By Lauren M. Graham, Ph.D.
On September 20, 2017, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced that DOE selected eight projects related to the optimization of integrated biorefineries (IBR) to negotiate for up to $15 million in DOE funding. The projects aim to solve critical research and developmental challenges encountered for the successful scale-up and reliable operations of IBRs, to decrease capital and operating expenses, and to focus on the manufacture of advanced or cellulosic biofuels and higher-value bioproducts.
The eight projects focus on one or more of the following topic areas:
- Robust, continuous handling of solid materials (dry and wet feedstocks, biosolids, and/or residual solids remaining in the process) and feeding systems to reactors under various operating conditions;
- High-value products from waste and/or other undervalued streams in an integrated biorefinery;
- Industrial separations within an integrated biorefinery (no projects have been selected from this topic area); and
- Analytical modeling of solid materials (dry and wet feedstocks and/or residual solids remaining in the process) and reactor feeding systems.
The project winners include:
- Thermochemical Recovery International Inc., which will study and improve feedstock and residual solids handling systems targeted to commercial pyrolysis and gasification reactors;
- Texas A&M Agrilife Research, which will work on achieving a multi-stream integrated biorefinery (MIBR), where lignin-containing IBR waste will be fractionated to produce lipid for biodiesel, asphalt binder modifier, and quality carbon fiber;
- White Dog Labs, which will use the residual cellulosic sugars in cellulosic stillage syrup to produce single-cell protein (SCP) for aquaculture feed;
- South Dakota School of Mines, which will demonstrate the cost-effective production of biocarbon, carbon nanofibers, polylactic acid, and phenol from the waste streams generated from the biochemical platform technology;
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which will leverage and extend state-of-the-art modeling and simulation tools to develop integrated simulations for feed handling and reactor feeding systems;
- Clemson University, which will develop analytical tools to identify an optimal IBR process design for the reliable, cost-effective, sustainable, and continuous feeding of biomass feedstocks into a reactor;
- Purdue University, which aims to develop strong, innovative computational and empirical models that rigorously detail the multiphase flow of biomass materials; and
- Forest Concepts, which proposes to develop robust feedstock handling modeling and simulation tools based on systematic analysis.
According to Secretary Perry, “[t]hese projects have the potential to increase the efficiency of producing biofuels and bioproducts, enabling the United States to better utilize its abundant biomass resources, boost economic development, and advance U.S. competitiveness in the global energy market.” The funding opportunity is supported jointly by DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
By Kathleen M. Roberts
Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have linked changes in rainfall and other environmental stressors during crop growth to potential deleterious effects on biofuel production. The study demonstrates that the effect of weather conditions on crop yields can significantly impact the downstream processing of those crops for biofuel production. Researchers compared the production of biofuel from switchgrass harvested after a major drought to switchgrass harvested after normal precipitation. The switchgrass crop that experienced major drought conditions contained significantly higher levels of soluble sugar. During the pre-treatment process, however, the sugar was chemically altered to form imidazoles and pyrazines, which inhibited fermentation of the sugar into biofuel. The researchers proposed potential solutions to overcoming the issue, such as removing the soluble sugars before pretreatment or using microbial strains resistant to the toxic effects of imidazoles and pyrazines for fermentation. Overall the research highlights the need to develop sustainable biofuel production systems capable of mitigating the deleterious effect of stress, such as fluctuations in precipitation.
By Lauren M. Graham, Ph.D.
In a paper forthcoming in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Iowa State researchers demonstrate that their tractable multi-market equilibrium model designed to evaluate alternative biofuel policies confirms that the current RFS program benefits the agriculture sector, and leads to overall welfare gains for the U.S. The model considers biodiesel and ethanol markets and is simulated to analyze alternative scenarios, including the repeal of all RFS mandates, the 2015 level of mandates, and the projected 2022 RFS mandates. The analysis shows that the U.S. benefited from lower gasoline, crude oil, and crude oil import prices. Researchers estimated a welfare gain of $2.6 billion to the U.S. from the RFS program, primarily due to the impact of the policies on trade.
Additionally, the analysis predicts that full implementation of the 2022 statutory mandates will be costly and produce limited welfare gains, stating that the agricultural terms of trade are a significant contribution to the RFS generating a positive impact. To compensate for this, researchers recommend the mandate for corn-based ethanol production expand beyond the 15 billion gallon cap envisioned by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). The report also recommends a reduction of biodiesel production from current levels, and no cellulosic biofuel production.
By Kathleen M. Roberts
On August 2, 2017, DOE published a notice in the Federal Register announcing a public meeting of the Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee. The committee is comprised of approximately 30 volunteers from industry, academia, nonprofit organizations, and local government that collaborate to:
- Advise the Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Points of Contact concerning:
- The technical focus and direction of requests for proposals issued under the Initiative; and
- Procedures for reviewing and evaluating the proposals;
- Facilitate consultations and partnerships among federal and state agencies, agricultural producers, industry, consumers, the research community, and other interested groups to carry out program activities relating to the Initiative; and
- Evaluate and perform strategic planning on program activities relating to the Initiative.
The purpose of the meeting is to develop advice and guidance that promotes research and development (R&D) leading to the production of biobased fuels and products. The tentative agenda includes updates on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and DOE Biomass R&D activities, as well as presentations on biomass interface with fossil fuel.
The meeting will take place in Los Angeles, California, from 1:00 p.m.–5:30 p.m. on August 15, 2017, and from 8:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. on August 16, 2017. A summary of the meeting will be available for public review on the committee website.
By Kathleen M. Roberts
On July 26, 2017, the European Commission announced the launch of the Bioeconomy Knowledge Centre, which was created by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the Directorate General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) to better support policy makers with science-based evidence in the bioeconomy field. Rather than generate information, the objective is to build on JRC’s expertise in knowledge management. The online platform will collect, structure, and provide access to knowledge from a wide range of scientific sources on the bioeconomy, the sustainable production of renewable biological resources, and their conversion into valuable products. The platform will also support the European Commission in the review of the 2012 Bioeconomy Strategy, taking into account new political and policy developments, such as the Paris agreement, the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, and the Circular Economy Package.
By Lauren M. Graham, Ph.D.
On July 20, 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded 34 grants totaling $15.1 million for research on renewable energy, biobased products, and agroecosystems. The grants, which are funded through the agency’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), are expected to help develop the next generation of renewable energy, bioproducts, and biomaterials; protect the ecosystems that support agriculture; and improve the agricultural systems and processes that help feed the nation.
The following institutions were awarded grants for projects focused on cover crop systems for biofuel production:
- USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) received $494,000 for the development of lupin, cereal rye, and carinata winter cover crops for biomass in the southern coastal plain;
- Purdue University received $498,000 for the development of cover cropping for the development of sustainable co-production of bioenergy, food, feed (BFF) and ecosystem services (ES);
- Iowa State University of Science and Technology received $498,378 for the development of perennial cover crop systems for maize grain and biomass production;
- Louisiana State University Agricultural Center received $387,000 to study the feedstock production potential of energy cane-sweet sorghum rotation with a winter cover crop system; and
- University of Nebraska received $500,000 to assess innovative strategies to maximize cover crop yields for biofuel across a precipitation gradient.
The following institutions were awarded grants for projects focused on the socioeconomic implications and public policy challenges of bioenergy and bioproducts market development and expansion:
- Auburn University received $499,886 to identify the economic barriers to biomass production, to evaluate the effectiveness of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) in stimulating biomass market expansion, and to explore the economic and ecosystem service implications of biomass production;
- Colorado State University received $499,000 to produce a unified atlas of marginal lands in the U.S., and provide insight on the costs, potential environmental benefits, and overall practical likelihood of using those lands for biomass feedstock production;
- Purdue University received $492,099 to develop a dynamic theoretical model on rejuvenating coal-power plants with biomass;
- Iowa State University of Science and Technology received $499,622 to provide an integrated model-based assessment of the socioeconomic, policy, and market implications of sustainable bioenergy derived from cellulosic biomass; and
- University of Missouri received $498,441 to evaluate impacts on forest resources surrounding power plants using woody biomass, assess economic impacts of wood biopower systems, and quantify tradeoffs between cost, carbon reductions, and renewable energy generation obtained by the increased use of wood biopower.
More information on the grants is available at the NIFA website
By Kathleen M. Roberts
On July 20, 2017, USDA released its technology transfer report for fiscal year 2016. The report outlines the public release of information, tools, and solutions and the adoption and enhancement of research outcomes by collaborative partners and formal Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADA) that occurred in 2016.
The report highlights several research initiatives by ARS scientists focused on supporting the bioeconomy, including:
- Development of a new yeast strain with a unique cellulolytic enzyme that efficiently breaks down biofeedstock, shows resistance to inhibitory compounds, and eliminates the need to add other enzymes to the production process;
- Engineering a yeast strain from a Brazilian ethanol plant to convert plant xylose to ethanol and then identifying a strain with excellent performance;
- dentification of a strain of yeast capable of converting inulin, a major polysaccharide derived from coffee processing waste, into cellulosic ethanol;
- Development of genetic methods to control the conversion of agricultural sugars to compounds called liamocins using yeast; and
- Studying the use of lytic enzymes as an alternative to antibiotics for preventing and controlling bacterial contamination of fuel ethanol fermentations during biorefining.
The full report, titled “Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Report on Technology Transfer” is available on USDA’s website