Make Energy Great Again, via BIOmass: The DOE’s MEGA-BIO project expands

August 10, 2017 |

This week, the U.S. Department of Energy revealed that it will award a fourth project—up to $1.8 million—under the MEGA-BIO: Bioproducts to Enable Biofuels Funding Opportunity.

That is, they call it MEGA-BIO, like a vitamin. We call it Make Energy Great Again, via BIOmass.

The Side by Side theory

In it’s essence, it’s the Side-by-Side Theory. Long ago, the DOE shifted from a “biofuels and nothing else” focus to integrated biorefineries that can compete “across the whole barrel” with petroleum — recognizing that while chemicals make up a small fraction of the products that come out of a barrel of oil, they represent half the profits. Consider it this way, chemicals subsidize fuels. .

And for small biorefineries and for early-stage ventures, the path across the Valley of Death is the small-market, high-value, high-margin first product. First you make the 100K+ Tesla Model S — then you move on towards the mass-market with the $35-$60K Model 3.

Recently, the DOE’s Bioenergy technologies Office has been recognizing that — if you are depending on the biorefinery’s abiliity to make high-value bioproducts either partially or exclusively, during it’s earliest days of existence, then the mission of the DOE is in many ways wrapped up in successfully finding ways to make those bioproducts.

In ‘history of petroleum’ terms, you might think of it as assisting the industry to develop lamp oil — confident that gasoline and diesel fuel vehicle fuels would follow.

The Fourth MEGA-BIO complex

Think lignin.

Specifically, DOE selected Michigan State University to manage the fourth project, which will work in partnership with the University of Wisconsin–Madison and MBI International.

“We’re after those aromatic monomers,” the director of the Bioenergy Technologies Office, Dr. Jonathan Male, told The Digest. “There are multiple products possible, ranging from the high value flavor and fragrances to foams, adhesives and coatings.”

The project aims to optimize a two-stage process for deconstruction of biomass into two clean intermediate streams: sugars for the production of hydrocarbon fuels and lignins for the production of multiple value-added chemicals.

But let’s stay with lignin, which with some notable exceptions such as Borregaard’s process for making vanillin, has been used primarily to make process heat and power.

It’s been the lower form of biomass — the Neaderthal of feedstocks. Yet most know that lignin can be utilized as a renewable source for creating valuable aromatic chemicals, which have various industrial applications and can be used as the building blocks for fragrances, flavors, and novel bio-based foams and adhesives.

If you could only depolymerize it. And lignin is not a pretty, homogenous polymer, a zilion repetitions of the one structure. It’s hetrogenous — there’s complexity in there.

And as Dr. Male told the Digest, process design itself plays a major role.

“Do you take the sugars first, and then deal with whatever you have left in the lignin? Or, do you take the lignin first? We’ve seen several processes looking into whether there are fundamental advantages, and

we’re beginning to look at that with labs and with the DOE’s national labs. Are there pros and cons to different approaches and what are they?”

Re-thinking at DOE around concepts of readiness

If you’ve noticed that DOE is taking on a much more fundamental bit of science than we’ve seen in the past decade — a move away from catalyzing demonstrations and scale-up and towards more fundamental questions that might unlock industry’s scale-up purse-strings via developing breakthroughs such as the valorization of lignin — well, that’s no accident.

“In the Fiscal Year 2018 budget request language,” notes Dr. Male, “there’s a desire to focus on early tech readiness levels, and we are all working through that in discussions now, in how we can have significant impacts.”

The process has DOE re-examining and re-validating, ifor the first time in quite a while,. its own fundamental definitions of readiness and demonstration.

As Dr. Male notes, “We’re looking at what you classify as development and what you classify as demonstration. For example, are you looking at at demonstration the verb, or demonstration the scale. This porcess affords a wonderful opportunity to look at the Technical Readiness Levels and ask what they mean. Do we use the terms strictly as developed by NASA and DOD — recognizing that, in general, TRLs were set up for components, not for the integration into systems.

“So, what if there is more than one dimnension to readiness. What if there is a compnent readiness level and a system readiness level? That’s the kind of dialogue we are trying to unpack.”

“There are good reasons to do so. For example, you might develop a component and improve it, and bringing it along in terms of readiness — but in one case you’re improving the system, and in another case you are creating a problem for another component down the line. You’re pushing the bottleneck somewhere else. There can be a knock-on effect, and in the end the question will have to be, am I successful in developing a system?”

The Mega-BIO backstory

In August 2016, DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) selected three projects for an initial round of funding.

Those three received $11.3 million for projects that support the development of biomass-to-hydrocarbon biofuels conversion pathways that, as the DOE remarked, “can produce variable amounts of fuels and/or products based on external factors, such as market demand.”

That’s DOE code for — “it’s OK to produce chemicals and other bioproducts now, while you’re small, we get it. But let’s get back to drop-in fuels when market conditions improve.”

There were three separate groups of Three Amigos.

The Dow Chemical Company, in partnership with LanzaTech and Northwestern University, will develop a process for the bioconversion of biomass-derived synthetic gas (syngas) to fatty alcohols as a pathway to biofuels. The fermentation of bio-syngas and the production of intermediate fatty alcohols offer a unique opportunity to leverage the robust chemical markets and high-margin applications of fatty alcohols and their derivatives.

Amyris, in cooperation with Renmatix and Total New Energies, will develop a manufacturing-ready process to produce farnesene, a hydrocarbon building block used in the manufacture of a variety of consumer products ranging from cosmetics to detergents, as well as in the transportation industry for diesel and jet fuel. They plan to produce farnesene from cellulosic sugar at the same projected cost of current farnesene manufacturing using cane syrup. The project will accomplish its goal by engineering multiple new capabilities into its current farnesene manufacturing strain, and at the end of the project, Renmatix expects to develop a process to deliver cost-competitive sugars to produce farnesene.

Research Triangle Institute will partner with Arkema and AECOM to investigate the technical feasibility and economic potential, as well as the environmental and sustainability benefits, of recovering mixed methoxyphenols from biocrude as building block chemicals alongside the production of biofuels. These methoxyphenols can be used in the production of pharmaceuticals, food flavorings, and perfume products. Achieving technical success in recovering high-value methoxyphenols prior to upgrading to biofuels could provide a significant source of revenue to improve overall process economics and help meet the modeled $3/gasoline gallon equivalent production-cost target for advanced biofuels technologies by 2022.

The Bottom Line

DOE’s thinking is evolving. Here, in the Trump Administration with a welcome re-examination of the underlying concepts of readiness. And also in the MEGA-BIO project which dates back to a 2015 FOA and is funded by the final Obama-era budget — which aims to replicate, in so many ways, the pathways of many industries, including petroleum and autombobiles — from early days success with high-value products that build a pathway to cost-competitive biofuels.

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