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USDA and DOE Solicit Biomass R&D Projects; Heavy Focus on Cellulosic Technologies

The US Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Energy (DOE) recently issued a joint solicitation for applications to support R&D projects in bioenergy and biofuels for fiscal year 2006. This is the fourth year in which the agencies have jointly solicited R&D projects under the Biomass Initiative.

Combined, the two will provide $14 million in funding: $12 million from the USDA; $2 million from the DOE.

The Technical Areas of solicited research and the respective aggregate funding levels are as follows:

  • Feedstock Production through the development of crops and cropping systems relevant to production of raw materials for conversion to bio-based fuels and bio-based products. ($2,800,000)

  • Overcoming Recalcitrance of Cellulosic Biomass through developing technologies for converting cellulosic biomass into intermediates that can subsequently be converted into bio-based fuels and bio based products ($6,300,000), including:

    • Pretreatment in combination with enzymatic or microbial hydrolysis;
    • Thermochemical approaches, including gasification and pyrolysis

  • Product Diversification through technologies relevant to production of a range of bio based products (including chemicals, animal feeds, and co-generated power) that eventually can increase the feasibility of fuel production in a biorefinery. ($4,200,000)

  • Analysis that provides strategic guidance for the application of biomass technologies in accordance with realization of improved sustainability and environmental quality, cost effectiveness, security, and rural economic development, usually featuring system-wide approaches. ($700,000)

With 45% of the allocated funding, cellulosic biomass is clearly an area of overall importance. Note that this is not just focusing on the production of ethanol from cellulosic biomass; opening the door to gasification and pyrolysis also means considering biomass-to-liquids processes (e.g., variants of the Fischer-Tropsch process).

That said, however, the basic program is still focused on dramatically lowering the cost of the cellulosic production of ethanol.

As a result of focused DOE research, the cost of cellulose enzymes to break down the lignocellulose biomass to sugars for processing has been reduced from approximately $5 per gallon ethanol to about $0.14-$0.18/gallon. However, in order to enable a robust industry based on conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to very low cost sugars, the cost of using cellulases must be further reduced to reach the program goal of $0.05-$0.06/lb by 2030.

There are a number of pretreatment methods being developed and evaluated including dilute acid, ammonia fiber explosion (AFEX), ammonia percolation, lime, hot water (as is, or with pH control to maintain neutral pH), and organosolv-based processes.

These pretreatments each produce substrates that differ in composition and in the nature of the enzyme mixtures required for effective hydrolysis (as well as in the levels of conditioning or detoxification required to make the sugars derived from these materials fermentable by microorganisms).

Minor changes in the conditions used to carry out pretreatment (as well as using different batches of feedstock) can have a dramatic impact on the enzymatic digestibility of pretreated corn stover cellulose, in some cases enabling the quantity of enzyme required to convert the cellulose to be reduced substantially.

The DOE Program wishes to identify the conditions and feedstock, pretreatment process conditions, and enzyme combinations that will lead to significant improvements in and cost reduction of conversion of cellulose to sugars as an intermediate in ethanol production).

The average award size for this program in FY 2004 was $1.1 million. DOE and USDA expect the average award size to be similar under this announcement.

The agencies also just last month announced the 11 biomass research, development and demonstration projects selected to receive $12.6 million in funding for FY 2005.

DOE and USDA FY 2005 Biomass Research Awards
University of Idaho (Moscow, Idaho) Increasing the Potential for the Utilization of Cellulose from Straw for Biofuel and Bioproduct Production $693,285
The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Inc. (Ardmore, Okla.) Development of Low-Lignin Switchgrass for Improved Ethanol Production $670,166
The Tampa Bay Area Ethanol Consortium (Florida) Implementation of a Scale-Up Pilot Plant Demonstration Facility toward the Commercialization of Florida Biomass Feedstocks for Ethanol Production $1,920,000
University of Montana, College of Technology (Missoula, Mont.) Biopower Demonstration and Educational Outreach $990,500
North Carolina State University, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (Raleigh, N.C.) Conversion of BioDiesel Derived Glycerol to Glycidol, Glycerol Carbonate and C-3 Oxygenates by Catalytic and Biocatalytic Pathways $1,606,265
Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa) Environmental Enhancement through Corn Stover Utilization $1,853,996
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tenn.) Carbon Fiber from Biomass Lignins $1,083,770
Clarkson University (Potsdam, N.Y.) Environmental and Economic Performance of an Integrated, Digester-Cogeneration-Value-Added Process $805,938
University of Minnesota, Morris (Morris, Minn.) Biomass Gasification: A Comprehensive Demonstration of a Community-Scale Biomass Energy System $1,896,493
University of Florida (Gainesville, Fla.) Bioenergy: Optimum Incentives and Sustainability of Non-Industrial Private Forests in the U.S. South $656,525
Environmental Resources Trust (Washington, D.C.) Incentives for Biomass Commercialization: Pioneering Markets for Biomass Using Renewable Energy Certificates, Emission Reduction Credits and Incentive Programs for Ammonia, PM10 and PM2.5 Reductions $449,993




Still making liquid fuels to feed to 17%-efficient engines.  That's just not going to cut it.

An Engineer

"Still making liquid fuels to feed to 17%-efficient engines. That's just not going to cut it."

As an engineer you should appreciate the various advantages that liquid fuels offer. You would also appreciate the practical benefits of developing a fuel that could be blended into the existing fuel infrastructure, unlike that pie-in-the-sky proposal to convert to hydrogen.

An Engineer

Feedstock Production is a non-issue. As mentioned elsewhere: "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that industrial, agricultural, commercial and household wastes add up to 11.8 billion metric tons a year. Not all of it is suitable for biomass-based energy projects, but plenty is."

Or consider that until recently the Forest Service burned brush piles on the mountainsides to keep the brush from fueling forest fires in dry summers. That "brush piles" is a potential source of energy. How much energy?

"A U.S. Department of Agriculture report says more than 1.3 billion tons of dry forest material waste is available in the nation for biomass systems. If used for energy, that would be equivalent to about 30 percent of the nation’s oil usage, the report said." see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9924889/

The article goes on to claim the waste wood chips is much cheaper than alternative sources of energy.

It seems the USDA would like people to think "renewable energy" means you need a new farm subsidy. Their approach is obviously a dead-end: It makes no sense to convert food into fuel (and make both more expensive at the bargain price of several billion tax dollars).

If DOE would instead turn its attention to the widely available waste materials, they will not run out of renewable feedstock anytime soon.

As an engineer you should appreciate the various advantages that liquid fuels offer.
As an engineer, I appreciate the disadvantages also.  Once something has been converted to liquid fuel, the further options have been seriously restricted.
You would also appreciate the practical benefits of developing a fuel that could be blended into the existing fuel infrastructure
As a sometime student of history, I appreciate the consequences of large investments in particular ways of doing things.  This is one reason the entire world's vehicles run on petroleum despite the early lead taken by electric cars.
"A U.S. Department of Agriculture report says more than 1.3 billion tons of dry forest material waste is available in the nation for biomass systems. If used for energy, that would be equivalent to about 30 percent of the nation’s oil usage, the report said."
And when oil supplies fall by 30%, you've got the same problem we have today and no path forward.

Efficiency of conversion of biomass to ethanol appears to run 46-49%.  Fed through the average car at 15.9%, the field-to-wheels efficiency is 7.3-7.8%.

If you burn the biomass in IGCC systems at 50% efficiency to run electric vehicles, you could get 40% field-to-wheels efficiency or more than 5 times as good.  That would be sufficient to replace 150+% of oil consumption.  If you get even more clever using biomass char plus zinc oxide plus RE heat to produce zinc metal and carbon monoxide, you can boost the useful energy substantially as well as make the end-use efficiency higher.  On top of this, the CO byproduct can be converted to hydrogen using the water-gas shift, and CO + H2 can be used to synthesize almost anything you want in the realm of plastic monomers and the like.

If you design a system around liquid biofuels you lose most or all of that.  That's why I'm against such short-sightedness.

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