Houston, a leading biorefining community

By Bryan Sims | September 15, 2011

While Houston may be home to some of the world’s most recognizable petroleum refining conglomerates, such as ExxonMobil or Chevron, companies like Glycos Biotechnologies Inc. or KiOR Inc. may soon become household names as the city continues to cultivate a culture of progress to promote transformative technologies, entrepreneurship, business and academia that fuel biorefining growth. William Thurmond, co-chairman of the Biofuels Task Force Greater Houston Partnership and CEO of Emerging Markets Online, described Houston’s vibrant biobased economy movement in a general session panel titled “Why Houston is Becoming One of America’s Most Important Biorefining Communities” at the inaugural International Biorefining Conference & Trade Show, by saying, “If you’re a drop-in fuels company, this is the place to be.”

George Bennett, E. Dell Butcher professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University, explained to attendees how Houston’s academic resources are at the core of spurring biorefining growth specifically in the areas of processing technologies, metabolic engineering, biotechnology and computational methodology. Many of these resources from university-level research are capable of producing a range of advanced biofuels such as biobutanol, cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel derived from glycerol.

“Rice University has a strong tradition of science and technology, which has generated further interest in biorefining development,” Bennett said.

Tyra Rankin, chairwoman for the Clean Economy Network Houston Chapter, explained how CEN is a technology neutral organization that helps engage businesses, community, industry and academia to help shape policy in order to move an economy forward, emphasizing that regional clusters are the organic development of a biorefining community.

“The Houston region offers precisely the geographic concentration of industry along with an ecosystem of existing biorefining, capital markets, pipelines, complex refining and petrochemical industry and agriculture, “Rankin said. “All these form a perfect breeding ground for a robust and complex biorefining industry.”

During his presentation, Thurmond noted how Texas is heavily involved in renewable energy, noting that the state leads the nation in wind power, is second in solar power, first in biodiesel capacity, adding that Texas houses more than 30 major biofuel players.

“We want to be No. 1 in advanced biofuels,” he said.

But, the challenges, Thurmond said, are to help biorefining firms graduate innovative advanced biofuel technologies and scale them to produce product beyond beakers quantities to commercial volumes. Ways of doing so, he said, are for biorefining companies to align themselves with industry expertise that can allow access to infrastructure for technology deployment and product delivery on a commercial scale.

“If we really want to deploy and commercialize these fuels we need access to commercial-stage infrastructure, pipelines and strategic partners that can help these companies in the lab- or pilot-stage to graduate,” he said. “We’re seeing that now with Dow and Algenol and Valero and Enerkem to name a few. These strategic partnerships are going to be critical to the future of the advanced biofuels business.”

Home to almost 25 percent of the nation’s oil refining capacity, Houston is an ideal location for developing emerging biorefining technologies and businesses, and Thurmond said he doesn’t see this trend slowing down any time soon.

“This is a good place to be if you want to get your advanced biorefining project started and if you want to get it scaled up,” he said. “It’ll be like this for years to come.”