In the last days of the Obama Administration, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), have released several new funding opportunities for biobased fuels and chemicals derived from a variety of sources, including seaweed, algae, wastes and agricultural residues.
According to BETO’s 2016 Billion Ton Report, there will be between 1 and 1.5 billion dry tons of domestic biomass available in 2030 from a wide variety of sources, such as purpose grown agricultural crops, agricultural residues, algae and various wastes. While these resources have the potential to replace up to 30 percent of petroleum-based fuel use in the United States, utilizing biomass resources require significant research and development to become cost-competitive with petroleum fuels.
Productivity Enhanced Algae and Tool Kits (PEAK)
On December 1, BETO announced up to $8 million to support projects that improve the cost-effectiveness of producing fuels and products from algae, through the Productivity Enhanced Algae and Tool Kits (PEAK).
Algae-based biofuels have been beset by high production costs and low productivity, making it difficult for them to compete with other biofuels. In the 2016 National Algal Biofuels Technology Review, BETO notes that while algae biofuels technology is still maturing thanks to both federal and private investment, “additional research, development and demonstration is needed to achieve widespread deployment of affordable, scalable, and sustainable algae-based biofuels.”
Integrated Biorefinery Optimization
On December 5, BETO, along with the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, announced their intent to publish a funding announcement, for the Integrated Biorefinery Optimization program. An integrated biorefinery is defined as a facility that is capable of converting various types of biomass feedstocks into biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower—similar to how an oil refinery produces multiple products from crude oil.
Biorefineries still face several challenges that reduce the cost-competitiveness of their products, including the cost of handling and transporting solid biomass, unsatisfactory biomass separation techniques, and the need to develop higher-value biofuel co-products.
Additionally, there are logistical and technological roadblocks that stand in the way of several feedstocks beyond corn. Other feedstocks that could be used by a biorefinery include woody biomass, agricultural residues, energy crops (such as perennial grasses and short-rotation woody trees), and various wastes (including wastewater and municipal solid waste).
The agencies expect to fund several cooperative agreements through the funding announcement, which they expect to publish by the end of the year.
Renewable Energy to Fuels Through Utilization of Energy-Dense Liquids (REFUEL)
On December 15, ARPA-E announced another round of funding through the REFUEL program, which targets cost-effective production of clean sources of hydrogen. Fuel cells generate electricity by combining oxygen and hydrogen (or a hydrogen-rich fuel source) in a chemical reaction, and continue to operate as long as fuel is provided. When pure hydrogen is used, the only byproduct is heat and water—there are no harmful emissions at all. Fuel cells can be used in a variety of applications from portable power generation, backup power generation, and in vehicles.
Bringing cost-effective fuel cells to market has been beset by inefficiencies in storing and transporting hydrogen. The Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office aims to bring the cost of renewable hydrogen fuel (extracted from water or biogas) to less than $4 per gallon gasoline equivalent.
REFUEL will fund projects that focus on converting water into a storable, easily transportable carbon-neutral liquid fuel that can then provide on-demand hydrogen. According to ARPA-E, “REFUEL projects will aid in the development of energy sources that are readily produced and easily transported, like ammonia, while reducing production costs and environmental impact.”
Microalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER)
On December 16, ARPA-E and DOE announced funding for the development of a marine algae biomass industry, through MARINER. According to ARPA-E, the offshore areas of the United States are as large as the total U.S. landmass. Offshore areas could be used to grow macroalgae (aka seaweed) for fuels, chemicals, feed and food without using additional landmass or water.
Twenty-five million metric tons of seaweed is already cultivated globally each year, but it is still largely a boutique industry, using labor-intensive cultivation techniques. Funding will focus on cultivation techniques for the cost-effective production of macroalgae for the bioeconomy, with a particular emphasis on harvesting and transport logistics. According to ARPA-E, the development of a macroalgae U.S. industry will require a “marine agronomic industry” that uses technology to produce significant feedstock volumes, particularly if it is to be cost-competitive with petroleum fuels.
For more information see:
DOE to Open FOAs For Integrated Biorefineries, Algae Biofuels, Ethanol Producer Magazine
National Algal Biofuels Technology Review, U.S. Department of Energy
Fact Sheet: Fuel Cells, EESI