Avoiding the Coming Apocalypse: NREL’s Vision for Strategic Piloting and Enabling the Deployment of Bioenergy Technologies

June 16, 2021 |

By David J. Robichaud, Robert M. Baldwin, and Thomas D. Foust, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Special to The Digest

A recent article in Biofuels Digest by Guske and Warner titled, “The Coming Apocalypse: Will Industrial Biotech Flourish or Flounder”, put forward a compelling argument about the diminishing capacity of contract research and manufacturing organizations (CRO/CMO) in the U.S. and the challenges faced when attempting to overcome this limitation. They discuss how we came to this situation, the challenges with developing new green- and brownfield facilities, and concluded on a concerning note about how many technologies could ‘whither on the vine’ if the situation doesn’t change soon.

At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) we have noticed a similar trend within the bioenergy community. Go to any leading-edge conference (e.g., ABLC2021) and it is apparent that the number of innovative and transformative technologies is expanding rapidly. Developing technologies are moving well beyond the traditional gasification/pyrolysis and biochemical pathways to include electrons to molecules, catalytic upgrading, electrolytic carbon capture and utilization, cell-free biology, and the list continues. Yet for all the new and transformative technologies cropping up, successful deployment remains elusive and facilities that can enable these technologies continue to dwindle.

Recently, NREL conducted a series of interviews across industry (small, medium, large companies and startups), academia, governmental R&D supporting organizations, and national lab experts to explore the question of industry needs in terms of bioeconomy R&D and scale-up facilities. The three key takeaways that emerged are as follows:

  1. Stop “scaling up”, instead “scale down”. Although this concept is not new (e.g., see The Catalyst Review March 2021 issue), the number of times we hear someone ‘scaling up their lab-scale system by 2 orders of magnitude’ is astounding. First, the idea that designing your piloting system based on lab-scale with its idealized reactors, non-relevant form factors, and lack of integration is misguided at best. The second issue is the scaling factor is arbitrary. Textbooks say to use a 10x scaling factor between scaling steps, practically people attempt multiple orders of magnitude (2-4) for cost and time savings. But scale for scale’s sake runs the risk of either ending up too small, and thus not being able to adequately address the key risks needed to advance the technology, or too large resulting in higher incurred costs (material/labor) than is needed. A better way to proceed is to develop a vision for a commercial plant – which probably looks nothing like your lab-scale setup – then identify the risks associated with each unit operation and each collection of unit operations. If the data supporting successful operation was not collected on a similar, relevant system (e.g., using the same feedstock, materials, and dimensionless engineering numbers) then there is a significant risk that needs to be addressed before moving to commercial scale. The next step is to then scale down to the smallest, relevant scale possible to address the risks of the commercial vision, usually starting with risks associated with integration of unit operations and the interface between science and engineering. The final step is then scaling up to tackle the next classes of risks (e.g., engineering and operational risks at industrial piloting and demonstration scales, respectively).

  1. Process science for bioenergy needs to catch up. Another important point commonly made by the interviewees was the lack of first principles understanding of the process technology, as it relates to processing biomass feedstocks, which led to poor performance as the technology matured between steps. Much of the process science (the pursuit of scale-unifying knowledge beyond the principal reaction in isolation) and process engineering (the understanding of fundamental principles that allow for the development of integrated processes) was borrowed from decades of experience in the petroleum refining industry. Since biomass is both physically and chemically different than petroleum feedstocks these reactor designs and process configurations that scaled-up nicely for the petroleum refinery industry missed the mark when applied to biomass. This in turn led to process and reactor redesigns “on the fly” which is both very expensive and highly risky. Interviewees suggested that bioenergy-related process science and engineering could be advanced through the combination of strategic piloting, computational modeling, and machine learning techniques to better understand the first principles of the biomass process technology. This in turn would lead to better reactor and process designs for systems using biomass as the feedstock that scale well and achieve better performance at the demonstration and commercial plant scales.


  1. There is a demand for flexible plug-and-play piloting capabilities that are capable of operating at the Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5-6, and which allow testing of integrated process configurations. While some facilities for testing stand-alone unit operations do exist (such as the ABPDU at Berkeley for fermentation), facilities that can support integrated piloting for the range of bioenergy and sustainable carbon technological pathways do not exist in the U.S. – not in academia, government labs, or industry. We heard multiple examples where technology developers did not perform adequate risk-based piloting; not because they thought it was a good idea but because relevant CRO/CMO piloting capabilities did not exist and building a dedicated piloting capability was too resource and time intensive. The challenges discussed by Guske and Warner were center stage in their decision making (e.g., costs of greenfield too high, brownfield not adequate). This resulted in going too large too fast and having to address classes of risks on an expensive-to-operate facility. In many cases, poor performance of the demonstration plant could be directly attributed to this inadequate and incomplete piloting.

At NREL, we are re-imagining how we approach piloting to better support the bioenergy and sustainable carbon communities. This process is starting with a renovation of our biochemical and thermochemical pilot plants to achieve flexibility in process setup and operation that can support the next generation of technologies and their associated risks. These facilities are being designed to be plug-and-play with core capabilities (e.g., unit operations and analytical toolsets) sufficient to supply 80% of an envisioned process so that partners need to only bring in their ‘secret sauce’ unit operation to pilot and derisk the technology in an integrated piloting environment. In addition, we continue to develop and maintain advanced analytical and modeling (i.e., CFD/reaction kinetics) capabilities that enable the generation of more data and higher value out of each campaign. Our piloting vision moves beyond the physical confines of the pilot plant and encompasses many other unique, DOE-supported capabilities. Catalyst manufacturing (produce and research commercial-spec materials and how they perform in extreme environments), methods development (ability to quantify and track contaminants and products), data science (ability to explore and leverage our advanced analytical toolset to extract more process understanding and enable predictive forecasting), and technoeconomic and lifecycle analysis (supports envisioning the commercial plant so that we can target the right risks at the pilot scale) are just a few of the capabilities that NREL offers within the piloting suite. Ultimately, our goal is to leverage these capabilities to develop the process science and engineering principles for bioenergy whose textbook counterparts for petroleum have enabled the successful scale up and deployment for decades.

Guske and Warner paint a potentially bleak picture for the future of biotechnology unless the gap in CRO/CMO technology scale-up and piloting capacity for biomass, and for that matter any renewable or waste carbon source, is addressed soon. Piloting at the national laboratories is one avenue to close the gap. Our vision of marrying strategic piloting with process science and engineering is one part of the critical path to preventing the ‘coming apocalypse’ and supporting the deployment of bioenergy technologies.

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