The Relay Race toward Energy Security: Passing the Baton from Bioenergy Research to Industrial Commercialization

January 11, 2018

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Pictured are examples of raw biomass (left) and the equipment available at Idaho National Laboratory’s Process Demonstration Unit (middle), which can process biomass into feedstocks (right) that are ready for conversion into biofuels, biopower, and biopro

Pictured are examples of raw biomass (left) and the equipment available at Idaho National Laboratory’s Process Demonstration Unit (middle), which can process biomass into feedstocks (right) that are ready for conversion into biofuels, biopower, and bioproducts. To see what this equipment does, take the Biomass National User Facility Virtual Tour.

Alison Goss Eng, Program Manager, Feedstock Supply and Logistics and Advanced Algal Systems, Bioenergy Technologies Office

Author: Alison Goss Eng, Program Manager, Feedstock Supply and Logistics and Advanced Algal Systems, Bioenergy Technologies Office

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The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) is racing full speed ahead to help the United States achieve energy independence. One approach is through using domestic biomass resources, such as agricultural and forestry residues, grasses, and municipal solid waste. But, how do these biological materials make it from the field or forest to the biorefinery for conversion into biofuels, biopower, and bioproducts? And, how do we deal with all of these variable raw materials to make fairly uniform “feedstocks” to help reduce processing costs for bioenergy producers? 

We are still optimizing the entire process, and it is truly a relay with many passes of the baton along the way, both from the public to the private sector and from one step to another along the supply chain. DOE testing facilities, like Idaho National Laboratory’s (INL’s) Biomass Feedstock National User Facility (BFNUF), are running the lead leg on early-stage bioenergy research and helping to pass that baton by providing bioenergy technology developers with access to unique capabilities to test their processes. As its name implies, BFNUF specializes in transforming raw biomass into feedstocks through different combinations of operations, such as drying, grinding, milling, washing, and/or densification. These methods are collectively referred to as “preprocessing” options and are used to facilitate techno-economically viable conversion of renewable domestic resources into useful products. BFNUF is arguably the most complete feedstock-preprocessing research and development (R&D) facility in the world. 

BETO supports testing facilities, such as BFNUF, which lead the first leg of early-stage research and development before passing their technological advances on to industry. Industry can then take this technology to the next level in the bioenergy product

BETO supports testing facilities, such as BFNUF, which lead the first leg of early-stage research and development before passing their technological advances on to industry. Industry can then take this technology to the next level in the bioenergy production process.

Researchers at BFNUF have worked with more than a dozen companies and institutions to improve biomass preprocessing and feedstock quality so that each company can take its technology and products to the next level. In the 4 years since it was built, BFNUF has processed more than 1,000 tons of raw biomass materials, producing a wide variety of milled and densified feedstock products from biomass sources ranging from forest and agricultural residues to municipal solid waste. BFNUF researchers help industry find solutions to feedstock challenges using six primary R&D tools: the Bioenergy Feedstock Library, Process Demonstration Unit (PDU), torrefaction system, chemical preprocessing system, biomass characterization laboratory, and densification laboratory.

Here are a few of the many companies that have benefitted from BFNUF facilities and personnel:

  • POET—INL researchers partnered with POET for extensive field testing of corn stover storage techniques. Specifically, the tests were designed to learn more about how long-term storage affects biomass moisture content and dry matter loss over time.
  • Idaho State Department of Agriculture—INL researchers have partnered with the Idaho State Department of Agriculture in an effort to dispose of 6,000 tons of alfalfa grown on fields treated with methyl bromide during a pale cyst nematode infestation. The alfalfa was grown after the treatment and contains residual amounts of methyl bromide, a gaseous soil fumigant pesticide. INL researchers processed the alfalfa into pellets that, pending further tests, they could feed into a boiler to produce biopower.
  • Oregon Torrefaction—BFNUF loaned its mobile torrefaction unit to Oregon Torrefaction to produce torrefied biomass pellets. Oregon Torrefaction provided the pellets to Portland General Electric for testing at the Boardman Power Plant. The tests completed to date support the possibility of using 100% torrefied biomass at existing pulverized coal-fired power plants, like the one at Boardman.
  • Advanced Torrefaction Systems—INL researchers helped Advanced Torrefaction Systems test a catalyst using the torrefaction system in the PDU. The oxidation catalyst (similar to a catalytic converter on a car) combusts off-gases formed during the torrefaction process, improving efficiency and reducing harmful emissions.

These efforts are part of DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Laboratory Impact Initiative, which is passing the baton to industry in several ways—by streamlining access to national laboratory capabilities; by enhancing relationships between the national laboratories and the private sector; and by communicating the value of the national laboratories’ science and technology to help address feedstock variability challenges that biorefineries currently face.

Industry can use BFNUF’s technology to further the development of processes to turn renewable, domestic biomass resources into commercial products, thus helping the United States drive economic growth, create jobs, and achieve energy independence.

Industry can use BFNUF’s technology to further the development of processes to turn renewable, domestic biomass resources into commercial products, thus helping the United States drive economic growth, create jobs, and achieve energy independence.

In addition to the Laboratory Impact Initiative, there are several opportunities for industry to get involved in DOE efforts. BETO recently launched the Feedstock-Conversion Interface Consortium (FCIC), focused on achieving successful handoffs of high-quality feedstocks to the entire spectrum of conversion technologies. FCIC has announced a Directed Funding Opportunity specifically to encourage collaboration between DOE’s national laboratories and industrial and academic partners.

Offices across EERE have a common goal of conducting industry-relevant, early-stage R&D and—as stated in the Advanced Manufacturing Office blog—then passing the baton to the private sector, which is best positioned to carry it to the commercialization finish line in specific end uses.

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