USDA, DOE grant $47M to eight new biorefining projects

May 6, 2011 |

Eight new projects in advanced biorefining feedstocks, processing, and logistics: who won, why they’re important

In Washington, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and US Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced a total of $47 million in grants to fund eight research and development projects that will support the production of biofuels, bioenergy and high-value biobased products from a variety of biomass sources. Approximately 300 applications were received for this solicitation.

The projects are funded through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative and will help increase the availability of alternative renewable fuels and biobased products to diversify the nation’s energy resources. Funding is provided through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and DOE’s Biomass Program. Each award was made through a competitive selection process.

Grant recipients are required to contribute a minimum of 20 percent of matching funds for research and development projects and 50 percent of matching funds for demonstration projects. Awardees must pursue projects that integrate science and engineering research in three areas: feedstocks development, biofuels and biobased products development, and biofuels development analysis.

The following projects have been selected for awards:

Cellana, Kailua Kona, HI, $5,521,173.

Cellana will work to develop a protein supplement from algae as a byproduct of algal biofuels production, by demonstrating its nutritional and economic value in livestock feeds. The project will characterize types of algae, assess the nutritional values of algal proteins, assess the potential for algal proteins to replace soybean meal, and develop algal protein supplements.

Why it’s important: Key to unlocking the potential of algae farms, especially in the near term, is maximizing the value of all co-products, and two pounds of algal proteins and carbohydrates will be produced for every pound of algal oils.

Domtar Paper Company, Fort Mill, SC, $7,000,000.

This three-year project will work to build a demonstration plant using two technologies to convert low-value byproducts and wastes from paper mills into higher-value sugar, oil, and lignin products.

Why it’s important: the current business model for the US pulp & paper industry is, broadly speaking, somewhere between weakened and seriously under challenge. These mills are biorefineries, but they need new technologies deployed to assure they can profitably switch from the production of their traditional products to fuels, chemicals, ploymers and more.

Exelus, Livingston, NJ, $5,185,004.

Exelus will work to develop energy crops with improved tolerance to drought and salt stress to enhance yields on marginal lands. The project will also redesign a process to make hydrocarbon fuels using new catalysts and chemistry that avoids the high temperatures and large energy inputs required by current processes.

Why it’s important: Freshwater and arable land are in short supply in many places around the world. Expanding the ability of biofuels feedstocks to handle salt and drought expands the area of production, reducing competitive pressures between food, fuel, and feed.

Metabolix, Cambridge, MA., $6,000,001.

Metabolix will enhance the yield of bio-based products, biopower, or fuels made from switchgrass. The project will use high temperature conversion to produce denser biomass and other products that can be further processed to make fuels such as butanol, chemicals such as propylene and other materials to improve the economic competitiveness of future biorefineries.

Why it’s important: In the end, the keys to selecting biomass feedstocks for energy conversion are the yield and cost per acre of land, and the yield and cost of product per ton of biomass. One of the key strategies emerging in the latter is the whole area of densifying biomass – and where better to start than high-yield, low-input switchgrass.

University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, $5,430,439.

The purpose of this project is to improve the production and sustainability of sweet sorghum as an energy crop. The University will identify genetic traits in sorghum associated with drought tolerance through genetic mapping and will select strains that produce high biomass yields and can be easily converted to fermentable sugars.

Why it’s important: Yields with sweet sorghum are promising, but can be improved. It can be used as a cover crop in between cane seasons, to extend biomass-per-acre yields and smooth out fluctuations in supply.

University of Kansas Center for Research, Lawrence, KS, $5,635,858.

The purpose of this project is to demonstrate a novel, sustainable catalytic process at a pilot scale that produces diverse products, including advanced fuels, industrial chemicals and chemical intermediates.

Shoes, paint, the food packaging in your refrigerator and the refrigerator itself are all made with petroleum-derived chemicals,” said Bala Subramaniam, the Dan F. Servey Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at KU

As part of the project, the CEBC will partner with Archer Daniels Midland Co., a global leader in biomass production and biorefining headquartered in Decatur, Ill. KU and ADM will invest $1.4 million in matching funds, bringing the total project value to nearly $7 million.  The technologies being developed by the CEBC/ADM team would enable biorefineries to expand to chemicals, which produce about 10 times more value than fuels. The chemical portfolio in the CEBC/ADM proposal has a potential annual global value of $127 billion

Why it’s important: Industry experts estimate that if biorefineries are able to mass produce biochemicals, 40,000 direct biorefinery jobs and 120,000 indirect jobs will shift to rural areas nationwide. Kansas alone has 15 operating biorefineries and is a top five state for biomass production.

University of Kentucky, Lexington, NY, $6,932,786.

The purpose of this project is to improve the economics for biorefineries by using on-farm processing to convert biomass to a mixture of butanol, ethanol, acetone and organic acids. The product can then be easily transported to a biorefinery for further processing. The project will integrate input from experts in a variety of disciplines, including plant and soil scientists, horticulturists, chemical engineers, and economists.

Why it’s important: A limiting factor in building biorefineries is the radius across which biomass can be economically transported. Liquefying biomass makes it more more compact, and potentially eliminates some unwanted portions of biomass, expanding the radius for viable production. Think of it as the difference between the geographies that can be serviced by direct flights, as opposed to the geography that can be serviced by the hub-and-spoke system.

US Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Missoula, MT $5,309,320.

This project will develop an integrated approach to investigate biomass feedstock production, logistics, conversion, distribution and end use centered on using advanced conversion technologies at existing forest industry facilities.

Why it’s important: Key to drop-in fuels is that they “drop in” to existing fuel distribution infrastructure and existing engines. Key but to making drop-in fuels is to create technologies that “drop-in” to existing biorefineries, such as forest industry processing plants. Bolt-on, integrated approaches are capital light, and take advantage of the fact that as much as 90 percent of an advanced biofuels project cost is the cost of non-core technology – from collection, storage, pre-treatment, and systems for delivering water and power.

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