DOE Pushes For Truly Sustainable Biofuels

There’s probably no type of renewable energy more polarizing than biofuels. Many economists and other analysts believe that in their present incarnation – food-crop-based fuels – these alternatives to oil fail to deliver the economic or environmental benefits sought.

All the more reason, perhaps, to put money into research that can deliver truly sustainable fuels – which the Obama administration is doing (even as it props up the production of ethanol from corn, and biodiesel from soy). Late last week the Department of Energy named five projects that will get a total of $10 million to try to find better ways to turn biomass into transportation fuels and other products typically made from petrochemicals.

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Here are the recipients, as spelled out by the DOE:

  • J. Craig Venter Institute (up to $1.2 million; Rockville, Maryland): This project will develop new technologies to produce enzymes that more efficiently deconstruct biomass to make biofuel. This work will be performed in collaboration with La Jolla, California-based Synthetic Genomics, Inc.
  • Novozymes (up to $2.5 million; Davis, California): Through collaborative work with a team of partners, Novozymes will expand their existing capabilities to find new sources of enzymes which can be targeted to deliver more cost-effective solutions for deconstructing biomass into processable components.
  • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (up to $2.4 million; Richland, Washington): The goal of this project is to increase the production of fuel molecules in fungi growing on lignocellulosic hydrolysate. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will partner with universities and industry, including the University of Kansas, to complete the project.
  • Texas AgriLife Research (up to $2.4 million; College Station, Texas): This project will employ state-of-the-art technology to develop a novel and integrated platform for converting lignin, a component of all lignocellulosic material, into biofuel precursors. The team includes scientists from Georgia Institute of Technology, University of British Columbia, Washington State University, and Texas A&M University.
  • Lygos (up to $1.8 million; Berkeley, California): The overall goal of this project is to develop efficient, inexpensive methods and tools to convert biomass into common and specialty chemicals. This work will be performed in collaboration with San Francisco-based TeselaGen Biotech.

These are hardly the first investments by the Obama administration to promote advanced biofuels. In late December, the National Rnewable Energy Laboratory announced a five-year, $7 million project with the specialty chemicals company Johnson Matthey to produce what are known as “drop-in fuels” – gasoline, diesel and jet fuel that can be used in today’s engines without having to make modifications – from nonfood biomass feedstocks.

The administration is also backing the company ZeaChem as it tries to scale up a hybrid cellulosic ethanol process that relies in part on a microbe found in the guts of termites to break down sugars. The plan with the company’s Oregon plant is to use wheat straw and wood – a fast-growing hybrid poplar variety farmed nearby – to make ethanol and chemical products.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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