Energy Department Diversifies Advanced Biofuels Research

The US Energy Department is providing $36 million to fund six small-scale projects that diversify the agency’s investments in advanced biofuels and bio-based chemicals.

The projects, located in California, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, will work to improve the economics and efficiency of biological and chemical processes that convert non-food biomass feedstocks into replacements for petroleum-based feedstocks, products, and fuels.

These projects diversify the DOE’s Biomass Program portfolio, which, to date, has been primarily focused on cellulosic ethanol.

Cellulosic ethanol, made from non-food feedstocks, is considered a key technology for replacing corn-based ethanol, which currently puts a strain on global food supplies and the environment.

Requirements for cellulosic ethanol make up a large portion of the renewable fuels mandate passed by Congress, but production has been slow to ramp up in the US, causing the industry and technology to come under a certain amount of criticism. 

In response, the DOE appears to be moving its research efforts into multiple baskets.

The following projects were selected:

General Atomics (up to $2.0 million, San Diego, California): The proposed project aims to reduce energy, capital, and operational cost for algal fermentation processes.

Genomatica, Inc. (up to $5.0 million, San Diego, California): This project will deliver an engineered organism and optimized fermentation process to enable the conversion of cellulosic sugars to the valuable industrial chemical, 1,4-butanediol (BDO).

Michigan Biotechnology Institute (up to $4.3 million, Lansing, Michigan): The project will focus on improvements to a pretreatment process that provides a stable, conversion-ready intermediate of consistent quality at a cost and in a format compatible with long-term storage and ease of transfer between multiple modes of transportation.

HCL CleanTech, Inc. (up to $9.0 million, Oxford, North Carolina): This project will develop and demonstrate process improvements for pretreatment, conversion to sugars, and subsequent conversion of those sugars to fuels. The complete integrated process will use concentrated hydrochloric acid hydrolysis to convert pre-extracted biomass feedstocks including wood waste into fermentable sugars, and then further convert the sugars into diesel products.

Texas Engineering Experiment Station (up to $2.3 million, College Station, Texas): The focus of this project will be on developing a novel pretreatment for cellulosic biomass feedstocks using a combination of chemical and mechanical processing. Once the cellulosic feedstock has been pretreated it can be converted into biofuels, including hydrocarbons.

Virent (up to $13.4 million, Madison, Wisconsin): The overarching objective of this project is to develop a fully integrated process that can efficiently and cost effectively convert a cellulosic biomass feedstock, such as corn stover, to a mix of hydrocarbons ideally suited for blending into jet fuel.

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