U.S. Department of Energy - Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Bioenergy Technologies Office

Accomplishments and Project Highlights

The U.S. bioindustry provides a secure and growing supply of transportation fuels, biopower, and bioproducts from a variety of biomass resources. Biomass is the only renewable energy source that can offer a viable substitute for petroleum-based liquid transportation fuels in the near term. It can also provide valuable chemicals for manufacturing and power to supply the grid. For more than a decade, this important industry has been shaped by the efforts of the Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO). BETO helps transform our renewable biomass resources into commercially viable, high-performance biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower through targeted research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D). To learn more about our approach to RDD&D and our technology areas, visit the Research and Development Web page

The Office has numerous accomplishments covering the full range of technology areas in its portfolio. The projects and efforts described below highlight just a few of the Office's recent achievements. Additional successes can be found on the bioenergy topic of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's Successes Web page or on BETO's accomplishments fact sheet.

Breakthrough in Algal Biology

A microscopinc image of a Thalasseiosira pseudonana.

A scanning electron microscope image of the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana.
Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego, have made a significant breakthrough in algal biology with implications for biofuels. Algae typically overproduce lipid oils—energy-storing fat molecules used in biofuel production—when they are starved for nutrients, but this starvation also limits their growth and multiplication. The Scripps team was able to metabolically engineer a disruption in fat-reducing enzymes called lipases to allow for an increase in lipids while maintaining productive growth. Using transcriptomics to guide identification of target lipases in the Thalassiosira pseudonana diatom, the team was able to demonstrate a genetics technique that could have broader implications to other algae species and significantly enhance the productivity of algae, leading to improved economics of algal biofuel production.

The report, "Metabolic engineering of lipid catabolism increases microalgal lipid accumulation without compromising growth," was published November 18, 2013, in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

BETO Reaches New Heights in Cellulosic Ethanol Advancement

A vial of cellulosic ethanol sitting in a pile of feedstock.

Cellulosic ethanol production has seen major breakthroughs over the last two years, including drastically reduced costs.
Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

In the fall of 2012, scientists at the Department of Energy's national laboratories successfully demonstrated two cellulosic ethanol production processes at a cost of $2.15 or less per gallon; these processes included both feedstock harvesting and transportation and integrated conversion steps. Nearly a decade of work supported this achievement, facilitating in one case a rapid reduction in cost from more than $9 per gallon. Teams at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Idaho National Laboratory (INL) focused on three primary areas to reach this goal: harvesting and feedstock supply system logistics; biomass pretreatment and enzymatic hydrolysis followed by fermentation; and gasification followed by cleanup and fuels synthesis. The lab teams overcame significant barriers and reduced production costs and inefficiencies, bringing the nation one step closer to a stable, affordable supply of biofuels.

Success on the Field: The Feedstock Milestone

Screenshot of a computer-generated image labeled 'Computational Fluid Dynamic Model of the Alden Turbine.' Shows water flowing along a turbine.

The Bioenergy Technologies Office performs research on a variety of feedstocks for biofuel conversion.
Credit: Idaho National Laboratory

Meeting the nation's fuel and energy needs starts in the field or the algae pond. In the last year, a partnership between INL and Iowa State University (ISU) achieved the Feedstock Milestone for producing feedstock from corn stover for less than $35 per dry ton. This critical target enables biofuels to compete economically with petroleum-based fuels from the beginning of the process. The INL-ISU team collaborated to effectively harvest, bale, and store the corn stover before transporting it and preparing—or processing—it for use in a biorefinery, touching on and improving every facet of the supply process.   

Improved Yeast, Bacteria, and Enzymes Propel Conversion Technologies

An image of scientists studying a tube.

A team of scientists work on enzyme pretreatment technologies.
Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

For the past few years, BETO has partnered with several companies to develop improved strains of yeast and bacteria that convert lignocellulosic biomass sugars into biofuels. Two of BETO's project partners, DuPont and Mascoma, have developed commercially viable strains that they will soon implement in their own biorefinery operations. By requiring these partners to meet stringent validation standards, they were able to demonstrate the quality of their products to other interested investors and buyers. During this same period, BETO partnered with Novozymes, Cargill, Purdue, Genencor, DSM, and Verenium to improve the performance and cost effectiveness of enzymes that process lignocellulosic-based sugars. Throughout the development process for each of these partners, the Office's rigorous standards informed future improvements that are now being used in their independent, commercially available products.

First Cellulosic Ethanol Integrated Biorefineries in the Nation

A picture of Myriant outside at night

The Myriant biorefinery produces an environmentally friendly alternative to a valuable chemical product, succinic acid.
Credit: Myriant Corporation

BETO supports a number of integrated biorefineries that are specifically focused on producing cellulosic ethanol. As of mid-2013, three different biorefineries have opened or are nearing completion while two others have started construction. Among these are the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants in the country, bringing a major BETO goal to full realization.

  • POET and Abengoa began full construction this year with an anticipated startup in 2014. Together, these two facilities will have a combined production capacity of more than 50 million gallons per year.
  • INEOS completed construction of its demonstration-scale waste-to-fuel biorefinery in Vero Beach, Florida, in early 2012. When it reaches full operational capacity, it will produce 8 million gallons of advanced biofuels and 6 MW of renewable biomass power per year from renewable biomass, including yard, wood, and vegetative wastes.
  • Logos and EdeniQ completed the start-up and commissioning of a pilot-scale biorefinery in October 2012, relying on American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funds to retrofit EdeniQ's plant in Visalia, California, to enlarge the facility to an annual production capacity of 50,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol. Once the Logos-EdeniQ plant has successfully demonstrated its processes, it will gradually scale up to a fully commercialized level.
  • Lastly, Myriant has used BETO funding to develop a process to produce bio-succinic acids in its soon-to-be open facility in Lake Providence, Louisiana. The facility will produce 30 million pounds of bio-succinic acid per year, commercializing a renewable, environmentally friendly alternative to a valuable production chemical.