Vale Male: Big Changes at the BioEnergy Technologies Office

April 29, 2020 |

On Monday, we’ll wake up to the work of the bioeconomy, and something will be different. Jonathan Male, the Director of the BioEnergy Technologies Office at the U.S. Department of Energy, will not be at his desk. He’s off to another adventure which we hope to report on shortly.

It was the Biomass program when he arrived, and BETO as he leaves, but every director places his stamp and in his many years at the helm Dr. Male has overseen the transformation of the world’s leading R&D program in the bioeconomy. Once it was subject to political winds and made sharp turns — one week it might be fostering early-stage biomass R&D, another week it might be trying to stand up a cellulosic ethanol industry with grants to support demonstration and commercial-scale projects. Still later it would pivot to fostering projects to replace the entire barrel of petroleum — chemicals and fuels alike.

Now, there’s more listening, more requests for information, more probing, more public peer-review of projects and outcomes. It feels like BETO has grown up. The great leaders that started the program and oversaw its early life would, I think, be delighted to see how BETO has integrated itself into the early-stage R&D landscape. Back when, the leaders had to explain why we needed a Biomass Program. Now, it would be hard to explain how we could live without it.

Earlier-Stage, More Surgical Gaps

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,” Dr. Male told us back in 2017, “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.”

Now, we know better what BETO is there for, and that is to address early-stage technology development and fill gaps where the risks are too high for commercial companies to progress. The DOE always has intended to be a public partner leveraging private resources to fill gaps, but they are more tactical now, more targeted. Some of the projects of the past felt distinctly like the “Charge of the Light Brigade” and were manfully executed but there was an ambition imposed on them that scarcely matched the technical readiness.

Now, assessing technical readiness, probing for gaps, surgically designing programs to fill those gaps, is the mission. And BETO is now known for leveraging the resources of the US National Lab system and well as industry partners and academic labs.

Redefining Readiness

Under Dr. Male and in cooperation with DOE, BETO has reexamined and revalidated, for the first time in quite a while, its own fundamental definitions of readiness and demonstration.

As Jonathan told The Digest, “We’re looking at what you classify as development and what you classify as demonstration. For example, are you looking at demonstration the verb, or demonstration the scale? This process 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 dimension to readiness? What if there is a component 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?”

FOA of the Protozoa

In recent years, the Department of Energy has been hammering away at unlocking waste residues, synthetic biology for making little critters hum, and unlocking energy by a sort of bottom-feeding on all the detritus of civilization. We named a recent funding opportunity announcement a FOA of the Protozoa.

Not only because little varmints were the focus, but because microcritters are so very good at hammering away ceaselessly at a feedstock, and they just never give up, like adult people are known to do. A microbe will never stop fermenting sugar to make its target molecule until you kill it, stress it beyond belief, or starve it.

As we observed at one point, it’s not unlike the strategy that General U.S Grant ultimately conceived to win the Civil War. In 1864, General Grant wrote that he wished 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.

That was Male’s BETO. Hammer, hammer, hammer. Unlocking the energy in waste affordably, or die trying. Scorching the land to make a reliable, scaleable process that would produce a valuable byproduct if that was what was needed to make a viable fuel. After all, refiners sell cheap gasoline not only because petroleum is cheap but because they sell expensive chemicals refined out of the same barrel.

Of late, the focal points have been:

• 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

A Recent Example

The most recent BioEnergy research topics tell the tale of broad ambitions — across many fuels and feedstocks, but looking in a more targeted way to add efficiency, intensify yield, speed up development time. The industry’s research program has been aimed at better, faster, cheaper processes to make better, faster, cheaper fuels.

The most recent topics were:

  • 1 Cultivation Intensification Processes for Algae: Develop technologies for outdoor algae systems that increase the harvest yield, reliability and quality of algae.
  • 2 Biomass Component Variability and Feedstock Conversion Interface: Research to lower the cost and improve the reliability of biomass handling and preprocessing.
  • 3 Efficient Wood Heaters: Develop technologies to reduce emissions and increase efficiency of wood heaters for residential heating.
  • 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 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 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 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 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 Rethinking Anaerobic Digestion: Develop anaerobic processes or alternative strategies to enhance carbon conversion efficiency and lower costs of smaller scale wet waste systems.
  • 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.

Co-Optima

Of all the programs that BETO was known for in the Jonathan Male era, we’d like to think that the signature program was and remains Co-Optima. The initiative aims to accelerate the introduction of affordable, scalable, and sustainable biofuels and high-efficiency, low-emission vehicle engines. The Co-Optima initiative takes a three-pronged, integrated approach to identifying and developing:

  • Engines designed to run more efficiently on affordable, scalable, and sustainable fuels.
  • Fuels designed to work in high-efficiency, low-emissions engines.
  • Marketplace strategies that can shape the success of new fuels and vehicle technologies with industry and consumers.

There are seven Goals in all — and an ambitious set. DOE says that the project will provide U.S. industry with the R&D needed to:

• Reduce petroleum consumption “by billions of barrels a year”
• Improve passenger vehicle fuel economy by 50%: 15%-20% beyond the projected results of existing R&D efforts
• Deliver tens of billions of dollars in cost savings annually via improved fuel economy
• Dramatically decrease criteria pollutants and GHG emissions from the transportation sector
• Accelerate the rate of advanced biofuels deployment
• Enhance energy security through more effective use of diverse domestic energy sources
• Spur U.S. economic and technological vitality

Ave Atque Male

Well, the proper Latin is Ave Atque Vale, meaning “hail and farewell”, yet we can’t quite feel it’s a complete farewell. Wherever Jonathan Male goes in his travels, he’s transformed BETO as an engine, just as Co-Optima aims to transform U.S. engines, not in a vacuum but in a complete re-shaping of co-operation and cross-cutting development. That’s a great legacy, and it’s Jonathan Male’s. So, we’ll say Vale Male, but there’s more Ave in it, really.

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