Biofuels Focus Of New NREL Partnerships

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recently completed phase one of its Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility (IBRF) and now they are looking to share the large-scale digs, and all its advanced equipment , with would-be second generation biofuel pioneers. This should come as great news to potential industry partners who have ideas about producing a second generation biofuel, but lack the facilities necessary to perform large scale demonstration tests of their processes.

The benefits of producing  second generation (2G) biofuels are significant because they use primarily non-edible, organic waste. For example, instead of using corn to create ethanol, the in-edible stalks and leaves (called stover)  get used. This way, the food stays in the food chain and out of the fuel chain.  The trick, though, is a process called bioconversion: a biological/chemical process that requires a lot of refinement if it is to produce large quantities of fuel. That refinement process requires some very specific and high-end equipment and that’s where NREL ‘s IBRF comes in.


Image via NREL

“The IBRF is designed specifically to help industry scale up their technology,” NREL Team Leader for Partnership Development John Ashworth said. “We have created an empty bay in the facility so someone can bring in their own pretreatment reactor or other equipment required for biochemical biomass conversion. Companies can use part of our system or they can use their own technology and we can run it in parallel with ours. That way, they can see if their system is better than ours.”

NREL’s participation only goes so far, however. The real success of 2G biofuels is in the hands of the private sector. “…government is never going to commercialize this technology,” said Ashworth. “It is a transition from a bench scale system which is cheap to run.The IBRF is set up to be the facility where you can prove your technology at an engineering or demonstration scale before getting the investment capital to build a large factory.”