On Target for 2012

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory must help the United States to develop the technology necessary for making cheap fuels from cellulosic biomass by 2012. It's a goal that's not negotiable.
By Ryan C. Christiansen | October 06, 2008
By 2012, cellulosic ethanol production in the United States must be cost-competitive with ethanol produced from corn—such is the goal of the U.S. DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's Biomass Program. A key player in the program's mission is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., and its Alternative Fuels User Facility, which houses the lab's Bioethanol Pilot Plant, an 8,000-square-foot facility designed to test technologies used to produce ethanol and other fuels from cellulosic biomass.

In 2005, NREL co-endorsed a federal report, commonly known as the "Billion Ton" study, which in 2006 prompted the DOE's "30x'30" initiative to annually produce enough ethanol from biomass to replace 30 percent of the petroleum used for transportation fuel in the United States by 2030.

With a $304 million fiscal year 2008 budget, NREL works with industry, academia and other national laboratory partners to research, develop, and demonstrate biochemical and thermochemical technologies that can be used commercially to convert biomass into cost-competitive ethanol and other fuels. NREL is the lead national laboratory of the virtual National Bioenergy Center, which was established in 2000 in Denver to support and coordinate the nation's biomass research activities. NREL's facilities include a $2.85 million Biomass Surface Characterization Laboratory that opened in 2005, and features advanced research tools to help study chemical and biological reactions at atomic and molecular levels.

Working With the Industry
According to John Ashworth, team leader for partnerships and business development at NREL, entering into cooperative research and development agreements is how NREL helps the industry make new discoveries. Cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) frequently involve background intellectual property (IP), Ashworth says, which is when a company or the NREL brings some proprietary knowledge to a research project. NREL and the company negotiate licensing agreements for background IP, as well as rights for the company to commercialize any new discoveries found during research activities. Working together means that a company might have researchers working at NREL or NREL staff might work at a company's lab. Other times, researchers work independently and share information.

CRADAs, however, are not the only way industry works with NREL. Ashworth says NREL frequently trains industry researchers how to use analytic methods, for example, how to conduct compositional analysis of biomass. Company researchers can visit the NREL lab and use its equipment to learn processes, or NREL can send consultants to a company to help them get their labs set up. "Our job is to grow the biorefinery industry, but the industry has to do all of this stuff on their own," Ashworth says. "We don't expect that we're going to do this [training] forever."

Because cellulosic biomass pretreatment reactors are expensive, Ashworth says companies will often ask NREL to produce a specific amount of pretreated feedstock for testing. Alternatively, he says a company might have positive results for a pretreatment process at the bench scale and then will ask NREL to test the process at the pilot scale. During a large-scale pilot run, NREL collects "an enormous amount of data," Ashworth says, between 700 and 900 data points such as temperature, pressure, flow rates and material weights. "A pretreatment run may only last a few days, but the actual analysis of the stuff, developing of the reports and the figuring out what you learned can take weeks," he says.

Other companies might have a process that is working well on a larger scale, Ashworth says, but the process needs to be optimized and they will ask NREL to help with that. "Very frequently, [a company will] want to try and see what the economic impacts of their process improvements are," he says. "What we will do is take the conditions that were achieved in the experiments, plug them into the model, and see what the resulting cost of the ethanol is." He says NREL has developed techno-economic models for multiple processes, which companies can modify and use in their own organizations to monitor how close their processes are to market economics.

Biochemical Pretreatment Projects
Biochemical conversion involves using a dilute acid pretreatment and enzymatic hydrolysis to convert cellulosic biomass to sugar and other fermentation feedstock. NREL researchers are helping to understand and improve the chemistry that is at work in the pretreatment of biomass and the hydrolysis of hemicelluloses, which includes developing cost-effective enzymes for the process.

NREL's Advanced Pretreatment Project began in 2000 as a partnership with the Biomass Refining Consortium for Applied Fundamentals and Innovation, a USDA- and DOE-funded program to develop comparative information about cellulosic biomass pretreatment among researchers from Auburn University, Dartmouth College, Purdue University, Michigan State University and Texas A&M University. The project included developing an organic solvent-based pretreatment technology dubbed "clean fractionation," which can be used to produce chemical-grade cellulose, hemicelluloses, sugars and lignin. The project also looked at whether biomass can be converted to free sugars more efficiently using a greater variety of enzymes and less severe pretreatment. The project developed standard methods for analyzing and characterizing biomass samples before and after pretreatment.

NREL has helped Genencor, a division of Danisco A/S and also Novozymes to measure the economic performance of using enzymes to convert biomass to sugars. Both companies worked with NREL to achieve significant improvements. Using corn stover as the model feedstock, NREL went on to use those enzymes to develop integrated enzymatic cellulose hydrolysis-based sugar-ethanol platform technologies.

Partnering With DuPont, Genencor
NREL's work with Genencor and later DuPont has led to an ongoing partnership between the lab and those companies.

In 2003, NREL entered into a $7.7 million research project with DuPont, Diversa Corp. (now part of Verenium Corp.), Deere & Co. and Michigan State University to develop a pilot-scale biorefinery to make ethanol from the entire corn plant. In October 2006, Broin Companies (now Poet LLC) and DuPont agreed to develop a corn stover-fed ethanol plant by 2009. A year later, Poet and the DOE agreed to develop a commercial cellulosic ethanol project in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

Meanwhile Charles Wyman, who at one time led research and development on cellulosic ethanol at NREL, went on to become a consultant and chairman of the scientific advisory board for Mascoma Corp. In December 2006, Mascoma received a $14.8 million award from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to build a $20 million 0.5 MMgy biomass-to-ethanol demonstration plant in Rochester, N.Y., near Genencor's enzyme manufacturing facility. The facility is now functional and is expected to be fully operational by the end of this year, according to Kate Casolaro, a spokesperson for Mascoma.

Late last year, the University of Tennessee announced plans to develop a research and business model for biomass conversion, called the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, and the university announced a partnership with Mascoma to develop a 5 MMgy switchgrass-to-ethanol plant in the Niles Ferry Industrial Park in Vonore, Tenn., about 35 miles south of Knoxville.

However, in July the university shifted its partnership from Mascoma to DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC, a new partnership between DuPont and Genencor, turning away from a potential $26 million award from the DOE for the project. Just two months prior to the switch, NREL announced that it would collaborate with DuPont Danisco to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production and DuPont Danisco announced a $140 million initial investment in the project, which is to integrate the pretreatment process and fermenting organism that was developed with NREL and the enzyme technologies developed by Genencor to convert corn stover and sugar cane bagasse to ethanol. The companies plan to have a pilot plant in operation at the Tennessee site by 2009 and to have a commercial-scale facility operational in three years, according to Jennifer Hutchins, a spokesperson for Genencor.

The goal is to create a technology package that can be sold directly to ethanol producers worldwide. Existing ethanol facilities will be able to add the technology, enabling them to use cellulosic feedstocks. The technology package will also serve as the design basis for stand-alone cellulosic facilities.

Market-Competitive by 2012
The DOE has communicated clearly to NREL that it must create automotive fuels from biomass and make them cheap to manufacture, Ashworth says. "We don't work on fossil fuels," he says, although the lab frequently receives requests from industry to help with fossil fuels research.

Ashworth says while NREL does collect licensing revenues from companies for its work, the fees charged to industry are not about making money for NREL. "The DOE insists that if we license a technology, it has to be used," he says. "In the licensing agreement it says that you have a certain period of time to test the technology at scale. If you don't do it, we take it back, and license it to somebody else, because the idea is to get the technology out there. We don't want somebody sitting on it and preventing their competitors from having it."

Will NREL be able to help make cellulosic ethanol production in the U.S. cost-competitive by 2012?

"That's not a negotiable target," Ashworth says. "That is written in stone."

Ryan C. Christiansen is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach him at rchristiansen@bbiinternational.com or (701) 373-8042.