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US DOE Chases the "Three Big Barriers” to Drop-in Biofuels

In Washington, the U.S. Department of Energy announced four research and development projects to bring next generation biofuels on line faster and drive down the cost of producing gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels from biomass. The projects — located in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin — represent a $13 million Energy Department investment. It was an additional $1 million over the $12 million target when DOE set the project in motion last December.

“By partnering with private industry, universities and our national labs, we can increase America’s energy security, bolster rural economic development, and cut harmful carbon pollution from our cars, trucks and planes,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “As the President made clear in his plan to cut carbon pollution, partnerships like these will help move our economy towards cleaner, more efficient forms of energy that lower our reliance on foreign oil.”

Stripping out the Washington-speak, the Secretary is ultimately pointing in this round of partnerships to extract more energy, more efficiently from biomass via the thermochemical route. Primarily, the separation and extraction problem. Which anyone who has ever tried to light a fire with wet, green wood knows all about. Too much of the wrong material — in the case of green wood, too much water — and you get a whole lot of smoke and no fire.

The CHASE Project Background

The is is the CHASE Bio-Oil project, for those who recall its origins. CHASE – short for Carbon, Hydrogen, and Separation Efficiencies.

This funding project grew out of a stakeholder workshop held in December 2011 called “Conversion Technologies for Advanced Biofuels” (CTAB) and from a Request for Information circulated last November 2012.  The workshop itself stems from the DOE’s efforts to ensure it reaches its stated goal of producing cost-competitive drop-in biofuels at $3 per gallon by 2017.

The project is intended to move knowledge and understanding of basic or fundamental principles observed at Technical Readiness Level 1 into practical, applied research and development at TRLs 2-3 or beyond – regarding key technical barriers to improved yield and economic feasibility of producing biofuels via thermochemical, direct liquefaction pathways (i.e. fast pyrolysis, catalytic fast pyrolysis, hydropyrolysis, hydrothermal liquefaction, and solvent liquefaction).

The Three Big Barriers

Specifically, the focus is on three barriers repeatedly identified at CTAB and in the RFI.

  1. Carbon efficiency: developing selective fractionation and separation systems in bio-oil processing.
  2. Hydrogen efficiency: improving H2 production, use, and transfer in biomass liquefaction and bio-oil upgrading.
  3. Separations efficiency: developing technologies for use and mitigation of the aqueous fraction of bio-oil.

The experimental data and technology innovations or inventions produced from this research are crucial to realizing the Office of the Biomass Program’s goal of producing bio-oils with desirable qualities for making hydrocarbon transportation fuels in the gasoline, diesel, and jet range at less than $3 per gallon (gasoline equivalent) and that will enable technologies that contribute to the EISA Section 202 RFS goals.

Successful applicants had to provide an R&D work-plan to address the technical barriers that must be overcome to produce a hydrocarbon fuel blendstock at $3.00/gallon or less (gasoline equivalent), and demonstrate the potential to transfer findings to pilot- and demonstration-scale systems.

Projects are expected to last for up to three years, and DOE anticipates that up to $12 million in funding will be available for projects resulting from this FOA.

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Projects Selected

Ceramatec (up to $3.3 million)

Ceramatec will utilize an efficient electrochemical deoxygenation process to develop cost-effective technology to separate oxygen from bio-oil. This project will help produce hydrocarbon products suitable for further processing in conventional petroleum refineries.

In January, the USDA awarded Ceramatec up to $6.6 million for a project to convert lignocellulosic biomass to infrastructure-compatible renewable diesel, biolubricants, animal feed and biopower. New hybrids of energy sorghum will be developed, and other biomass resources include switchgrass and forestry residues. The biomass will be converted to hydrocarbons (molecules that are just like petroleum based hydrocarbons but derived from biomass) using innovative pretreatment, fermentation and electrochemical technologies. These hydrocarbons will be finished into premium synthetic bio-lubricants and biofuels via commercial petroleum refinery processes. A life cycle analysis will include energy efficiency impacts and assessment of impacts on rural development.

Last November, the company picked up $1.7 million from ARPA-E’s OPEN program to develop a small-scale membrane reactor to convert natural gas into transportable liquids in one step. Many remote oil wells burn natural gas as a by-product because it is not economical to store or transport. Such natural gas contains energy that equals 20% of annual U.S. electricity production (5 quadrillion BTUs worldwide). Capturing this energy would reduce both waste and greenhouse gas emissions and could be deployed in remote areas to convert otherwise wasted gas into usable chemicals that can be transported to market.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (up to $2.1 million) 

Oak Ridge National Laboratory will use a microbial electrolysis process to efficiently remove the hydrogen from the water found in bio-oil. This technology will help reduce the corrosivity of bio-oil and improve the efficiency of converting hydrogen and biomass to biofuels. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Georgia Institute of Technology, Pall Corporation, OmniTech International, and FuelCellsEtc will also participate in this project.

Last October, ORNL picked up part of a $10 million federal grant awarded to Penn State University aimed at developing regional, renewable energy markets, generating rural jobs, and decreasing America’s dependence on foreign oil. The NEWBio Consortium is focused on the non-food biomass sources of willow, miscanthus and switchgrass to develop sustainable production practices to improve yield by 25 percent and reduce costs by 20 percent.

ORNL is best known in the world of advanced biofuels for the Billion Ton Study and “SOn of Billion Ton” update, projecting that the US would have between 1.1 and 1.6 billion tons of available, sustainable biomass for industrial bioprocessing by 2030. The reports examine the nation’s capacity to produce a billion dry tons of biomass resources annually for energy uses without impacting other vital U.S. farm and forest products, such as food, feed, and fiber crops. The study provides industry, policymakers, and the agricultural community with county-level data and includes analysis of current U.S. feedstock capacity and the potential for growth in crops and agricultural products for clean energy applications.

University of Oklahoma (up to $4 million)

The University of Oklahoma will investigate two methods—thermal fractionation and supercritical solvent extraction—to maximize the amount of renewable carbon and hydrogen that can be extracted from biomass and converted to a refinery-compatible intermediate and suitable for final upgrading to a transportation fuel. The multidisciplinary research team includes experts in catalysis, separation, life-cycle analysis and techno-economic assessment.

Last December, the University picked up $466K from the USDA as a part of efforts to spur production of bioenergy and biobased products. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded the grants through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). which supports work in six priority areas: plant health and production and plant products; animal health and production and animal products; food safety, nutrition and health; renewable energy, natural resources and environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities.

Virent, Inc. (up to $4 million)

Virent will develop an innovative separation process which uses its BioForming technology to efficiently convert carbon from lignocellulosic biomass into hydrocarbon fuels. Virent will work to improve the overall carbon conversion efficiency of biomass—helping to reduce the cost of producing hydrocarbon biofuels that work with our existing transportation fuel infrastructure and are capable of meeting the Renewable Fuel Standard. Idaho National Laboratory will also bring their feedstock pre-processing capabilities to the project.

During the three year project, Virent will apply a novel fractionation and separation process coupled with its patented catalytic BioForming technology platform to optimize conversion of carbon from lignocellulosic biomass to hydrocarbon fuels. Virent will investigate both debarked loblolly pine and corn stover as feedstocks, in collaboration with Idaho National Laboratory’s state-of-the-art technologies and expertise for the pretreatment of the biomass.

“We are very excited to receive this award,” explains Dr. Randy Cortright, co-founder and chief technology officer at Virent. “Increasing carbon conversion efficiencies will ultimately reduce the cost of converting biomass to hydrocarbon transportation fuels and accelerate technical advancements to meet the needs of the Renewable Fuels Standards established by the EPA.”

Virent was last in the news on R&D in May when the company announced the delivery of 100 gallons of its bio-based jet fuel to the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) for testing purposes. Product testing will begin at Wright Patterson Air Force Base to validate Virent’s jet fuel against the standards required for qualification and approval of new aviation turbine fuels established by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The validation plan includes fit-for-purpose, fuel system and combustor rig testing.

This article was originally published on Biofuels Digest and was republished with permission.

Lead image: Barrier tape via Shutterstock

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