Obama Gives Biofuel R&D A Little Love

A National Geographic Society piece we published on Monday asked the question, “Where Do Biofuels Fit Into Obama’s Climate Plan.” That very same day, we got something of an answer: This administration is definitely committed to more research and development in the sector.

The Energy Department announced it would invest a total of  up to $13 million in four separate projects aimed at producing drop-in biofuels at $3 per gallon by 2017.

drop-in biofuels

Miscanthus is one of the non-food feedstocks that some envision being used to make drop-in biofuels (image via Virent)

Unlike ethanol, far and away the most prolific biofuel produced and used today, drop-in biofuels are plant-based fuels that would so closely mimic petroleum products in their structure and applicability that they could be used without modifying refineries, engines, pipelines filling stations – you name it.

That would give using these fuels, powering fairly conventional motors, a theoretical advantage over turning to, say, plug-in electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles because we wouldn’t need to invest big sums of money in developing a whole new transportation energy infrastructure.

The hope, too, is to crank out these fuels from non-food feedstocks (as opposed to, say, diesel that’s processed from soybean oil). We are seeing small amounts of these fuels begin to appear on the scene – various jet fuels and, as we reported in March, KiOR has fired up a plant in Mississippi that makes diesel from pine wood chips.

While there are plenty of skeptics about biofuels, there is general agreement that if they have any chance of being a smart choice to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they’ll need to get better. That makes R&D a perhaps more logical direction for government to go (but Obama still wants to keep the market-wrenching renewable fuel standard in place).

Here’s the DOE’s rundown of the four projects it will fund:

  • Ceramatec (up to $3.3 million; Salt Lake City, Utah): Ceramatec will utilize an efficient electrochemical deoxygenation process to develop cost-effective technology to separate oxygen from bio-oil. This project will help produce hydrocarbon products suitable for further processing in conventional petroleum refineries.
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory (up to $2.1 million; Oak Ridge, Tennessee): Oak Ridge National Laboratory will use a microbial electrolysis process to efficiently remove the hydrogen from the water found in bio-oil. This technology will help reduce the corrosivity of bio-oil and improve the efficiency of converting hydrogen and biomass to biofuels. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Georgia Institute of Technology, Pall Corporation, OmniTech International, and FuelCellsEtc will also participate in this project.
  • University of Oklahoma (up to $4 million; Norman, Oklahoma): The University of Oklahoma will investigate two methods—thermal fractionation and supercritical solvent extraction—to maximize the amount of renewable carbon and hydrogen that can be extracted from biomass and converted to a refinery-compatible intermediate and suitable for final upgrading to a transportation fuel. The multidisciplinary research team includes experts in catalysis, separation, life-cycle analysis and techno-economic assessment.
  • Virent, Inc. (up to $4 million; Madison, Wisconsin): Virent will develop an innovative separation process which uses its BioForming technology to efficiently convert carbon from lignocellulosic biomass into hydrocarbon fuels. Virent will work to improve the overall carbon conversion efficiency of biomass—helping to reduce the cost of producing hydrocarbon biofuels that work with our existing transportation fuel infrastructure and are capable of meeting the Renewable Fuel Standard. Idaho National Laboratory will also bring their feedstock pre-processing capabilities to the project.

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.