Posted in | Biofuels | Renewable Energy

UT Center Continues Efforts to Develop Low-Cost Biofuels and Bio-Based Products

A few years ago, petroleum-based products, including gasoline, were not available at affordable prices, unlike the case today. However, the prices are likely to return to the same level in the coming years.

At a recent meeting of the partners participating in a $4 million grant funded by the U.S. DOE Bioenergy Technologies Office, visitors to the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center at Georgia Southern University got an up-close look at pilot-scale biomass pelleting equipment. Photo by Steve Taylor, Auburn University.

Due to this impending scenario, researchers from the University of Tennessee Center for Renewable Carbon (CRC) are trying to develop cost-competitive and renewable bio-based products and biofuels that can be used to develop rural economies, and may also be constructive for society.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office has funded the $4-million study, which will permit the CRC and its partners to investigate the logistical issues and some feedstock supply in greater detail. The CRC is the lead institution in this project. Partners involved in this broad-based effort inclu Auburn University, Idaho National Laboratory, and North California State University. Guidance for pre-processing and refining technologies and commercial implementation of the harvesting are being provided the industry partners Genera Energy, Herty Advanced Materials Development Center, and PerkinElmer.

Biorefineries need a guaranteed supply chain, and the research seeks to determine if blending feedstocks could play a role in increasing the performance of feedstock available to biorefineries while lowering the cost.

Tim Rials, Director, CRC

It is expected that the project will enable the development and demonstration of an advanced biomass processing depot, which in turn decrease sources of variation occurring in the supply chain of high-impact, multiple biomass sources. It would also help to deliver a stable feedstock, which is optimized for conversion in various platforms.

The key to long-term success of the large project is the synergy between the research infrastructure and the partners established by the project, said Rials.

Developing biofuels and bio-based products requires solving a complicated set of scientific and technical problems. You have to be able to grow the different feedstocks efficiently, then harvest and deliver them to biorefineries at a cost that will make it worthwhile to industry to transform the feedstocks into usable industrial products and affordable fuels. Each step from production to harvesting to transportation to chemical conversion presents its own unique challenges, and opportunities to improve the overall system.

Tim Rials, Director, CRC

Genera Energy, which is the most comprehensive and largest industrial biomass management and processing facility in the U.S., will provide proficiency in the areas of feedstock pre-processing and analysis, covering spectroscopic monitoring, at its Vonore, Tennessee facility. Genera will use real-time feedstock monitoring technology to provide improvements in feedstock pre-processing. This will allow processing optimization, both in energy utilization and cost, together with a better dataset on feedstock specifications that decreases the variability for end users. This step will assist in ensuring that prospective bioproducts manufacturers and biorefineries have a stable and uniform feedstock where fuels and other products can be refined.

One barrier to the development of viable biorefineries is the availability of a constant and consistent supply of uniform materials for use in their refineries. We expect the spectroscopic monitoring will help us blend different feedstocks to produce an acceptable feedstock in sufficient quantities to support an industry.

Peter Muller, PerkinElmer

In addition to providing industry expertise, Genera is also supplying milled materials, mainly southern pine and switchgrass produced by the forest products industry in the region, to other partners in the project for pelleting, blending, and analysis.

The ability to utilize these and other feedstocks in multiple conversion technologies is critical to the success of the biobased industry. Better understanding the milling properties and blending capabilities of feedstocks allows users to mitigate any issues with biomass composition and their impacts on specific processes.

Sam Jackson, Vice President of Business Development, Genera

The role of the Idaho National Laboratory will be to develop models that are able to forecast the properties of biomass, which is essential in conversion processes during the manufacturing of bio-based chemicals and liquid fuels.

Developing economic solutions for integrating woody residue and energy crops can be an incredible low-cost approach to supplying high-quality feedstock for biorefineries and will be key to getting the biobased economy out of the gate.

Ali Omar, Project Leader, Herty Advanced Materials Development Center, Georgia Southern University

The development team is working to find an optimal feedstock that can be obtained from a combination of hybrid poplar and switchgrass, which are purpose-grown energy crops, and southern softwood residuals, to achieve a feedstock at a cost target of $80 per dry ton or below. Since lignin content and ash levels provide low-cost feedstock options, analyzing the quality of feedstock with respect to the quality metrics will be important.

“What is exciting about this project is that the information developed from this national project will not only have a direct impact on biorefinery developers, but will also help traditional wood products companies improve their operations through the utilization of low-value wood supplies,” said Steve Taylor, project lead at Auburn University.

The industry has made great strides in the last 10 years, including in feedstock production, but there remain opportunities to further improve the system. This collaboration will take us one step closer to a valuable new biobased economy. The goal continues to be a biobased economy as opposed to a petroleum-based economy, with affordable, renewable fuels and products.

Tim Rials, Director, CRC

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