Biofuels Development Gets a Boost

Facility promises to ease scale-up efforts.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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Forecasters predict double-digit annual increases in demand for biofuels (Demand For Biofuels To Grow At Double-Digit Pace). Meanwhile, researchers are developing a host of technologies to make fuels from biomass (see, e.g.,
Researchers Rethink Biomass ProcessingCombination Buoys Biofuels, Bio-Based Projects Blossom , Wood-based Chemicals Get Boost, Potent Potions Convert Cellulose to Fuels and Bio-Based Fuels & Feedstocks.) However, moving promising biofuels technology from the lab to demonstration scale often poses a significant financial as well as technical hurdle.

Now, though, developers can take advantage of an expanded government research facility. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Golden, Colo., is eager for firms to use its Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility (IBRF).

"The IBRF is designed specifically to help industry scale up their technology," notes John Ashworth, NREL team leader for partnership development. The first industrial user, Amyris, Inc., is expected to start trials shortly, he adds.

The facility can handle virtually any type of biomass feedstock.

The IBRF represents a $33.5-million two-stage investment by NREL to add a new high-bay building that houses feed-handling systems, two new pilot-scale pretreatment reactors and four large high-solids enzymatic hydrolysis reactors. Stage 1 was completed last August and since then has been undergoing testing and bringing equipment online. It includes a complete process train -- feedstock milling and handling, pneumatic conveying to conversion operations, pretreatment and high-solids enzymatic hydrolysis. Its pretreatment system is designed to handle a wide range of catalysts and operating conditions in one or more interconnected horizontal screw reactor tubes.

"The new [pretreatment] system can operate at residence times as low as several minutes up to two hours. This gives us the ability to support a wide range of pretreatment catalyst options, including dilute acid and alkali-based treatments," explains Dan Schell, manager for bioprocess integration R&D.

"In the IBRF, we have two large batch mixers that perform high-solid enzymatic hydrolysis," notes Schell. "Once we liquefy the biomass in the high-solids reactors, we can pump it into a conventional stirred-tank reactor and finish converting biomass to sugars. This gives us the capability to perform enzymatic hydrolysis at commercially relevant solids levels."

Stage 2, presently under construction, will add a second process train with a less-complex two-reactor vertical pretreatment system.

The IBRF provides 27,000 ft2 of high-bay space and can process up to 1 ton/day of dry biomass. For full details on its capabilities, check www.nrel.gov/biomass/pdfs/49323.pdf.

"We have created an empty bay in the facility so someone can bring in their own pretreatment reactor or other equipment required for biochemical biomass conversion. Companies can use part of our system or they can use their own technology and we can run it in parallel with ours. That way, they can see if their system is better than ours," says Ashworth.

"Industry partners can come in and try whatever they might have in mind from a very mild pretreatment to a very strong pretreatment and the system is set up for that," he adds. "The high-solid enzymatic hydrolysis reactors sit directly beneath the pretreatment reactors. All of this allows us to really push the limits of how you can use the system and still get to sugars."

The facility can handle virtually any type of biomass feedstock, from corn stover and wheat straw, to hardwoods and even industrial waste streams. Moreover, notes Ashworth: "The IBRF is not restricted to one end fuel. The technology here will work just fine if someone wants to make butanol or take lignocellulose and go to jet fuel or diesel. All of these technologies on the biochemical side use pretty much the same front-end treatment and enzymatic hydrolysis equipment."

"There is no set fee or minimum cost. The building and equipment are owned by the government, so there is no charge for their use. We ask firms to reimburse us for supplies and for the time of the engineers, scientists and research technicians working on their project," says Ashworth. Small-scale pretreatment screening experiments or compositional analysis of key samples could cost as little as $5,000 to $10,000 while a large multi-year cooperative research-and-development agreement could run into the millions of dollars.

Developers of biofuels technology ranging from small startups to large established companies should welcome the IBRF.


 

Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at mrosenzweig@putman.net

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