel, in addition to gasoline. He expects planning work on a 100-million-gallon-a-year facility to begin later this year.

Write to Russell Gold at [email protected]

WSJ SOURCE ARTICLE and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

0 Comments on “Start-up Turns Sugar Beets Into Alternative to Gasoline”

Leave a Comment

Comment Rules

  • Please show respect to the opinions of others no matter how seemingly far-fetched.
  • Abusive, foul language, and/or divisive comments may be deleted without notice.
  • Each blog member is allowed limited comments, as displayed above the comment box.
  • Comments must be limited to the number of words displayed above the comment box.
  • Please limit one comment after any comment posted per post.

%d bloggers like this: