The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) announces the establishment of the Bioenergy Separations Consortium (BioESep)—a consortium of eight DOE national laboratories leading coordinated research to move cost-effective, high-performing separations technologies to market. Separations processes can involve physical processes, like separating solids from liquids, or chemical processes, like purifying mixtures of molecules. To convert biomass to biofuels, many challenging separations are required, such as removing water from algae or taking contaminants out of sugar streams, before microbes or catalysts can further process them to fuels or products. 

BioESep is led by Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) and kicks off Dec. 1, 2016, with a meeting on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory campus. BioESep is made up of five technical and analysis teams, a steering committee, and an advisory board composed of industrial and academic stakeholders. The technical teams will work to address separations challenges in eight of BETO’s priority conversion routes to hydrocarbon biofuels. In addition to ANL, the national laboratories included in the consortium are Idaho National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories. 

Currently, separations can represent up to 70% of biomass processing costs. Furthermore, during separations, some of the carbon that could end up in the final fuel product is lost; usually, that carbon is used for power generation, but this is a low-value use. This consortium aims to use renewable carbon optimally by developing cost-effective and highly efficient separation technologies that minimize carbon loss. At recent BETO workshops, industrial stakeholders highlighted that improvements in separations would amount to a major breakthrough in the development of biofuels that are cost-competitive.

BioESep will address the challenges of separations technologies that are relevant to industry through a concerted coordination of research efforts among national laboratories. This strategic coordination of national laboratory expertise and equipment is likely to increase innovation and accelerate advancements in technology that will be beneficial to industry and to BETO’s goals, as laid out in the BETO Multi-Year Program Plan. Projects within the BioESep consortium will span several conversion technologies, including deconstruction and fractionation of a wide variety of biomass types via thermochemical and biochemical techniques, followed by synthesis and upgrading to final products.

BioESep is part of BETO’s Conversion Research and Development Program, which funds projects to develop technologies for converting biomass feedstocks into viable biofuels and bioproducts, moving toward an economically competitive and environmentally sustainable bioeconomy.