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NIST Awards Almost $10M to 5 New Bio-based Fuels and Chemicals Projects

The Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is awarding up to $138.7 million in funding to 56 new research and development projects under the agency’s Advanced Technology Program (ATP). The new awards represent a broad range of technologies, including alternative energy sources, biofuels, transportation, manufacturing, semiconductor electronics, nanotechnology, energy conservation, medical diagnostic techniques, and automated language translation, among others.

The 56 projects were chosen in a competition announced last April and represent the last set of R&D projects to be funded under the ATP. Of the 56 projects, five focus on the development of bio-based fuels and chemicals, and will receive combined funding of up to $9.941 million.

The five biofuels and chemicals projects are:

  • Virent Energy Systems. Catalytic Biomass Depolymerization. Virent is proposing to develop catalytic biomass depolymerization (CBD) process based on heterogeneous catalysis (where the catalyst is in a different phase from the reactants) for the pretreatment of biomass prior to fuel production.

    The CBD system will combine acid-catalyzed hydrolysis of carbohydrates with reductive depolymerization to continuously and cost-effectively convert cellulosic feedstocks into oxygenated hydrocarbons (sugars and other intermediates) that can be processed easily into fuels and chemicals using fermentation or an existing Virent bioprocessing technology.

    Compared to current approaches to biomass pretreatment, the proposed CBD process is more robust, yielding significantly higher reaction rates and higher product concentrations, according to Virent. If successful, this technology could be used in parallel with several biofuel refinery processes coming on-line in the next few years.

    Project Performance Period: 11/1/2007 - 10/31/2009
    Total project (est.): $2,713,611
    Requested ATP funds: $1,998,189

  • Solazyme. Biopetroleum from Algae. Solazyme has proposed a project to use algae to produce biopetroleum, which will match the composition of light sweet crude oil. The biopetroleum would be fully compatible with the infrastructure that refines, distributes retails and consumes petroleum products—not just automobile fuels but aviation fuel and chemicals as well.

    Biopetroleum will require an industrial scale biofermentation process that can produce pure, long-chain hydrocarbons efficiently. ATP funding is expected to accelerate the project by four years.

    Adopting biopetroleum to meet even a fraction of the nation’s renewable energy goals could avoid a costly duplication of infrastructure and save consumers and industry an estimated $20 billion a year (compared with other biofuels), potentially growing to as much as $120 billion a year, according to Solazyme.

    Project Performance Period: 11/1/2007 - 10/31/2009
    Total project (est.): $2,704,483
    Requested ATP funds: $1,999,321

  • Caisson Laboratories. Platforms for Biocontained High-Value Products.  Caisson Laboratories has proposed creating a suite of broadly applicable biotechnology tools to redirect the biosynthetic capacity of seeds for the large-scale production of seed-based biofuel feedstocks and other biomaterials for the industrial and pharmaceutical sectors; and prevent genetically modified traits from being transferred to other plants through pollen.

    The proposed tools will regulate the expression of certain plant genes while diverting large percentages of photoassimilate (the energy-storing sugars produced by photosynthesis) to the production in seeds of high-value natural or synthetic compounds.

    Three commercially valuable applications of this technology will be demonstrated by the end of the project: the alteration of plant metabolic pathways to substantially increase the production per acre of fermentable starch in harvested seeds of grain sorghum; the prevention of germination among second-generation (F2) plants such that inadvertently unharvested volunteer sorghum plants do not create a weed problem in subsequent seasons; and transgene biocontainment such that pollen-based gene flow among engineered sorghum plants and neighboring crops or weeds is prevented.

    The impact on the US economy could be substantial; the value of the increase in the amount of ethanol produced is expected to exceed $2 billion at today’s production levels and cost structure, according to Caisson. As for transgene biocontainment, the technology may provide the basis for meeting future regulatory standards for valuable genetically modified traits in crops.

    Project Performance Period: 11/1/2007 - 10/31/2010
    Total project (est.): $2,495,000
    Requested ATP funds: $2,000,000

  • Thar Technologies. Process for biodiesel production without hexane use. Thar Technologies has proposed developing and demonstrating novel processing technology and equipment to produce diesel-grade fuel from plants without the use of hexane. Instead of traditional techniques using hexane for extraction of the oil from plants, Thar will use supercritical fluid extraction, a green chemistry process that uses physiologically compatible carbon dioxide and also requires less energy per unit of production.

    In addition, Thar’s process will integrate several post-extraction steps into one continuous, efficient process for producing biodiesel. Once the new processes are developed in the laboratory, a pilot plant will be constructed and operated.

    If successful, the technology will be a green process that can profitably produce biodiesel directly from oilseed feedstock while reducing energy consumption, eliminating environmental hazards and eradicating the need for production subsidies.

    Project Performance Period: 11/1/2007 - 10/31/2010
    Total project (est.): $2,408,245
    Requested ATP funds: $1,944,126

  • Metabolix. Integrated Bio-Engineered Chemicals. Metabolix has proposed developing a commercially viable process for producing widely used organic chemical feedstocks from renewable agricultural products rather than fossil hydrocarbons like oil or coal. Their planned Integrated Bio-Engineered Chemicals (IBEC) project will bio-engineer bacteria to produce a polymer precursor from fermentation sugars.

    Chemical processes will then be used to recover product with high purity exploiting the ease of separation and subsequently disassemble the polyester and convert it into a variety of four-carbon (C4) industrial chemicals. Today, C4 chemicals are produced almost entirely from fossil-based hydrocarbons. Global demand is estimated at 2.5 billion pounds annually, and growing at a rate of 4 to 5 percent a year.

    If successful, the process could be extended to produce commercially important C3, C5 and possibly C6 chemical intermediates as well. The project is technically risky because of the extensive bioengineering that is required, but if successful it would enable an entire class of bio-based routes for producing key industrial chemicals, reducing the need for non-renewable, fossil-based feedstocks and providing the nation with competitive advantages in polymers, chemicals and agriculture, all while reducing adverse environmental impacts.

    Project Performance Period: 11/1/2007 - 10/31/2009
    Total project (est.): $4,754,451
    Requested ATP funds: $1,996,241



I do not know why the Commerce Department is doing this, but I am glad that they are. This sounds like small funding for many projects. It might prove out the possibility for further action, which is where the private sector commerce comes in , I would guess.

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