On September 20, the USDA and DOE announced $15 million in joint funding for eight projects that will further efforts to develop integrated biorefineries that utilize new feedstocks, such as wood waste, purpose-grown crops and grasses. Much like a petroleum refinery, a biorefinery produces multiple products, in addition to fuels. At a petroleum refinery, chemicals make up the higher value products, with fuels acting as loss-leaders. As the biofuels industry has struggled to compete in a low-oil price environment and uncertain regulatory environment, biofuels companies have begun investing in diversifying product streams from fuels to chemicals with an array of co-products that diversify and strengthen the economic position of the industry.
The selected projects, funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, is focused on three strategic areas: 1) handling of solid materials throughout the refining process, 2) high-value products from undervalued streams, such as waste, and 3) analytical modeling of solid materials and feeding systems. Feedstock handling, not conversion, has provided unanticipated challenges to the growth of the cellulosic fuels industry.
Dry biomass feedstocks, such as agricultural wastes or grasses, are diffuse, lightweight and often co-mingled with other materials. Improving the gathering, densification, transport, sorting and handling during the refining process have, therefore, become a focus of both the biofuels industry and federal agencies. Additionally, improving the value proposition for the utilization of wastes is important. As one example, the biogas industry has struggled to compete with low natural gas prices, and pulling chemicals or other products out of the process of converting organic wastes to fuels can help improve the economics for these low-value, but expensive to collect and handle feedstocks.
Selected projects include:
- Thermochemical Recovery International Inc. (Baltimore, MD) – to improve feedstock and residuals handling at both pyrolysis and gasification reactors.
- Texas A&M Agrilife Research (College Station, TX) – to use lignin (what binds plants cells together) to create diversified and valuable products, including asphalt binder, carbon fiber and biodiesel. Carbon fiber is a high strength, low weight product that has many applications, but is currently expensive and energy intensive to produce.
- White Dog Labs (New Castle, DE) – will use residual cellulose to create a higher-value aquaculture feed. The residuals are currently used for biogas production, and the use as a higher-value co-product could improve biorefinery economics.
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry commented on the impact of the projects, stating, “These projects have the potential to increase the efficiency of producing biofuels and bioproducts, enabling the United States to better utilize its abundant biomass resources, boost economic development, and advance U.S. competitiveness in the global energy market.”
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