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Making Gasoline from the Sun

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Sundrop Fuels believes it can combine wood chips with sun power to make gasoline and diesel fuel.


A Louisville, Colorado, company says it has perfected a solar-energy technology capable of producing 100 million gallons of synthetic gasoline annually from corn stalks and wood chips.

Sundrop Fuels Inc., which has constructed a 60-foot tower rising above a nearly 3,000-mirror solar array near Highway 7 and Interstate 25 in Broomfield, Colorado, already has proven it can generate synthetic gas using the sun’s heat.

Now it wants to raise between $100 million and $150 million to build the world’s first solar-powered biorefinery. That demonstration project could make 7 million to 8 million gallons of gas a year.

“We want to use the sun to make renewable fuel,” said Wayne Simmons, Sundrop’s CEO. “We’re going to convert the sun’s energy into liquid fuel using concentrated solar power to gasify biomass, then convert the biomass into gasoline or diesel.”

The new technology has the potential to revolutionize the biofuels industry, experts say, because it removes one of the long-term cost hurdles to creating fuel from organic waste.

The company blasts organic materials, such as wood chips and straw, with superhigh temperatures gathered from sunshine. The heat tears the material apart on a molecular level, adds the sun’s heat energy in the thermo-chemical reaction, and creates a synthetic gas that can be formed into gasoline or diesel fuel.

“They’re using solar power in conjunction with biomass-to-energy, and really, no one else is doing that,” said Jim Lane, editor of the online Biofuels Digest, a leading biofuels-industry daily newsletter that has 15,000 subscribers.

Sundrop’s solar reactor, near the top of the tower, operates at temperatures of 1,200 to 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,200 to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit) using the heat reflected from the mirrors.

By comparison, concentrated solar-power plants, which use the sun’s reflected heat to generate steam for electricity, typically operate at around 500 degrees Celsius (more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit), Simmons said.

Biofuels are a growing area of interest because they offer what’s essentially an above-ground oil reservoir that can be located in the United States. When vehicles burn biofuels made from plants, they’re relatively carbon-neutral.

That means there’s little or no net gain in carbon-dioxide emissions from cars using the synthetic fuel, because the CO2 comes from the biomass grown in the last year or so, rather than from fossil fuels formed millions of years ago.

And biofuels can act as a hedge for large oil companies worried about unstable foreign regimes or their ability to find more oil, Lane said.

Sundrop’s reactor can use any kind of biomass, including plants grown specifically for their energy content. The organic biomass material is dropped into the reactor; the high temperatures vaporize it in seconds. The molecules are torn apart and recombined to form a synthetic gas (syngas), made up of hydrogen and carbon—which can be turned into gasoline, diesel, plastics, or chemicals, Simmons said.

Gasification of organic material to make synthetic gas has been done. But traditional gasifiers burn a large percentage of the biomass, or a fossil fuel such as natural gas, to reach operating temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit). Sundrop’s process uses the free sunshine as its fuel source, and—as a plus—picks up some of the sun’s heat energy in the chemical process, he said.

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