NREL Is Helping Scale Up Biofuels Operations

When it comes to fostering new biofuels technology during a recession, a big barrier can simply be cash. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu recently gave the industry a boost when he announced the selection of 19 integrated biorefinery projects that are eligible to receive up to $564 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to accelerate the construction and operation of pilot, demonstration and commercial scale biofuel facilities.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is partnering with five of the winning companies — Algenol, Amyris, Clearfuels, Gas Technology Institute, and the Renewable Energy Institute International — to help launch pilot scale and then commercial scale development of biomass based second generation fuels in the U.S.

“NREL was approached by approximately 20 companies asking us to partner with them for this DOE solicitation,” said John Ashworth (left), NREL Team Leader for Partnership Development at the National Bioenergy Center. “DOE wanted private firms to be the lead organizations in any proposal, so we partnered with a number of different companies on a variety of projects.”

According to Ashworth, DOE has been consciously trying to stimulate innovation in converting non-food biomass into fuels. The government is putting up risk capital to attract private investors to put their money into pushing technologies forward. “It’s a forward thinking approach,” Ashworth said. “It’s taking risk, but it’s working. Billions of dollars are being committed to these scale-up activities, helping to cut down the timeline for when these fuels are in the marketplace.”

In DOE’s request for proposals, companies were encouraged to develop pilot facilities to convert cellulosic mass into biofuels or to use existing small scale facilities to test various processes for using many types of biomass for fuels creation. “DOE deliberately supported a number of different technologies in an effort to move these technologies to the point where they can be tested at scale,” Ashworth said.

NREL’s Expertise and Tools Add Value

Companies interested in applying for the DOE grants had a variety of reasons for wanting NREL on their team. General themes from the winning proposals included having NREL look at the techno-economics of their proposals to leveraging the existing tools and expertise at the lab.

In the case of technoeconomic modeling, NREL examines a company’s biomass conversion process to better understand what the economics would look like at scale once they have data from a pilot scale run. “We have very good modeling capabilities at NREL,” Ashworth said. “We have some existing models for some processes and for some we will have to develop new models plugging in data from various pilot scale runs to get a better sense of what the resulting fuel would cost.”

NREL’s tools also are highly valued by the private sector. For instance, companies researching the thermochemical conversion of biomass want to have access to NREL’s molecular beam mass spectrometer (MBMS). “There aren’t many like it in the world,” Ashworth said. “It allows us to look at the gas composition, in real time, to see what’s going on inside the reactor.” NREL recently developed a transportable version of the MBMS, which NREL researchers can take on the road.

Clearfuels (awarded $23 million under the ARRA solicitation) and Renewable Energy Institute International (awarded nearly $20 million) are examples of industry working with NREL by leveraging the lab’s tools to improve their technical processes. Specifically, NREL will take the portable MBMS to their operating biomass gasifiers to measure their gas stream in real time and provide suggestions to help optimize their process.

Partners to Explore Varied Technologies

While both companies have a need for NREL tools, their projects are quite different. Clearfuels will produce renewable diesel and jet fuel from woody biomass by integrating two different conversion technologies. Their facility also will evaluate the conversion of sugar cane bagasse and biomass mixtures to fuels. Renewable Energy Institute International is looking to produce high quality green diesel from agriculture and forest residues using advanced pyrolysis and steam reforming. The pilot plant will have the capacity to process 25 dry tons of feedstock per day.

Mirroring DOE’s desire to explore varied technologies, NREL’s other partners are tackling the biofuels challenge in completely different ways.

(Image caption: NREL’s Molecular Beam Mass Spectrometer (MBMS) analyzes vapors during the gasification and pyrolysis processes within the Thermochemical Process Development Unit. Credit: Calvin Feik) Enlarge image

Algenol ($25 million) is proposing to make ethanol directly from carbon dioxide, sunlight, and seawater using algae. Their facility will have the capacity to produce 100,000 gallons of fuel grade ethanol per year. “Algenol has a unique process — no one has anything quite like it,” Ashworth said. “They have an algae species that produces ethanol and they can take ethanol out of the water or out of the water vapor above their growth chambers.” NREL researchers will work with Algenol to remove scientific barriers to help increase the yield and optimize the way the algae process carbon dioxide gas provided by a power plant or industrial user.

Amyris ($25 million) will produce a diesel substitute through the fermentation of sweet sorghum. The pilot plant also will have the capacity to co-produce lubricants, polymers, and other petro-chemical substitutes. In addition to science-based work, NREL also will assist Amyris with technoeconomics modeling for their chosen method.

NREL will support Gas Technology Institute’s ($2.5 million) unique thermochemical hydropyrolysis/hydroprocessing system by undertaking technoeconomic analysis of their process configuration to determine fuel costs from the pilot plant data.

“In all of these cases, our job is to facilitate industry in the scaling up of their technology,” Ashworth said. “Our hope is to help drive the industry forward, help get the plants built, get the technology tested. We are trying to help everyone out as best we can so that they can prove the technology, prove that it is cost effective, and then they can get money to help scale up the technology to commercial size.”

Working with Industry Benefits NREL, Too

The benefit to teaming is not just a one-way street with all of the perks going to industry; NREL also benefits greatly from working with the private sector. The National Bioenergy Center (NBC) at NREL was designed to be a user facility and is charged with helping industry scale up technology. “The great advantage to NBC and NREL is that we get to become a part of the latest technology that’s evolving,” Ashworth said. “We get to know what industry is working on from the inside out and it helps us broaden our base and the kinds of things we can work on as well. For instance, we will get to work on different feedstocks such as switchgrass, sweet sorgum or other feedstocks that are going to be important to the future.”

Heather Lammers represents the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in its Public Affairs Office.  She splits her time between communicating with the media and writing stories that feature the work of the lab, which is vital in providing energy solutions to the nation. NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

This article originally appeared as a National Renewable Energy Laboratory feature article and was reprinted with permission.

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