NREL research looks at algae and garbage as ingredients for fuels of the future

November 28, 2021 |

In Colorado, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is helping unlock the full potential of the U.S. feedstock supply for biofuels after receiving over $2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) for two projects that will study how to best grow photosynthetic algae and efficiently sort municipal solid waste, important steps for making both feedstocks more economical.

In theory, over 1 billion tons of biomass could be sustainably collected and processed into biofuels by 2030 in the United States, according to U.S. Department of Energy analysis. But turning that theory into practice hinges on improvements in how biomass is grown, collected, and processed. This is especially true for emerging feedstocks like municipal solid waste (MSW) and carbon-dioxide-eating microalgae—both promising ingredients for making net-zero-emission biofuels and bioproducts.

“Algae and MSW have unique potential as biofuel feedstocks—carbon sequestration and broad waste reduction,” said Zia Abdullah, laboratory program manager for NREL’s BETO-funded biomass research. “These two projects will lower key barriers to scaling up the use and affordable production of these promising resources.”

Making biofuel from algae and MSW presents unique logistical challenges. For example, farmers must expertly grow algae in large outdoor ponds, where the organisms are exposed to a range of weather conditions. The algal biomass must then be harvested and processed to generate the fuel-feedstock. A key challenge with MSW, on the other hand, is quickly sorting and processing its jumble of glass, metal, plastic, food waste, and other materials that are thrown in the trash.

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Category: Research

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