Funding Better Biomass

USDA, DOE seek collaborative projects
By Kris Bevill | May 13, 2011

The USDA and the U.S. DOE will jointly fund five to 10 projects over the next several years focused on researching and developing advanced biofuels, bioenergy and high-value biobased products. The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture will contribute $25 million to the Biomass Research and Development Initiative, while the DOE will provide up to $5 million through its Biomass Program. The agencies anticipate providing between $3 million and $7 million to each approved project.

Eligible projects will need to cover three focus areas—feedstock development, product development and biofuels development analysis. The agencies said integrating these technical areas into each project will encourage collaborative problem-solving approaches and will assist in identifying and addressing knowledge gaps. Among the issues to be addressed by these projects are the critical areas of harvest, transport, preprocessing and storage of biomass for biofuels production. The lack of logistics systems for biomass feedstocks has been a significant barrier to the commercialization of advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol. The agencies want projects to focus on dedicated biofuel crops, innovative equipment designs and systems for biomass conversion and strategies for incorporating feedstock production with existing managed land, among other things. Approved projects will also be expected to develop analytic tools that can be used to evaluate the impact of expanded biofuel production on the environment and to assess the potential of using available federal land for feedstock production.

The agencies are also interested in projects focused on the research, development and demonstration of technologies using biochemical conversion, thermochemical conversion and chemical conversion to produce advanced biofuels and/or biobased products. In the funding announcement, the agencies noted that the DOE Biomass Program has been focused on making cellulosic ethanol cost competitive with corn ethanol, resulting in the first generation of cellulosic ethanol technology now reaching demonstration scale. Cellulosic ethanol projects will be allowed to apply for the new funding, but the agencies are interested in also supporting such projects on biobutanol, hydrocarbons and Fischer-Tropsch gasoline and diesel.

Additionally, the USDA is seeking farm-based and commercial demonstration projects that will quantify the benefits of using biodiesel to produce ethanol. The objectives are to improve the sustainability footprint of ethanol production, to determine the benefits of using biodiesel over traditional diesel and to update economic and environmental models, the agency stated.  Approved projects are expected to be announced later this year. —Kris Bevill