Drop in, drop out: NABC tosses two projects off the R&D island

August 15, 2011 |

Survivor, biofuels style? NABC trims its project roster to two (or maybe three), as it nixes two projects and puts two on the “maybe” watch. Here’s what happened, why, and what’s next.

In Washington, the DOE  today recognized the National Advanced Biofuels Consortium’s (NABC) initial selection of two “drop-in” biofuels technology pathways that will advance to the next development stage. NABC is a consortium funded by DOE with $35 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to accelerate development of advanced drop-in biofuels that can reduce our Nation’s reliance on imported oil.

The first year of research by the consortium was conducted from August 2010 to July 2011. Stage I efforts focused on determining whether technical and economic barriers could be overcome to develop a pilot-ready process in three years for six biofuels technology pathways.

Over the first year, the NABC performed feasibility studies to determine which of the six approaches would move on to the next stage. The second stage will further develop the selected technologies to a pilot-ready state over two years.

DOE said that it will continue to invest in research and development of other promising pathways for drop-in biofuels outside of these NABC selections.

The pathways moving into stage II under the NABC program will be funded with $26 million from DOE and will leverage an additional $12 million in cost share.

The Virent and Amyris pathways go forward

The two technology pathways selected for stage II development are:

* Fermentation of Lignocellulosic Sugars (FLS), led by Amyris. The FLS technology focuses on converting biomass into sugars that can be biologically and chemically converted into a renewable diesel fuel. This renewable diesel is certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be blended up to 35% with conventional diesel.
* Catalysis of Lignocellulosic Sugars (CLS), led by Virent. The CLS technology focuses on converting biomass into sugars that can be chemically and catalytically converted into an array of gasoline and diesel fuel components. Preliminary tests of these fuel components look encouraging for their use as drop-in fuels for both gasoline and diesel.

The NABC has also identified two additional technology pathways that have demonstrated considerable promise for achieving drop-in biofuels but were missing key data to fully complete the feasibility study. These two technology pathways, Catalytic Fast Pyrolysis and Hydrothermal Liquefaction, will be given three months to generate the missing data at which point the NABC will then determine whether they are ready to proceed into stage II.

The Digest’s Take

No surprise. Adam Bratis – Biofuels Program Manager of NREL – said back in March that it all came down to the insertion points in the refinery. There are bio-based crude oil equivalents and refinery-ready intermediates that can be fed into the refining process, then there were the finished fuels like Amyris and Virent make, suitable for blending.

Bratis theorized that the technologies at the front-end were never going to work, from the refiners point of view, because bio-oil, as opposed to true crude, has a lot of oxygen in it. “So putting that oxygen into the front end of the refinery,” he said, “and spreading it everywhere, well I am not sure if that is ever likely to work. Better to finish off the fuel and blend it in, or feed it into an intermediate point where you can limit that impact.”

So, they have written off two front end technologies, kept the two finished fuel technologies, and would probably go with Catalytic Fast Pyrolysis to make an intermediate, but appear to be held up by lack of data, which leaves CFP and a Pacific Northwest National Lab process (using hydrothermal liquefaction) still in the running.

The NABC, co-led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, consists of 17 partners representing leading expertise and resources in advanced biofuels development across the national laboratories, academia, and industry.

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