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NREL Scientist Bryon Donohoe looks at different views of ultra structures of pre-treated biomass materials in the Cellular Visualization room of the Biomass Surface Characterization Lab. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL.
A researcher examines a strain of the fermentation microorganism Zymomonas mobilis on a culture plate. NREL has genetically engineered and patented its own strains of Zymomonas mobilis to more effectively ferment the multiple sugars found in biomass as part of the cellulosic ethanol-to-renewable fuel conversion process. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL.
Engineer Whitney Jablonski works in the thermochemical lab at NREL's campus in Golden, Colorado. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL.
Work in the High Bay Lab at the Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility (IBRF) at NREL in Golden, Colorado. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL.
America’s homegrown fuel resources -- from wood chips to the leaves and stalks of corn plants -- are plentiful. Research finds that these resources could produce enough clean, renewable fuel to replace about 30 percent of the nation’s current petroleum consumption. Still, on the path to creating a strong, thriving biofuels industry, there are challenges we continue to address. That’s why we’re working with researchers, industry and other partners to increase the reliability and cost-effectiveness of renewable fuel production.
The good news is we are making progress -- particularly when it comes to cellulosic ethanol. For the uninitiated, cellulosic ethanol is fuel produced from the inedible, organic material abundant in agricultural waste -- including grasses, farm waste and virtually every type of plant. While cellulosic ethanol represents a huge opportunity for the renewable fuels industry, the high costs and inefficiencies associated with the technology are barriers to its commercialization. However, with major technology milestones met by researchers at our National Labs and industry partners -- that’s all starting to change.
Last fall, scientists at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) successfully demonstrated the technical advances needed to produce cellulosic ethanol cost competitively at $2.15 per gallon -- a process that was modeled at $9 per gallon just a decade ago.
To get here, scientists led pilot-scale projects at NREL’s Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility and Thermochemical Users Facility for two cellulosic ethanol production processes -- biochemical conversion and thermochemical conversion. Both processes successfully produced renewable fuel at prices competitive with petroleum. At the biochemical pilot, cellulosic ethanol was produced at a modeled commercial-scale cost of $2.15 per gallon. For the thermochemical pilot, cellulosic ethanol was produced at a modeled commercial-scale cost of $2.05 per gallon.
The successful demonstration of these cost-cutting technologies is helping the private sector ramp-up efforts to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production. Facilities to produce cellulosic ethanol are under construction including Energy Department-supported projects led by Abengoa in Hugoton, Kansas, POET in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and INEOS in Vero Beach, Florida. Going forward, these technical breakthroughs will be leveraged by private industry and Energy Department to commercialize other technical pathways -- including the conversion of cellulosic feedstock into high performing “drop-in” biofuels that are virtually indistinguishable from gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other petroleum products.
You can learn more about the Energy Department’s efforts to sustainably transform the nation's abundant renewable resources into cost-competitive, renewable fuel by visiting the Bioenergy Technologies Office website.