U.S. Department of Energy - Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
Bioenergy Technologies Office
Biomass 2009: Track 2 - Advanced Biofuels
The purpose of the advanced biofuels track was to provide a look at the current state advanced biofuels research and how that research is being applied. Both privatively and publicly funded research was discussed. Our panelists were a combination of government researchers and industry experts.
Each of our breakouts focused on a different aspect of advanced biofuels. A variety of topics were addressed, from feedstock improvement to long range production models.
Presentation slides, if available, are provided in PDF format. Download Adobe Reader.
Track 2, Session I
Research and Development: Where We Are and Where We Are Going
- Andy Aden, Senior Research Supervisor II, Biorefinery Process Analysis, National Renewable Energy Laboratory
- Brian Davison, Chief Scientist, Systems Biology and Biotechnology, BioEnergy Science Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Presentation Slides (PDF 6.9 MB)
- Tim Donohue, Director and Principal Investigator, Great Lakes BioEnergy Research Center Presentation Slides (PDF 2.0 MB)
- Josh Heazlewood, Director of Systems Biology, Joint BioEnergy Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Presentation Slides (PDF 36.9 MB)
- Jim Imbler, CEO, ZeaChem, Inc. Presentation Slides (PDF 996 KB)
- Bill Roe, CEO, Coskata Presentation Slides (PDF 1.0 MB)
The first Advanced Biofuels breakout session was organized to present an overview of the current state of biofuels and to promote discussion about the direction of future research. The majority of current commercial scale biofuels production is in ethanol. A significant portion of the biofuels research to date, both government and privately funded, has been on ethanol technologies. Therefore, this session had an ethanol focus.
The session was initiated by our moderator, Valerie Sarisky-Reed, Conversion Team Lead in the DOE Biomass Office. She gave a brief discussion of the range of government partnerships and the distribution of government funding for research before introducing our first speaker, Andy Aden of NREL.
Mr. Aden provided an introductory description of the government-defined State of Technology. He explained that the State of Technology is represented by a cost model. The model is annually updated using experientially verified data from both government and industry research. These annual updates provide a means to track progress. There are two design reports describing the model: one encompasses biochemical conversion technologies and the other, thermochemical conversion. The level at which specific technologies have been analyzed varies based on funded research and available data. The reports are there to provide an industry benchmark. The goal is to improve the whole process. Mr. Aden presented data showing that steady progress has been made, but noted that there are still huge sustainability challenges to overcome.
Mr. Aden was followed by representatives from the government-funded Bioenergy Research Centers. There were representatives from three labs: Brian Davison of the BioEnergy Science Center at Oak Ridge, Tim Donohue of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), and Josh Heazlewood of the Joint Bioenergy Institute (JBEI) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. They gave a breakdown of ongoing research at the different sites and the current scientific objectives. The majority of work being done is on the genetic improvement of crops and the organisms used for fermentation, microbial catalysts. Both feedstock and microbial catalysts work being done by the Bioenergy Research Centers will ultimately increase biofuels production efficiency and process sustainability.
Their primary focus for crops is to increase biomass recalcitrance (the accessibility of plant sugars). The plant sugars are the actual substrate converted to ethanol and other biofuels. A significant portion of plant sugars are contained in the fibrous portions of plants. Through pretreatment processes, we are currently able to access some of these sugars (cellulosic ethanol production); however, the necessary pretreatments significantly contribute to total conversion cost and approximately 20 percent of plant sugars (contained in hemicelluloses and other complex molecules) remains inaccessible. The Bioenergy Research Centers are studying the plant molecular pathways responsible for the production of hemicelluloses and other complex sugar compounds. Oak Ridge's research is focusing on the two already highly sustainable crops, poplar and switchgrass, while JBEI is working with a variety of other monocots. (JBEI's current work can be seen in an online database they've developed.) Once the genes responsible for the hemicellulose production pathway have been identified, they can be modified via targeted transformation. Through an integrated high-throughput screening process, transformed plants with desired phenotypes can be identified. These transformed plants will represent a whole new generation of feedstocks with significantly increased biofuels production yields per unit volume.
All biochemical conversion processes rely on microbial catalysis. Microbes either produce the enzymes responsible for the breakdown of complex sugars during pretreatment or are responsible for the fermentation of sugars to ethanol and other biofuels. At the GLBRC, they are working to improve both types of microbes through Reiterative Directed Microbial Evolution (REDIME). Microbes are put through several rounds of rigorous screenings to identify those with the greatest potential. Good microbial candidates have rapid conversion rates, high byproduct tolerances, and low resource consumption. Among GLBRC's ultimate research goals is the isolation of single microbial organisms that can effectively perform enzyme production under aerobic conditions and fermentation under anaerobic conditions. Single organism conversion would be less expensive and more efficient.
The last two members of our panel were representatives from the ethanol industry. Jim Imbler, CEO of ZeaChem, Inc., briefly discussed ZeaChem's production policies and plans for commercialization—it is currently preparing for construction of its first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant in South Carolina. ZeaChem's primary objective is to make money, but the company follows what it refers to as a "dual green policy." It believes that what is sustainable for the environment will ultimately be sustainable for profits. ZeaChem's process uses a combination of traditional biochemical and thermochemical methods. Its organism is not feedstock selective. It plans to use the feedstocks that are native and most suited to growing in the locations of its plants. Also, by locating plants directly adjacent to croplands, they will cut out field-to-factory transportation costs. Mr. Imbler was somewhat dismissive of the current research being done but stated that, ultimately, producers will use the technologies that improve their profit margins. Due to the modular nature of the ethanol production, substitution with newer technologies is possible.
The final member of our first panel was Bill Roe, CEO of Coskata. Coskata is also on the path to commercialization. It is currently working on construction of a commercial scale demo plant. Coskata produces ethanol via biothermal methods. Its process includes a gasification step (syngas) followed by a fermentation step. Biothermal methods are noted for their ability to convert a variety of feedstocks including municipal wastes. Mr. Roe discussed how the company's process improvements have allowed it to become cost competitive. It introduced a new, more efficient fermentation organism in addition to modifying traditional fermentation reactor designs. With these improvements, they have met the biothermal platform goals set by Sandia National Laboratory. They can now compete unsubsidized with oil at $70 per barrel.
Track 2, Session II
- Randy Cortright, Founder and CTO, Virent Presentation Slides (PDF )
- David Glassner, Vice President, Bioprocessing and Engineering, Gevo Presentation Slides (PDF 837 KB)
- Jennifer Holmgren, General Manager, Renewable Energy and Chemicals Business Unit, UOP Presentation Slides (PDF 1.7 MB)
- Mark Niederschulte, COO, INEOS Presentation Slides (PDF 2.5 MB)
- Greg Pal, Senior Director of Corporate Development, LS9 Presentation Slides (PDF 1.2 MB)
- Harrison Dillon, President and CTO, Solazyme
The second Advanced Biofuels breakout session focused on emerging technologies. The panel consisted of representatives from companies with innovative biofuels production methods. The companies produce a range of final fuel products including biobutanol, biogasoline, biodiesel, and bio-based jet fuels. This panel was also moderated by Valerie Sarisky-Reed of the DOE Biomass office. DOE is currently funding the research and development of many promising advanced biofuels producers throughout the nation.
Randy Cortright, founder and CTO of Virent, was the first presenter. Virent has developed a unique biorefining process by which hydrolyzed biomass can be converted to biodiesel, biogasoline, or bio jet fuels. The conversion occurs via catalytically driven aqueous phase reforming. The reforming process works for a wide range of sugar streams and is therefore feedstock flexible. It is a relatively rapid process, working on a scale of hours rather than days. During the aqueous phase, both water and hydrogen are produced. These products are redistributed for use during other stages of production. The process as a whole is net positive for water and neutral for carbon dioxide. Depending on the desired final product, slight modifications can be made, encouraging the formation of shorter or longer carbon chain molecules. The compositions of all its final products are highly analogous to standard oil-based products. With use of appropriate feedstocks and proof of scalability, Virents' process could be economically viable and a sustainable alternative to modern day oil refining.
The second presenter was David Glassner, Vice President at Gevo. Gevo's process, like Virent's, begins with the hydrolysis of biomass and ultimately produces bio-based fuels. Gevo, however, follows a different intermediate path. Its hydrolyzed biomass is fermented with an organism that solely produces isobutanol. This isobutanol is then purified and can be dehydrated to isobutylene or other chemical products. These chemical products have many potential market applications of their own, such as low Reid vapor pressure additives for conventional fuels. Alternately isobutylene can also be converted to bio-based fuels by oligomerization. Isobutylene-based gasoline has been shown to have an 85-percent emission reduction when compared to conventional gasoline.
Our third presenter was Jennifer Holmgren, General Manager of Renewable Energy and Chemicals Business Unit at UOP. UOP is one of the world's largest providers of fuel processing and distributing technologies. UOP is currently pursuing research into several different types of advanced biofuels. It is focusing on "drop-in fuels." These fuels would work with existing distribution infrastructure and engine technologies. One such potential fuel is green diesel (biodiesel) produced via the Ecofining hydrotreating method developed by UOP. Green diesel is produced from natural plant oils. Both leftover cooking oils and oils produced from second generation feedstocks such as jatropha, camelina, and algae can be used. UOP is currently performing tests on algae oils from several different companies to determine conversion efficiencies and product quality. It has been shown that Solozyme's algae oils are among the oils that can be converted to "true diesel," which is biodiesel that can be used directly without conventional diesel mixing. UOP has developed the concept of an integrated algae refinery that could make large-scale algae-based diesel production economically viable. It is also possible to produce green jet fuels using Ecofining methods. UOP (in conjunction with several other companies) has been doing in-flight testing of these green jet fuels. Another fuel/bioconversion method that UOP is pursuing is use of pyrolysis oils. These oils contain approximately 60 percent of the energy content of standard oils and would likely be used in heat and power generation. Woody biomass has been shown to have high conversion yields for the pyrolysis process. UOP sees biofuels playing a growing role in America and the world's energy future.
UOP was followed by a representative from another large company, INEOS. INEOS is the world's third largest chemical producer. It already has a large biofuels presence in Europe and is currently moving to expand its actives in the United States. Presenting for this company was COO Mark Niederschulte. INEOS produces ethanol by a syngasification method. Its process uses a "feedstock agnostic" organism and it sees the United States as being rich in local feedstock resources. This includes municipal wastes for which the INEOS conversion method has been shown to have favorable efficiency, even on difficult-to-process fractions like plastics. Conversion of municipal wastes to ethanol is environmentally and economically preferable to other current disposal methods, such as landfills and combustion. The INEOS process has a rapid conversion time along with being low maintenance and inexpensive to run. Its first conversion plant in Florida is scheduled to be up and running by 2011 to deal with vegetative and demolition wastes. INEOS feels its experience and size position them well to become a key player in the U.S. ethanol market.
The next presenter was Greg Pal, Senior Director of Corporate Development at LS9. Through synthetic biology, LS9 has created a "Microrefinery Catalyst," a single-cell organism capable of carrying out all the fermentation and conversion processes necessary to go from any of a wide range of untreated feedstocks to "UltraClean Diesel" or other fuel products. The organisms repurpose fatty acids for fuel production. The fuel production process is extracellular with final fuel products that are immiscible in water. Because of this, no additional separation or distillation steps are required. Additionally, any potential product toxicity issues to the organisms are eliminated. LS9's overall conversion process is simple with a high yield. It believes it can be cost-competitive with oil at $45 a barrel. LS9 currently has an operational pilot plant and is constructing a demonstration scale plant with the help of partnerships. By 2011, it hopes to have commercial scale plants up and running.
The final presenter of the second advanced biofuels breakout was Harrison Dillon, President and CTO of Solazyme. Solazyme is on the verge of entering into the commercial phase of production. It has already produced thousands of gallons of oil, some of which has been used without purification in standard diesel engines. Its process uses a dark phase fermentation reaction, which is more efficient than other photosynthetic processes. The current final production concentration is hundreds of grams of oil per liter of water. The high concentration limits the potential cost drain of isolation. Its largest cost factor is actually feedstocks. Conversion works best for straight glucose streams. For other streams, there can be an accumulation of byproducts toxic to the algae. They are working to expand the range of viable feedstocks. With genetic engineering, a sucrose invertase has been added to the algae to allow the breakdown of sucrose to glucose and fructose, which can be processed. In addition to biodiesel, they are currently exploring other potential applications for their oils such as nutraceuticals.
Track 2, Session III
Applications: Fuel to Motion
- Neil Rossmeissl, Technology Team Lead, Biomass Office, U.S. Department of Energy
- Candace Wheeler, Biofuels Lead, Global Energy Systems Center, General Motors Presentation Slides (PDF 1.7 MB)
- Todd West, Principal Member of the Technical Staff, Systems Research and Analysis Department, Sandia National Laboratories Presentation Slides (PDF 484 KB)
- Vanessa Stiffler-Claus, Manager of Federal Relations, John Deere Public Affairs Worldwide Presentation Slides (PDF 322 KB)
- Charles Muller, Principal Member of the Technical Staff, Engine Combustion Department, Sandia National Laboratories Presentation Slides (PDF 563 KB)
The objective of the third advanced biofuels breakout session was to address applications, looking both at how biofuels are currently being used and the work that is being done to insure their future usability. There were two representatives from industry and two from Sandia National Laboratories. They were introduced by the session moderator, Neil Rossmeissl, Technology Lead in the DOE Biomass Office.
The first presenter was Candace Wheeler, Biofuels Lead at General Motors' (GM) Global Energy Systems Center. Ms. Wheeler's presentation discussed the full range of biofuels work being done by GM. GM not only designs and builds vehicles capable of using biofuels but it also actively promotes and funds biofuels research, working with consortiums, universities, and research centers throughout the United States. It feels biofuels are the best near-term solution for vehicular energy and reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. GM still sees E-85 as being a key part of the biofuels solution, particularly with the commercialization of many cellulosic ethanol production technologies in the next one to three years. GM supports these new technologies by forming partnerships with promising companies such as Coskata and Mascoma. In support of its E-85 stance, GM funded its own ethanol North America production capability study in conjunction with the University of Toronto. The study results were similar to those found in the DOE-funded "Billion-Ton Study." Production of ethanol is not limited by biomass availability, but rather to timing and logistics. GM believes cellulosic ethanol could supplement 35 percent of the vehicle fuels market by 2030, given appropriate infrastructure and retailer pricing that reflects the 20–25-percent reduction in fuel economy. Low-cost ethanol is also key to the success of E-85. Half of the flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) on the road in the U.S. are GM–made, and next year GM will be introducing 20 new FFV models. It is committed to having FFVs as 50 percent of its fleet by 2012. GM is forming partnerships to ensure the availability of E-85 for its FFV fleet. It was active in the completion of the I-65 Biofuels Cross-Country Corridor project. I-65 is the first interstate highway on which a motorist is never more then a quarter of a tank away from an E-85 station. Even with the success of projects like the I-65 Corridor, only a little over 1 percent of U.S. gas stations currently carry E-85. GM wants to be a part of changing this and America's fuel future.
Todd West, Principal Member of the Technical Staff in the Systems Research and Analysis Department at Sandia National Laboratories, was the second presenter. Todd discussed "The 90-Billion Gallon Biofuel Deployment Study," a joint project between Sandia and GM. The study is a full-chain discussion of large-scale ethanol production and utilization by 2030. A large volume was picked to help identify process bottlenecks. A "Seed to Station" model, testing nearly 3000 variables, was developed for the study. The cost of developing cellulosic ethanol was found to be roughly the same as developing a new domestic petroleum source. Transportation and distribution infrastructure will provide challenges, but by no means are these insurmountable. They could be overcome with the additional production of rail tanker cars and improvements to rail infrastructure. Water usage for ethanol production would be roughly equivalent to that of oil and, not considering land usage changes, there would be a 25-percent overall reduction in GHG emissions. According to this study, ethanol could be cost-competitive with oil at $90 a barrel.
The other representative from industry was Vanessa Stiffler-Claus, Manager of Federal Relations for John Deere Public Affairs Worldwide. Ms. Stiffler-Claus graciously agreed to give a presentation on behalf of John Deere's technical staff that could not come to Washington, D.C., for the conference. John Deere has done extensive laboratory and infield biodiesel performance testing of their Tier 2 and 3 farm equipment engines. The company recognizes that farmers would like to be able to use the biofuels that they help produce. Testing in the United States has been done mostly with a B20 blend, but testing abroad has been done with up to B100. Only quality biodiesel and blends meeting current fuel standards were used. The biodiesel used for testing was vegetable oil based. Up to B20 blends were found to be usable in both Tier 2 and 3 engines with no performance problems. For higher ethanol blends, however, injector fouling problems were experienced in Tier 3. These were found to be the result of deposits forming at the injector tips, causing loss of power. Biobased Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) is believed to cause problems because of its pretreatment process. CARB ULSD is more stable and has a lower rate of problems. Certain detergents can be used to clean up these deposits/prevent their formation. John Deere recommends the use of detergent products for all biofuels blends but requires it for B20 and above. According to John Deere up to B20 blends should be used within 3 months of production and B20 to B100 blends should be used within 45 days of production.
The last presenter of the session was Charles Muller, also of Sandia. He is a Principal Member of the Technical Staff in the Engine Combustion Department. Mr. Muller discussed biofuels from a utilization perspective, looking at what is being done to improve engine design. Motivated by both energy security and environmental consequences, Sandia is working to increase efficiency and potential range of usable fuels. One promising design is the HCCI model which is both more efficient and creates fewer emissions than either the modern gasoline or diesel engine. Though HCCI may sound like the ultimate solution, other models—such as the HECC—are also being extensively studied and tested. Each model has different ideal fuel properties. Introducing fuels for these engine models is no small task. The introduction of a new fuel impacts everyone, making the list of customer requirements long and comprehensive. Biofuels producers need to consider all requirements in the face of large-scale production. New fuels will solve some problems, but they also introduce new, unforeseen ones. There will be failures, but we must continue to press forward in the face of these and continue to innovate.