ClearFuels Technologies touts benefits of strategic partnerships

By Erin Voegele | January 18, 2012

Bridging the gap from lab- and pilot-scale production through commercial demonstration and full operation is neither cheap nor quick, said Eric Darmstaedter, president of ClearFuels Technologies Inc. During his presentation at the 2012 Pacific West Biomass Conference & Tradeshow, Darmstaedter explained that attracting the right strategic partner can simplify and expedite the scale-up process. As an example, he walked attendees through the case study of his company and its partnership with Rentech.

Rentech’s BioEnergy Center of Excellence is the only fully integrated operating facility for the production of syngas, hydrogen, ASTM diesel and jet fuel from both multiple biomass feedstocks and natural gas at the demo-scale, Darmstaedter said. Rentech, which has more than 40 years of experience in syngas production, is currently the majority owner of ClearFuels.

ClearFuel’s unique process is a steam reformation technology that converts biomass into syngas and hydrogen. “Syngas is good, but you really have to couple it with something else to get value,” Darmstaedter said, such as a process to convert it into diesel or jet fuel.

During his presentation, Darmstaedter explained what makes his company’s gasification technology so unique: “The difference here is its indirect firing. The gasification products don’t mix with the combustion products. You end up with cleaner syngas and less tars. That saves you some money on the back end. The system runs on steam, not air or oxygen, so it has a lower cap-ex and smaller footprint…You can fire the reformer with natural gas or biogas or tailgas sort of interchangeably, which means the integration with other gasification technologies becomes a little easier…A unique aspect of this approach is you can control the residence time in the reactor…and therefore change what the syngas looks like on the output.”

According to Darmstaedter, ClearFuels began operating a pilot-scale plant in the mid-2000s. The project was successful, but the company needed to bridge the gap to demonstration scale. It was 2009 and the company lacked capital and the financial markets were difficult. Furthermore, the startup didn’t have the personnel to operate a facility 24/7. “We [also] needed a technology integration partner to do something with the syngas,” he said, and pursuing a greenfield project was challenging in terms of time, expense and permitting.

Rentech approached ClearFuels around this time, and Darmstaedter said he thought it was a good match. “Being able to co-locate at an existing facility saved us a lot of time and money,” he continued. “They have a strong balance sheet, which is helpful. They had experience operating [this type of facility] and had scientists, engineers and technicians who understood what we were doing.”

A 20 ton a day demonstration plant was completed this November. That facility is currently undergoing commissioning. “The next step is to run three campaigns over the next three or four months, starting with wood waste, and then doing sugarcane bagasse, followed by mixtures of the two,” he said. “We’ll probably be done by April. From there we are going straight to commercial-scale.”