USDA awards $136M for advanced biofuels

September 28, 2011 |

Five university-led consortia receive $15M-$40M grants for diesel, gasoline and renewable jet fuels.

In Washington State, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced five major agricultural research projects today aimed at developing regional, renewable energy markets, generating rural jobs, and decreasing America’s dependence on foreign oil. Altogether, the five-year program will deliver more than $136 million in research and development grants to public and private sector partners in 22 states. University partners from the states of Washington, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Iowa will lead the projects, which focus in part on developing aviation biofuels from tall grasses, crop residues and forest resources. Vilsack made the announcement with partners from private industry, research institutions, and the biofuels industry at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

“We have an incredible opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by continuing to build the framework for a competitively-priced, American-made biofuels industry,” said Vilsack. “Over the past two years, USDA has worked to help our nation develop a national biofuels economy that continues to help us out-innovate and out-compete the rest of the world while moving our nation toward a clean energy economy.”

Vilsack also highlighted how USDA is working with federal partners like the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of the Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration to improve our country’s energy security and provide sustainable jobs in communities across the country. Last month, President Obama announced a partnership between USDA, DOE and Navy to invest up to $510 million during the next three years in partnership with the private sector to produce advanced, drop-in aviation and marine biofuels to power military and commercial transportation.

The grants announced by Vilsack in Seattle today came through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The projects will address needs across regional supply chains and will complement existing bioenergy efforts across government, academia, and the private sector. Summaries of the five projects follow:

1. A research team from the University of Washington received $40 million to focus on using sustainably grown woody energy crops to produce biogasoline and renewable aviation fuel. A consortium of eight organizations will work throughout the entire woody biomass supply chain to promote the financing, construction and operation of multiple biorefineries, while reaching out to landowners and land managers, as well as regional K-12 and college students and faculty, to foster workforce development opportunities across the supply chain.

2. A research team led by Washington State University received $40 million to convert closed timber mills into bioenergy development centers, improving the economic potential of rural communities affected by the downturn in timber production. The team will focus on feedstock development, sustainable forest production and establishing new methods to identify the most promising plant lines for biofuel conversion. The project aims to develop a regional source of renewable aviation fuel for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

3. A research team led by Iowa State University received $25 million to develop a regional biomass production system for advanced transportation fuels derived from native perennial grasses, such as switchgrass, big bluestem and Indian grass. The $25 million project will study the potential benefits of planting grasses with legumes to provide nutrients to land unsuitable for row crop production – adding value to marginal lands while reducing nitrogen runoff into waterways and increasing carbon sequestration. The team will also evaluate a co-product—bio-char—as a soil amendment to increase carbon sequestration.

4. A team of researchers led by Louisiana State University received $17.2 million to enable the regular production of biomass for economically viable conversion using existing refinery infrastructure. Through new and existing industrial partnerships, this project will use energy cane and sorghum to help reinvigorate the Louisiana sugar and chemical industries.

5. A team of scientists led by the University of Tennessee received $15 million to develop sustainable feedstock production systems (switchgrass and woody biomass) that will produce low-cost, easily converted sugars for biochemical conversion to butanol, lignin byproducts and forest and mill residues, and dedicated energy crop feedstocks to produce diesel, heat and power.
USDA made these awards through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). AFRI’s sustainable bioenergy challenge area targets the development of regional systems for the sustainable production of bioenergy and biobased products that contribute significantly to reducing dependence on foreign oil; have net positive social, environmental, and rural economic impacts; and are compatible with existing agricultural systems. All grants are awarded over a period of five years, with continued funding contingent on annual project success.

More on the UW consortia project

In a press conference this afternoon, ZeaChem CEO Jim Imbler, whose company is nearing completion of a 250,000 gallon demonstration plant at Boardman, OR that will be utilized by the UW-led consortia, shed added light on that project. In addition to the University of Washington and ZeaChem, the consortia includes GreenWood Resources, Oregon State University, Washington State University, the University of California, Davis, Evergreen State College and the Agricultural Center for Excellence.

ZeaChem will lead R&D and demonstration trials for production of bio-based jet and diesel fuels and bio-based gasoline at its 250,000 gallon per year (GPY) integrated demonstration biorefinery, located at the Port of Morrow, near Boardman, Oregon. These products are chemically identical to existing blend stocks produced in petroleum refineries today, thus eliminating concerns over distribution infrastructure compatibility. The first volumes of bio-based jet and diesel fuels will be produced in test quantities in 2013 and bio-based gasoline will follow in 2015.

Imbler confirmed that the sub-grant to ZeaChem as part of the consortia grant, totals $12 million, which will be used to install two additinoal units at the company’s 250,000 gallon integreated biorefinery in Boardman. One unit will facilitate the conversion of cellulosic ethanol to renewable jet fuel and diesel; another unit will enable the conversion of propanol, from the company’s C3 platform, into renewable gasoline. The units are expected to be in production in 2013 for renewable diesel and jet fuel, and 2015 for gasoline. The fuels will be a part of the overall output of the intergrated biorefinery, which will not increase capacity under this garnt. The feedstock studied under this grant is hybrid poplar, supplied by GreenWood Resources, but ZeaChem said that it would also test and utilize other feedstocks outside of the grant activity. Overall, the grant will allow for the production of up to 50,000 gallons per year of renewable jet, diesel and gasoline.

“What makes it unique,” remarked Imbler, “is that this is a world-class, multi-disciplinary team that is utilzing a true intergrated biorefinery. It’s a good grant, because it allows a team to build out the infrastructure for these fuels, all across the supply chain, while allowing us to further diversitfy our platform and create good-paying jobs in rural America, while utilizing existing infrastructure.”

Imbler said that, in addition to the advanced biofuels, the project will enable ZeaChem to advance on two valueable molecules in the renewable chemnicals space, ethylene and propylene. “We are ZeaChem, so we were into chemicals before they were cool. Our goal is to create a high-quality integrated biorefinery that can produce a variety of important renewable molecules for industry, and then let the market ultimately dictate what it wants us to deliver.”

More on the WSU-led consortia

Overcoming key obstacles that prevent wood-based jet fuel and petrochemical substitutes from being economically viable is the focus of a new $40 million project of the Washington State University-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance. NARA includes a broad consortium of scientists from universities, government laboratories and private industry.

The WSU-led grant aims to address the urgent national need for a domestic biofuel alternative for U.S. commercial and military air fleets. NARA researchers envision developing a new, viable, aviation fuel industry using wood and wood waste in the Pacific Northwest where forests cover almost half of the region. The Northwest also has established oil refining and distribution assets as well as a significant aviation industry.

The project also will focus on increasing the profitability of wood-based fuels through development of high-value, bio-based co-products to replace petrochemicals that are used in products such as plastics.

In addition to using wood and mill residues, the NARA project aims to develop new, wood-based energy crops and improve the economics of that industry with co-products as well. A major goal will be to address how to better understand and use wood lignin, a glue-like material constituting up to about 30 percent of some woods. Lignin is often considered to be one of the key issues adversely affecting economic viability for production of wood-derived plant chemical products.

“We believe we can begin to resolve the issues that have prevented wood-based biofuels and other petrochemical substitutes from being economically viable with some new strategies and the diversity of skills represented on the NARA team,” said Norman G. Lewis, Regents Professor and director of WSU’s Institute for Biological Chemistry. “If we are successful, the potential to begin to replace the natural resources jobs lost in the region over the past several years is very high.” Lewis and Michael P. Wolcott, LP Distinguished Professor of Wood Materials and director of WSU’s Institute for Sustainable Design, will lead NARA.

NARA includes Gevo, Greenwood Resources, Catchlight Energy (a joint venture of Chevron and Weyerhaeuser) and Weyerhaeuser from private industry, along with WSU, Montana State University, the National Center for Genome Resources, Oregon State University, Pennsylvania State University, Salish-Kootenai College, University of Idaho, University of Minnesota, University of Montana and UW, the U.S. Forest Service, including the Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory, Facing the Future and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, which is jointly operated by WSU and UW.

The alliance’s private industry partners said they value the opportunity to join a larger effort.

“The consortium is designed to capitalize on the unique contributions of the participants, and Weyerhaeuser is pleased to be part of that,” said Dan Fulton, Weyerhaeuser president and CEO. “Sustainability is absolutely critical to the successful production of feedstocks and aviation biofuel on an economical scale, and we’re proud to bring more than a century of forest science and innovative solutions to the effort.”

Pat Gruber, CEO of Gevo, said the greatest challenge currently facing the development of advanced biorefineries is “the absence of readily available, cost effective and sustainable biomass feedstock sources. This alliance will help foster the development of a biorefinery industry in the Pacific Northwest by aligning the region’s major academic institutions, forest product companies and land management entities around a common vision – to create a thriving bio-based economy.”

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