Non-food biomass such as the crop residue (the leftover material from crops like stalks, leaves, and husks of corn plants following harvest) pictured above can be converted to biofuels as well as high-value products such as plastics, chemicals, and fertilizers.

Biomass is a very versatile energy resource. While it can be converted to biofuel for vehicle use, it can also serve as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels in the manufacturing of plastics, fertilizers, lubricants, industrial chemicals, and many other products derived from petroleum or natural gas.

Made with biomass, these “bioproducts” can be produced alongside biofuels at an integrated biorefinery. This strategy offers a more efficient, cost-effective, and integrated approach to the utilization of our nation’s biomass resources. Revenue generated from bioproducts provides added value, improving the economics of biorefinery operations and creating more cost-competitive biofuels.

Making products alongside fuels is a strategy that has long proved successful at enhancing capital gains in the petrochemical industry. For example, approximately 75% of the volume of a barrel of crude oil goes towards making fuels, corresponding to $935 billion in revenue. In contrast, only 16% of a barrel of oil goes towards making petrochemicals. Despite the much smaller volume, these chemicals produce almost as much revenue as fuels ($812 billion in revenue for chemicals). The Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) is focusing on strategies that capitalize on revenue from bioproducts to improve the economic feasibility of advanced biofuel production. Over the past year, BETO has funded several successful projects that have developed innovative approaches to the production of renewable chemicals and materials from biomass resources.

For example, industrial biotechnology company Lygos Inc. announced in early 2015 that it had successfully achieved pre-pilot-scale production of malonic acid from pure non-food sugar as a model for cellulosic sugars. This high-value chemical is used in pharmaceuticals, flavors, fragrances, and electronic- and metal-manufacturing processes. The pre-pilot-scale manufacturing was completed at the Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in a program funded in part by BETO. Since then, BETO has competitively awarded additional funding to Lygos through the Small Business Vouchers Pilot, an initiative that helps small businesses bring next-generation clean energy technologies to market faster by providing access to expertise and specialized equipment at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) national laboratories. Through this platform, Lygos will continue to work with national labs to test their patented technology on cellulosic sugars, in order to validate biomass-based feedstocks for their product.

Renewable chemical company Genomatica developed a process using microbes to convert cellulosic sugars to butanediol (BDO), a chemical used in products such as hard plastics, INVISTA’s Lycra® spandex, and other high-performance fabrics. This BETO-funded project advanced the technological readiness for the production of BDO and illustrates the potential of capitalizing on renewable chemical production within a biorefinery. Moving forward, BETO will continue to explore viable technology pathways for co-products—several of which are already under development. In 2015, DOE awarded funds to several companies and universities located in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, Colorado, and Georgia, to develop integrated processes for the production of advanced biofuels and products.

The continued integration of bio-based chemicals and materials along the biofuel-production pathway can lead to new feedstock demands, technology developments, and economic opportunities. These products can, in turn, enable the cost-effective production of advanced biofuels, improve energy security, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to U.S. job growth.

Jonathan Male
Dr. Jonathan Male is the former director for the Bioenergy Technologies Office. In this role, he led the Office’s work to lower costs, reduce technical risk, and accelerate deployment of bioenergy and renewable chemicals technologies.
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