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Biomass Advanced biofuels

Published on July 22nd, 2014 | by Tina Casey

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US Still Crushing On Advanced Biofuels Research With New USDA, DOE Grants

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July 22nd, 2014 by  

While us EV fans are dreaming of an all-electric future, the reality is that tankloads of liquid fuel will continue to play a role in global mobility for, well, like forever. That means the US is going to continue churning out fuel for vehicles, aircraft, and seacraft.

Right now that has petroleum and natural gas stamped all over it, but a look at the latest round of funding for next-generation biofuel research projects from the Energy and Agriculture departments indicates how the biofuel market will continue to grow alongside wind, solar, and other alternative energy sources.

Advanced biofuels

Advanced biofuels courtesy of SRI International.

Another $6.3 Million For Two Biofuel Research Projects

Last week the Energy Department plunked down $6.3 million for a pair of advanced biofuel research projects that are aimed at bringing down the cost of biofuel down to a target cost competitive with petroleum, benchmarked at $3.00 per gallon for gasoline by 2022.

One of the projects is headquartered in North Carolina. That’s of particular  interest to us given the Koch-fueled political landscape in the state, which lawmakers there most recently manifested by lifting a ban on fracking.

However, it seems as though North Carolina is becoming another biofuel research hotspot, whether the state’s political leadership likes it or not.

The North Carolina grant tops out at $3.1 million. It goes to Research Triangle Institute (RTI), which will focus on squeezing the most carbon and energy out of a low pressure biofuel production process. The idea is to generate crude bio-oil as a precursor to refined products.

The last time we checked in on RTI, they were doing something on drones and thermoelectricity for the US Army, so the biofuel research angle is new to us.

RTI has a running start on a biomass pyrolysis process designed to cut costs. It has already started up a pilot-scale plant, which has been churning out bio-crude from woody biomass including wood chips, corn stover (husks, stalks, etc.), and switchgrass.

Under the new grant, RTI will focus on reducing hydrogen demand in the process, by developing a new catalyst system.

RTI also aims to make the process more efficient by capturing carbon that normally escapes the biomass conversion process in the form of wastewater. They’ll get an assist with the help of the leading water treatment firm Veolia Water. The company has crossed the CleanTechnica radar in related fields including wastewater biogas recovery and advanced desalination technology.

A related Energy Department-funded project has RTI demonstrating that bio-crude can be refined into transportation products using existing technology for petroleum-based fuels. Partnering in that project is the Danish firm Haldor Topsøe, better known for its expertise in the petroleum field.

The other $3.2 million in this round of Energy Department funding is headed for a much more biofuel-friendly state. The recipient is California-based SRI International, which will focus its efforts on algae biomass feedstock. As with the RTI project, SRI will aim at getting more fuel-worthy carbon out of the process while lowering costs. It will also work on upgrading fuel quality, by reducing the nitrogen content.

USDA Still Churning Out Advanced Biofuel Projects

The Agriculture Department also got into the action last week, chipping in $2 million for two of 10 new projects aimed at fine-tuning (okay, so engineering) non-food plants for optimal use in biofuel production. The Energy Department will pick up the rest of the tab for the eight other projects, bringing the total funding up to $12.6 million.

The ten projects are distributed in states in various growing regions throughout the country, including California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Texas, and Virginia.

That dovetails with a broader Energy Department strategy that emphasizes bringing more local and regional alternative fuel sourcing into the grid, along with centralized power plants.

This group of projects is particularly interesting because it includes biomass for uses other than liquid fuel for mobility. That would include biomass for power plants as well as biomass for home pellet stoves. In that arena, USDA has already amassed some evidence showing that switchgrass could be cheaper than home heating oil in some regions.

 

That brings us back around to the EV issue. Given the current state of R&D, it’s not too hard to envision a future in which some of the electricity for EV charging comes from a biomass-fueled power plant. One way or another, it looks like biofuel will continue to play a role in mobility.

One USDA, Many Partners

By the way, the Agriculture Department hasn’t been shy about collaborating with other agencies on advanced biofuels, in support of the President’s alternative energy agenda (wasn’t collaborating supposed to be a thing?).

Some recent examples include an earlier $41 million advanced biofuel initiative with the Energy Department, a partnership with FAA to boost aviation biofuel production, one with EPA to promote manure biogas production for livestock farms, and another with the departments of Energy and the Navy for drop-in aviation biofuel and biodiesel.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • Krishan Sharma

    This is very good R&D wok for India like..

  • JamesWimberley

    “Under the new grant, RTI will focus on reducing hydrogen demand in the process, by developing a new catalyst system.” The underlying problem is that the ratio of carbon to hydrogen in plant sugars is 1 to 2. Methane, the typical product of biofermentation. is 1 to 4. German research institute ZSW (link) had the bright idea of supplying the extra hydrogen from renewable-powered electrolysis. This is a much better bet than burning the hydrogen in a complicated fuel cell chain.

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  • http://www.michaeljberndtson.com/ Michael Berndtson

    I’ve agreed twice in a row with Tina. Maybe the next post will have something for me to nitpick.

    We’ve all been hearing about US and oil production for the past year. That we’re exceeding Russia and soon Middle Eastern countries in oil production at this point in time. The problem is we don’t have the reserves like those countries. We have about 10 to 20 times less. And what we have is becoming ever more expensive to produce. Russia, Saudi Arabia et al can sit back or throttle back flow and let US take the worlds biggest oil producer prize for a while. And of course wait, while still making a boatload of money off its sales.

    Sure Canada is sitting on tar sands and we’re North American cousins. But Canada is just an Arctic Ocean away from Russia. And who knows, given both countries’ love for hockey, the may align themselves into a northern latitudes OPEC. Plus, the Harper government is creepy, to say the least.

    So the US has to keep at it with biofuels. It’s pretty cool. Scale up is a pain in the ass. But we’ll get there. Hopefully soon.

    • Bob_Wallace

      My guess is that we’re going to use our oil during the “last days”.

      Not that the end of the world is coming for all, but it is for gasmobiles. Before the US runs out of oil we’ll have largely switched to manufacturing and purchasing EVs.

      Russia and the Middle East will be looking at stranded assets.

      BTW, as soon as we get closer to affordable long range EVs look to cheaper cost providers to start dumping oil on the market. The shale oil and sludge sources will go out of business.

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