Dow is confident that the catalyst will achieve the yields that NREL needs, but the challenging part is scaling up production, says Jones. There are all kinds of variables that can change when the size of a production line is increased, such as heat rates, the design of equipment, and dealing with contaminants, he says. “Dow has already scaled up complete production for the molybdenum sulphate catalyst,” says Jones. And Dow has demonstrated ethanol production using one-ton quantities of biomass.
In return for its contribution, Dow gets NREL’s expertise in large-scale gasification. Dow’s interest in ethanol production lies not in developing transportation fuels, but rather in reducing its own dependence on oil, says Jones. The petrochemical industry only accounts for about 1 percent of total oil consumption, but it nevertheless needs it as a feedstock to produce the vast range of materials. “Our goal is to try to improve our feedstock position,” says Jones.
In particular, “ethanol is a very nice precursor for getting to ethylene,” he says. Ethylene is a basic building block for many chemicals and plastics. Feedstocks and energy costs currently account for just under half of Dow’s total production and operating costs. In 2007, Dow spent $24 billion in purchasing feedstock and energy.
The aim of the partnership is to begin testing and trying to improve the performance of the catalyst as early as October, says Gorin. But the precise details of the three-year partnership have yet to be fleshed out, and the performance targets for the catalyst remain proprietary.