US Energy Dept. Goes Rogue On Biofuel, Celebrates Bio-Based Economy

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So, this is weird. In one corner, you have US President* Donald J. Trump talking up the fossil fuel industry and denying climate change, and meanwhile his Department of Energy is touting a breakthrough in biofuel production and dropping another $40 million on new research aimed at ramping up the bio-based economy of the future.

Yes, they use the b-word (bio-based). That sure sounds like US energy policy is aiming at decarbonization, despite the promises Trump made to coal miners during and after his successful bid for the White House.

$40 Million For Better, Cheaper Biofuel

CleanTechnica took a quick note of the new $40 million in funding last week, which was officially designated “Made in America Week” by the Trump Administration.

As has become his habit, Energy Secretary Rick Perry went off in his own direction during Made in America Week to make a rousing pitch for the US wind industry — a growing manufacturing sector that somehow escaped Trump’s celebration of all things made in the USA.

Perry also shared his agency’s affection for the bioeconomy of the future during Made in America week.

The Department of Energy kicked the week off with a splashy announcement for the new $40 million funding program, which will go to three existing research consortia called the Bioenergy Research Centers, and to establish a new one, too.

The research centers aim at ramping up the efficiency of biofuel production and other bio-products:

“The centers — each led by a DOE National Laboratory or a top university — are designed to lay the scientific groundwork for a new bio-based economy that promises to yield a range of important new products and fuels derived directly from nonfood biomass.”


The $40 million is just seed money, btw. The Energy Department is planning on a 5 year funding program for the initiative.

Notably, Secretary Perry does not seem to be on board with the Trump Administration’s fossil-friendly energy policy. Here’s his pitch for the research centers:

“The revolution of modern biology has opened up vast new opportunities for the energy industry to develop and utilize products derived from biomass as a sustainable resource. … These centers will accelerate the development of the basic science and technological foundation needed to ensure that American industry and the American public reap the benefits of the new bio-based economy.”

Yep, he said the b-word.

Building On Renewable Energy Progress

CleanTechnica has also noticed that Perry has been steadily building on Obama-era renewable energy initiatives — some of which were launched even farther back — and the new research centers provide yet another example.

The Energy Department makes this clear:

“The current awards represent a follow-on phase to the original DOE Bioenergy Research Centers program, established by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within DOE’s Office of Science in 2007…”

That program established three Bioenergy Research Centers, credited thusly:

“Over ten years, these three BRCs produced multiple breakthroughs in the form of deepened understanding of sustainable agricultural practices, major reengineering of plant feedstocks, development of new methods of deconstructing feedstocks, and reengineering of microbes for more effective fuel production.”

With the addition of a fourth research center, expect more of the same, including patents (the original three centers produced 92) and license options (191 and counting).

The three existing centers are spearheaded by the University of Wisconsin–Madison in partnership with Michigan State University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The fourth center will be led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which counts “using plants themselves as sustainable biofactories” as one of its areas of expertise.

Very Interesting…

The Trump Administration’s ramped-up commitment to the biochemical sector is an interesting development considering that Exxon and other fossil stakeholders appear to be depending on the US shale gas and petrochemical industries to make up for lost ground as renewables edge into their power production and transportation fuel turf.

The oil giants have been dropping billions on new petrochemical and gas-to-plastics facilities in Texas, taking advantage of the shale gas boom and access to shipping routes. That’s partly in anticipation of increased demand for plastic products among emerging economies overseas.

In the most recent example, petrochem giant LyondellBasell is planning to build a $2.4 billion plant in Texas, which will be the largest facility of its kind in the world.

So, what are they going to do with all these gigantic, expensive petrochemical plants when the bio-based economy of the future swings into full gear?

Possibly, re-fit them to process bio-based feedstock. Just a wild guess. If you have any thoughts on that, drop a note in the comment thread.

More Good News For Biofuels

Low oil prices have thrown a monkey wrench into the biofuel market, but the good news is that the competition has made it more urgent for the biofuel industry to develop better, faster, cheaper ways to pump out its product.

Secretary Perry used the occasion of Made in America Week to spotlight his agency’s latest contribution to technology breakthroughs in the biofuel industry, featured as the part of the “EERE Success Stories” series of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The new breakthrough involves a type of biofuel production process that depends on high-tech membranes to perform a series of steps to separate carbon from algae and other liquefied biomass feedstocks. These steps can account for as much as half the cost of biofuel production, so getting costs down will have a significant impact on the final product.

In the conventional approach, the separation steps are based on different sizes of the pores in the membrane. The problem is that the steps with smaller sizes slow down the process.

The new membrane adds another twist:

“Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory set out to determine what could increase production speeds and improve the quality of biofuels and bioproducts. What they discovered is a new class of porous membranes—a high performance architecture surface-selective (HIPAS) membrane technology.

“… ORNL’s HiPAS membranes are innovative in that they do not rely solely on pore size to separate carbon. Instead, the new membranes use nanotechnology coatings to change the shape of the pores, allowing for 10-fold larger pore size with the same separation efficiency as traditional membranes.”

ORNL has been working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to figure out which applications show the best promising.

Commercial application is somewhere out in the future but so far the results are promising. The labs anticipate that a 12% drop in the cost of algae biofuel could be leveraged with the new membrane.

In addition to biofuel, the new membrane also has potential biochemical and pharmaceutical applications.

The petrochemical industry could also put it to use, so stay tuned.

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Image: US Department of Energy, “This figure shows the selective permeability and higher throughput of HiPAS membranes in a biomass to bioproduct conversion process. In this example, the membranes separate water vapor from high value chemicals in the product stream. “

*As of this writing.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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