DOE Announces $79 Million for Bioenergy Research and Development

May 6, 2019 |

In Washington, the U.S. Department of Energy announced over $79 million in funding for bioenergy research and development including biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower.

There’s so much emphasis on waste residues, synthetic biology for making little critters hum, and unlocking energy by a sort of bottom-feeding on all the detritus of civilization that we’re tempted to name this one the FOA of the Protozoa. But there’s something right out of the precepts of Clautzwitz, too, which we’ll get too, shortly. First, as Jack Webb would implore, just the facts, sir.

The 5 Sought-For Breakthroughs

As the Bioenergy Technologies Office would be the first to tell you costs have to come down, and part of that is going to come via R&D. As the DOE noted in this notice:

There is significant R&D that is still required in order to reach the ultimate trajectory of a modeled mature MFSP of $2.5/GGE such as:

R&D of feedstock supply systems that can reliably deliver industrially relevant quantities of quality feedstocks

R&D of high productivity advanced algal systems

R&D of conversion technologies able to efficiently process diverse and variable feedstocks into biofuels (e.g., gasoline, diesel, jet, and marine fuels), bioproducts, and biopower

Development of integrated processes, tested and verified at engineering scale, to reduce technology uncertainties and enable industry deployment

Crosscutting sustainability and strategic analysis of economic, social, and environmental effects to identify emerging opportunities

The 10 Points of Assault

In all, there are 10 research areas, making this what you might consider the broadest assault on the cost of biofuels ever attempted by the Department of Energy. In some ways, it’s not unlike the strategy that General U.S Grant ultimately conceived to win the Civil War. In 1864, General Grant wrote:

To hammer continuously at the Armed force of the enemy, and his resources, until by mere attrition, if in no other way there should be nothing left to him but an equal submission with the loyal section of our common country to the universal law of the land

Of course, in Grant’s scorched earth strategy for 1864 feedstocks and resources were to be destroyed, not bioconverted, and here we are looking at a Grant as a form of award rather than the general himself, but you get the idea.

The awards will be substantial but widely dispersed, and BETO is going to hammer at the problem of cost with the Sherman of optimization and the Sheridan of deconstruction, and so forth, until the poor plants and waste residues yield up their precious carbon resources at the cost that BETO wants.

Woe betide the poor pitiful low-performing algae, they don’t know what’s coming: the Army of the Biomass is rallying round the flag, boys, and shouting the battle cry of energy freedom.

Here are the 10 aims of the troops:

  1. 1 Cultivation Intensification Processes for Algae: Develop technologies for outdoor algae systems that increase the harvest yield, reliability and quality of algae.
  2. 2 Biomass Component Variability and Feedstock Conversion Interface: Research to lower the cost and improve the reliability of biomass handling and preprocessing.
  3. 3 Efficient Wood Heaters: Develop technologies to reduce emissions and increase efficiency of wood heaters for residential heating.
  4. 4 Systems Research of Hydrocarbon Biofuel Technologies: Integrate new technologies and processes in experimental prototype systems to improve and verify real-world performance and lower the cost of drop-in biofuels.
  5. 5 Optimization of Biomass-Derived Jet Fuel Blends: Identify and develop cost-competitive drop-in renewable jet fuel with improved energy density and lower particulate matter emissions.
  6. 6 Renewable Energy from Urban and Suburban Wastes: Support academic research and educational programs that focus on strategies to produce bioenergy and bioproducts from urban and suburban waste feedstocks.
  7. 7 Advanced Bioprocessing and Agile BioFoundry: Reduce the time and cost of developing biological processes for biomanufacturing fuels and products through the use of synthetic biology, low capital intensity methods, and continuous production systems.
  8. 8 Plastics in the Circular Carbon Economy: Develop biobased plastics with improved performance and recyclability and lower the cost and energy-intensity of recycling  existing plastics through enhanced degradation.
  9. 9 Rethinking Anaerobic Digestion: Develop anaerobic processes or alternative strategies to enhance carbon conversion efficiency and lower costs of smaller scale wet waste systems.
  10. 10 Reducing Water, Energy, and Emissions in Bioenergy: Identify biofuels or bioproducts technologies with the greatest potential for reducing water consumption, energy consumption, and/or emissions relative to existing conventional fuels or products.

As the DOE put it

“At DOE, we are focused on expanding America’s energy supply, growing the economy, and enhancing energy security, which will all be furthered by the significant advancements made in bioenergy technologies,” said Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes. “The funding opportunities announced today will help ensure our nation’s competitive advantage in the emerging bioeconomy and allow us to continue to offer U.S. consumers and businesses more homegrown energy choices.”

The 10 Points of Assault, in more detail:

1: Cultivation Intensification Processes for Algae

Developers of algal biofuel technologies face significant challenges in translating results between laboratory research systems and larger-scale outdoors (or mass culture) systems. These difficulties limit reliable experimental durations, adequate and representative experimental volumes of material, and results that can be reproduced reliably. By overcoming the challenge in translating results between laboratory and mass cultures, the objective of AOI 1 is to increase the harvest yield, robustness, and quality of algae cultivation for biofuels and bioproducts. Specific areas of interest:

1. Strain/trait of interest characterization and adaptation of novel and/or existing strains to novel cultivation conditions in an indoor/outdoor/indoor iterative experimental framework (novel strain isolation is not necessarily required to meet the objective).

2. Novel cultivation systems and innovative strategies to operate cultivation systems that improve data collection and overall culture performance.

3. Beneficial management and control of cultivation ecology.

4. Development of tools and sensors for monitoring of cultivation ecology and health paired with cultivation management operations/interventions.

5. Management of media (e.g., water, nutrients, and carbon) delivery and reuse/recycle to maintain and/or improve cultivation performance.

6. Improvement of stability and reproducibility of high-performance cultivation outcomes.

2: Biomass Component Variability and Feedstock Conversion Interface

BETO’s Feedstock Supply and Logistics (FSL) R&D strategy for lowering the cost of biomass harvesting, handling, collection, storage and transport requires significant technology development and advances along the supply chain to achieve the target modeled MFSP, which is described in detail in the BETO Multi-Year Plan7. FSL R&D includes three areas: (1) feedstock supply, focusing on supply chain analysis identifying and quantifying current and future renewable carbon sources and costs associated with their production; (2) feedstock logistics, supporting the development of integrated and efficient purpose-designed supply systems that are capable of reliably harvesting, collecting, handling, storing, and delivering conversion-ready feedstocks that meet or exceed the quality and cost specifications required by a variety of conversion processes; and (3) Feedstock-Conversion Interface Consortium (FCIC)8, increasing the understanding of the complexity and variability of biomass and feedstocks to improve the reliability of preprocessing and conversion systems, while meeting performance and cost targets.

AOI 2 will provide funding for early stage R&D to investigate (a) the physical and chemical characteristics associated with individual tissue components of certain types of biomass (e.g., rind, pith, leaves, and cobs from corn stover; and needles, juvenile wood, and bark from southern pine forest residues), (b) how biomass characteristics change during storage, handling, and when undergoing preprocessing and conversion, and (c) the utilization of this knowledge to improve feedstock performance (and therefore reduce costs) during preprocessing and conversion. Corn stover and pine forest residues were selected as they are the target (“proof of concept”) feedstocks for the FCIC.

3: Efficient Wood Heaters

The objective of this AOI is to promote the development of technologies to advance the state-of-the-art in residential wood heater and residential central heater design to reduce emissions and improve efficiency. Categories of residential wood heaters of interest include room heaters, hydronic central heaters, and forced air central heaters.

Specific areas of interest:

Novel and innovative residential wood heater designs to improve combustion chamber geometry, combustion air flow distribution, mixing of combustion air with gasification products, stove baffling designs, and insulation strategies to control stove temperatures in critical locations.

Improvements in automation of stoves to optimize combustion control:

o Air inlet / feed control

o Wood feed systems and control

o Robust sensing technologies

o Process/system control strategies to enable wood heater control over a wide range of operating conditions (startup to shutdown)

o Secure remote control and real-time performance monitoring

4: Systems Research of Hydrocarbon Biofuel Technologies

Consistent with BETO’s Advanced Development and Optimization program focus, the objective of AOI 4 is to verify innovative technologies at engineering-scale to enable cost-competitive integrated biofuels technology pathways. Under this AOI, BETO seeks applications for integrated systems research projects -combining technology components, unit operations, or subsystems, testing those under integrated operations, and verifying the integrated process at engineering scale. Applications may also address strategies using biogas, algal biomass, or cellulosic biomass to produce an intermediate that would further be upgraded to fuels and products in an existing petroleum refinery. Applications must address how at least 50% of the biogenic carbon would be converted to a biofuel and how this would be measured.

Specific areas of interest:

Applications proposing the use of economically advantaged feedstocks, or other process improvements likely to achieve $2.50/GGE with a maximum reduction in emissions relative to petroleum-derived fuels by 2030, are specifically encouraged to apply.

5: Optimization of Bio-Derived Jet Fuel Blends

The market penetration for alternative jet fuels (AJFs), despite the approval of six pathways for commercial aviation use, has not been fully realized due to large gaps in their prices relative to conventional jet fuel (CJF). CJF is composed of thousands of molecules which can be largely classified into four categories: n-alkanes, iso-alkanes, cyclo-alkanes, and aromatics. Not all of these molecules play a significant role in jet combustion operability and performance characteristics. Some compounds in CJF (e.g., n-alkanes) contribute to high specific energy while iso-alkanes and cyclo-alkanes provide good fuel flow properties at low temperatures which are critical requirements for jet fuel operability. Aromatics have low specific energy relative to the other family of compounds in jet fuels, negatively impacting fuel performance and efficiency, and they contribute to higher emissions of PM. Minimum levels of aromatics (8% by volume) in blended fuel are needed in order to maintain seal swelling requirements of O-rings used in aircraft engines. Recent studies have highlighted that certain cyclic alkane molecules17, for example decalin18, offer potential replacements for aromatics in jet fuels that could result in higher blending levels of AJFs thereby increasing performance, and decreasing PM emissions.

Specific areas of interest include but are not limited to:

The identification and production of molecules (or categories of molecules) from biomass or waste resources to develop jet fuel blend-stock with reduced or zero aromatics. These molecules should have good compatibility with polymeric seals, increase specific performance attributes (i.e., energy content), offer fuel cost reduction potential, and should be fully compatible with existing fuel system components and infrastructure.

The utilization of (including lignins) and waste feedstocks (e.g., fats, oils, and greases (FOG), sewage sludge, industrial process generated waste gases, biogas from landfills, low value biomass municipal solid waste). Biogas mixed with synthesis gas and natural gas as a feedstock is acceptable only if the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions reduction is maximized compared to CJF.

6: Renewable Energy from Urban and Suburban Wastes

Waste streams represent a significant and underutilized set of feedstocks for biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower. They are available now, in many cases represent a disposal problem which constitutes an avoided cost opportunity, and are unlikely to diminish in volume in the near future. As a result, they may represent a low-cost set of feedstocks that could help jump start the Bioeconomy via niche markets.  This AOI seeks novel strategies to produce bioenergy and bioproducts from relevant urban and suburban waste feedstocks. Successful applications will offer a compelling value proposition for their particular approach(es). Convincing private sector partnerships to aid in bringing product to market will be viewed positively. This AOI is open to applications that focus on producing a specific biofuel or bioproduct from an eligible set of feedstocks, or those that include multiple feedstocks and/or coproducts.

7: Advanced Bioprocessing and Agile BioFoundry

Companies seeking to introduce new biologically-produced molecules into the fuels and chemicals market have encountered a variety of challenges. The R&D required to ensure that a molecule is ready for a commercial process is expensive and time-consuming. Furthermore, traditional batch fermentation processes are challenging and often limit the types of molecules that can be economically produced at scale.

DOE is interested in addressing challenges with the cost and time to bring a new biologically produced molecule to market and challenges with traditional batch fermentations through the use of the DOE Agile BioFoundry (ABF), and advanced bioprocessing techniques respectively. The Advanced Bioprocessing and Agile BioFoundry AOI contains two sub-areas of interest:

AOI 7a, which seeks to use advanced bioprocessing techniques to dramatically improve bioprocessing productivity, lower capital costs, and expand the range of potential bioproducts. AOI 7a contains three specific focus areas detailed below:

o Utilization of a cell-free system for production of a final product;

o Utilization of continuous or semi-continuous fermentation showing large increases in productivity;

o Utilization of systems which decouple organism growth and product production leading to an extended production phase and increased yield;

AOI 7b, which seeks to create partnerships with the ABF to engineer more efficient production hosts at a reduced time and cost.

8: Plastics in the Circular Carbon Economy

Modern plastics must be designed with their end-of-life in mind, particularly recyclability. Biobased feedstocks are well-suited for designing the plastics of the future due to their composition and structure. Unlike traditional feedstocks, which contain primarily carbon-carbon and carbon-hydrogen bonds, biobased feedstocks contain more easily breakable carbon-oxygen bonds that could be incorporated into the design of new plastics, essentially introducing “molecular zippers” that allow for easy deconstruction at the end of the product’s life. In addition, biobased feedstocks can allow access to chemical structures that are not economical to produce from petroleum, potentially providing new avenues to create performance-advantaged materials with novel and improved properties.

Specific Areas of interest include, but are not limited to:

a. Development of novel biobased plastics that have improved performance attributes over a comparable incumbent plastic and can be cost-effectively chemically recycled (e.g., catalytically deconstructed into monomers).

b. Designing novel methods for deconstructing and upcycling existing plastics

Only a small fraction of the 60 million tonnes of plastic used in the United States each year is recycled. Better methods are needed to address the large waste-disposal problem presented by currently used plastics. This AOI will focus on ways to remake our current systems for plastic disposal and recycling with a focus on developing biological and chemical processes for utilizing an array of plastics as feedstocks for value-added applications. The DOE is seeking applications for biological and chemical approaches for selective C-O, C-N, and C-C chemistry, crystallinity, feedstock contamination, breakdown rate, and other innovative ideas to address difficulties with plastic degradation and upcycling.

AOI 9: Rethinking Anaerobic Digestion

Wet organic waste streams represent valuable potential feedstocks for the bioeconomy. A primary challenge of processing wet-wastes as feedstock streams, especially at smaller scales (less than 5 dry tons/day), is one of costs. There are at least four ways to address this challenge, which are not mutually exclusive:

1. Reducing the cost of disposal of final residuals.

2. Producing higher-value coproducts that might offset disposal costs.

3. Pursuing strategies that would optimize the carbon conversion efficiency from raw waste feedstocks to final products.

4. Combining the above, conversion options that produce outputs of higher value than the biogas produced by traditional anaerobic digestion would be of merit.

The required capital expense for traditional anaerobic digestion systems presents challenges at scales smaller than 5 dry tons/day25. This AOI seeks to develop technologies that leverage anaerobic processes for wet-waste conversion, and/or present novel alternatives that substantially enhance overall carbon conversion efficiency and/or reduce disposal costs, and could be economically viable at relevant scales.

Specific Areas of Interest:

a.  Anaerobic wet-waste systems engineered to accommodate the real time addition of reducing equivalents in the form of electricity, or electricity-derived chemical intermediates such as hydrogen or formate to enable substantially greater product generation by avoiding CO2 evolution.

b. Novel biological, thermochemical, and/or electrochemical processes, including, but not limited to, arresting methanogenesis, anaerobic membrane bioreactors, or other innovative approaches with the potential for substantially improving carbon conversion efficiency and/or efficiently producing higher value products than biogas from wet waste feedstocks.

AOI 10: Reducing Water, Energy, and Emissions in Bioenergy

The development and success of a thriving bioeconomy requires the protection of natural resources and the realization of environmental and economic benefits. This necessitates continued and proactive analyses that can steer R&D towards the most beneficial products and technologies. To this effect, analyses are needed to highlight pathways with the potential to enhance the environmental benefits of biofuel and bioproducts compared to existing conventional fuel or products.

Specific areas of interest include and are limited to analysis that illustrates:

a. Reduction in water consumption for biofuels or bioproducts compared to existing conventional fuels or products;

b. Reduction in energy consumption for biofuels or bioproducts compared to existing conventional fuels or products;

c. Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for biofuels or bioproducts compared to existing conventional fuels or products; and

d. Reduction in pollutant emissions for biofuels or bioproducts compared to existing conventional fuels or products.

More on the story.

You can learn everything there is to know about this funding opportunity by downloading the FOA right here, and it’s a worthy read, and in many ways you’ve covered the Personal Reminiscences of Ulysses S. Grant and On War (by Clausewitz) when you’ve finished it, so consider it a three-pronged delight as R&D funding documents go.

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