Professor Jyri-Pekka Mikkola and his colleagues have worked together to invent a groundbreaking process for turning bio-based ethanol into petrol and diesel. The biggest challenge is now faced on a business level — finding funding and partners to put the system into production.
Text: Jonas Lidström
Jyri-Pekka Mikkola is a professor of chemistry at Umeå University and one of the co-owners of Eco-Oil AB, a company based on a chemical innova-tion that will make it possible to produce synthetic petrol out of ethanol.
“I decided right from the outset that I was going to implement a secret project. Something really difficult that could possibly change the world,” he says.
It all began around 2009. That was the year in which the Swedish government invested specially in 20 or so strategic research fields in order to produce world-leading research in vital fields. Umeå University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Luleå University of Technology all applied to carry out research in the field of energy, culminating in the Bio4Energy research programme.
When you’re working on something radical, game changer technology, you have to keep things quiet.
“This research programme gave us basic resources that were absolutely crucial,” says Jyri-Pekka Mikkola.
Jyri-Pekka Mikkola in the lab at the Department of Chemistry.
Following an extension of the research programme in 2015, Bio4Energy has now been running for almost a decade and has achieved good results with development of sustainable biorefinery processes.
But alongside these official activities, Jyri-Pekka Mikkola’s research team has also worked on a secret project: making petrol out of renewable raw materials.
“When you’re working on something radical, game changer technology, you have to keep things quiet. If you don’t, your discovery will be stolen, copied or crushed by some powerful force,” he explains.
The material that makes ethanol-based petrol
The first — and biggest — challenge was to develop a new material, a catalyst, with very specific properties: reacting with ethanol in a way that ‘converts’ the alcohol molecules into petrol or diesel.
“It took us a long time to refine the materials to make the product just the way we wanted it,” says Jyri-Pekka Mikkola.
Inside the small pores on the surface of the powder grains are metal nanoparticles. They are these particles that convert alcohol into water and petrol or diesel.
The research team has subsequently developed a process centred on the new catalyst materials. The basic concept involves petrol and diesel production taking place not at huge refineries, but at facilities about the size of a standard shipping container.
When I carried out a basic calculation using a series of assumptions, I found we’d need around 2,000 containers of this kind to convert Sweden from fossil fuel to renewable fuel.
“This technology will make it possible to produce fuels on a much smaller scale, in the locations where the raw materials can be found. Larger farms or community associations could become self-sufficient and produce their own fuel.”
If this vision becomes reality, this won’t just involve a green transition for fuel production: it will result in the restructuring of the entire industry.
“When I carried out a basic calculation using a series of assumptions, I found we’d need around 2,000 containers of this kind to convert Sweden from fossil fuel to renewable fuel.”
As yet, there’s still a lot of work to be done before this vision can become reality. Jyri-Pekka Mikkola is confident yet humble as the project enters its most delicate phase.
“It all works on a technological level. The difficult thing is to gain credibility so that we can get some real money behind us.”
The material we devised looks like a white powder. A single grain has a surface area equivalent to an entire football pitch.
Pros and cons of renewable hydrocarbons
He says he’s worked extensively on identifying the advantages and disadvantages of renewable hydrocarbons versus electric drives. As a result, he reckons producing batteries and electric powertrains takes up too much energy, while extraction of rare metals comes at a high price — both environmentally and socially.
A bottle of petrol produced in the prototype plant, somewhere in the forests outside of Umeå.
The distadvantage of large-scale production of bio-based fuel is that many trees that bind carbon dioxide would have to be harvested and turned into ethanol for the dream of phasing our fossil oil in favour of a renewable, circular system to come true.
“It would take time to regrow all that vegetation, but what else can we do?” asks Jyri-Pekka Mikkola rhetorically.
“All combustion processes produce carbon dioxide that is realeased. It’s unfortunately unavoidable.”
This article was first published in the magazine Think no. 1 2020.