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NSF Publishes Roadmap for Hydrocarbon Biofuels

Liquid biofuels can be produced through a wide range of processes. The two main types of catalysts used in these processes are either biological or chemical. As shown in the figure, the majority of the pathways to biofuels production use chemical catalysts. Click to enlarge. Source: J. Regalbuto, NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has published a roadmap for the production of hydrocarbon biofuels—liquid transportation fuels derived from lignocellulosic biomass that are close analogs for their petroleum-derived hydrocarbon counterparts.

The report—Breaking the Chemical and Engineering Barriers to Lignocellulosic Biofuels: Next Generation Hydrocarbon Biorefineries—is one of the outcomes of a workshop on the topic held last June with more than 70 leading biofuels scientists and engineers. The workshop was sponsored by NSF, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the American Chemical Society; it was chaired by George W. Huber, University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

The report identifies the basic research needs and opportunities in catalytic chemistry and materials science that underpin biomass conversion and fuel utilization, with a focus on new, emerging and scientifically challenging areas that have the potential for significant impact. The report illuminates the principal technological barriers and the underlying scientific limitations associated with efficient processing of biomass resources into finished fuels.

The limiting factor to biofuels production is simply that low-cost processing technologies to efficiently convert a large fraction of the lignocellulosic biomass energy into liquid fuels do not yet exist.

—“Breaking the Chemical and Engineering Barriers...”

The report focuses on six primary areas:

  • Selective thermal processing of lignocellulosic biomass to produce liquid fuels (bio-oils) in distributed biorefineries.

  • Utilization of petroleum refining technology for conversion of biomass-derived oxygenates within existing petroleum refineries.

  • Hydrocarbon production by liquid phase processing of sugars to a heretofore “sleeping giant” intermediate, hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), followed by HMF conversion to “green” diesel and jet fuel.

  • Process intensification for diesel and gasoline production from synthesis gas (CO and H2) by Fisher-Tropsch synthesis (FTS), which dramatically decreases the economically viable size compared to traditional FTS processes with petroleum derived feedstocks.

  • Conceptual design of biorefining processes in conjunction with experimental studies at the beginning of research projects to allow rapid development of commercial biofuel technologies.

  • Design of recyclable, highly active and selective heterogeneous catalysts for biofuel production using advanced nanotechnology, synthesis methods and quantum chemical calculations.




Here is an article that states that ethanol plants are having a hard time because of the price of corn.


I remember people talking about how there would be a gut of ethanol and the price would fall, but not that corn prices would rise. Most people have heard of supply and demand, so you would figure that would occur to many of them.


sjc: good point. People tend to have a lot of faith in words such as competition and efficiency.

Competition lowers the price of products. But there are always limits. When the underlying resource, in this case the supply of corn, cannot increase then efficiency and competition can only do so much.

In the US ethanol from grain is a farm subsidy. There are a lot worse ways to spend taxes. And politicans find them all the time.

The celluosic processes will work eventually. From basic science to your door usually takes a decade or more even with our improving technology. How long did it take to get HDTV here, and that wasn't even basic science?


In the German context, FT-fuels are competitive with oil at $65 per barrel.

Synthetic biofuels competitive in Germany.

Today, Syntec Biofuel also announced a surging interest in its FT-catalysts, precisely because corn is becoming expensive. Syntec Biofuel recently achieved a conversion efficiency of nearly 40%, which is pretty nice.

Surging interest in Fischer-Tropsch fuels signals end to 'food versus fuel' debate


K, you are perhaps forgetting that there is a huge potential to produce first-generation crops outside of the U.S.

I predict that within a few years, dead-poor countries we now see as miserable begging bowls, will be exporting massive quantities of corn.

The famous case of Malawi of course comes to mind. Until 2005 it depended on food hand outs by the World Food Program (maize from the US and the EU).

Then the new president kicked out all the aid workers (who want African countries to be food dependent on imports), subsidized his own farmers a bit (with a simple bag of fertilizers) and now Malawi exports hundreds of thousands of tonnes of maize.

Two bumper harvests in a row in 2006 and 2007. And new prognoses of the Ministry of Agriculture show a third super harvest this year.

Spectacular. But the example can be replicated across Africa. That continent can produce around twice as much biofuels as all the oil consumed in the world, while meeting all its own food requirements.

All it needs to achieve this, is to use modern farming techniques a bit.


jonas: you misread the context.

I clearly was not speaking about the corn supply a few years from now or about the world. Only about now and here.

Obviously the production of corn can eventually rise when the demand keeps the price attractive.

But the principle remains the same: the price of a limiting resource sets a floor on what can be done. A shift to foreign corn, or to peaches, or to sugar cane, or coconut oil changes the limiting resource not the principle.

Switching to ethanol made from celluosic matter will be more fundamental. The production process changes and the raw material has a very low price (which would begin to rise but almost certainly would remain below that of corn.)


One way to see that is to consider the economics: Since we use a lot more fuel than food, diverting food to fuel was always going to affect food prices long before it would show any effect on fuel prices.

Can be done. And will.

The celluosic processes will work eventually.
True. But don't assume that means ethanol. Due to its chemical and physical properties ethanol is not such a great fuel. As the title of this article implies, it would be much better to produce renewable hydrocarbons.

Took a while, but it looks like common sense may be stepping up.


Jonas is right. Rising prices for biofuels and food could be the thing that really changes the tide for Africa and brings much needed prosperity to that continent.


Engineer: I think we might be refining the topic somewhat beyond its importance.

I was discussing the economics of here-and-now and ethanol with sjc who mentioned ethanol first. So I kept to ethanol.

Going directly celluose to bio-oils is what the report is about. This will also work out. But the money quote says it costs too much now.

There are other paths, butanol has many advocates. My concern about butanol is that we have too much investment in ethanol to switch right now. The chaos of revising all those ethanol facilities would be tremendous. Not to mention the blending and distribution revisions.

Butanol is IMO better but not better enough due to the opportunity window. I expect only about a decade of serious ethanol usage before EV's and bio-oils drive any sort of alcohol out of the market.

If I expected alcohols to last over a decade as an important fuel then the alcohol I chose wouldn't be ethanol.


Hmmm. No mention of Coskata Inc.'s process. Why is that? Doesn't anyone believe it's possible? Supposedly it delivers seven times the energy that it takes to produce it (corn = about 1.25%), doesn't use corn or other human foodstock, costs less than a gallon, and uses little water. Motor Trend has an article about them in the April issue. Why isn't it being discussed here?


Being the National Science Foundation their focus is on science and not business I would guess. They are looking at methods for doing this, rather than the companies doing it.

The title kind of says it all:

Breaking the Chemical and Engineering Barriers to Lignocellulosic Biofuels: Next Generation Hydrocarbon Biorefineries


Why isn't the NSF interested in Coskata's process? It doesn't use catalysts and enzymes, which appears to make it more efficient. One might question why they seem to ignore Coskata, especially when its process could produce significant change.


Coskata uses a three-step syngas-to-ethanol process:

1.Gasification. Carbon-based feedstock is converted into syngas using well-established gasification technologies.
2.Fermentation. Coskata’s proprietary microorganisms convert the resulting syngas into ethanol by consuming the carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) in the gas stream.
3.Separation. Pervaporation technology separates and recovers the ethanol.

They are focusing on thermo chemical in this report. This uses organisms and evaporation. Maybe another report would look at this.


It's pathetic that the NSF is living in the past.  It's time to be replacing liquid fuels, not finding new and expensive ways to make them which will do nothing to help with e.g. carbon sequestration.  This roadmap doesn't show much high-level perspective; as a consequence, it is likely to lead roughly nowhere.

A good roadmap for bio-energy would be fast pyrolysis to bio-oil, followed by use in MCFCs or SOFCs to make electricity and cogenerate heat for space heating or industrial purposes.  If the CO2 can be captured, such a system would yield far more useful energy and be carbon-negative.  No scheme to make liquid fuels from biomass, whether hydrocarbons or alcohols, can come close.


I disagreed with your first paragraph: the diagram made me realise that my barracking for butanol was small minded. But I stand corrected, we should displace (hydro)carbon fuels in the easiest place possible.



Put a container of water under you hood. Stick in 2 electrodes, one to ignition, one to ground. That makes Hydrogen and Oxygen. Run a tube to your motor it should double your mpg.

How much does water cost???


Replacing liquid fuels for cars and trucks with fuel cells and batteries is a good goal, but airplanes are still going to need liquid fuels for some time to come, and if you can think of a way to turn hydrogen and electricity into asphalt, plastics and other carbon based materials todays society depends on (about 15-30% of oil usage) then I would agree that biofuels have no place, but until you discover such an alchemy biofuels will have at least a positions in replacing oil in making industrial products. This idea of biomass to bioproducts (not just biofuels) is what the craze of bio-"fuels" like Hydroxymethylfurfural which has huge potential in the plastics market.






Two signs of crankdom:  scientific illiteracy, and the use of upper-case shouting to attempt to get the attention driven away by incompetence.


NSF (non sufficient funds, Berkley Labs, EPA
Who ever thought these government big agencies would run out of money, and have to resort to being staffed by dormant old fossil brains. The EPA cuts 10% of biofuel research funding? Why? Because the fossil fuel empire, which they emulate, turns around and volunteers to put back that 10% and more, into their individual fossilized pockets.

That is the reason for NSF and Lawrence Berkely Labs decry that biofuel pollutes more than fossil fuels. You guys are full of horse manure! Who says you should take food off the table to make bio fuels. Who subsidizes it. You do! Now you want to tell us that all of the farmers you talked and bribed into doing this are harming our country and that fossil fuels are a much better solution?

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that 18 gallons per acre of corn taken off of the table using agricultural land, is better than, 33,000 gallons per acre of algae biodiesel, produced on arid land, using recycled carbon, lots of sunlight and a little water to directly generate electricity, recycling the carbon to grow more algae, to make more electricity, to power all of our transportation without the ICE (internal combustion engine), and power all of our homes and industry, with zero pollutants. With this and with wind, solar, waves, geothermal, hydro, and recycling our agricultural, forest and human waste into biofuels, plus new sustainable technologies, all of the food stays on the table and we eliminate old fossils, coal mines, nuclear and ICE human generated global warming and climate change. Try, "Prunes", that may help your elimination and provide some calories, that might have been destined for biofuel, to clear your fossilized brains.


That is kind of like having the drug companies fund the FDA. The Republicans are big on user fees and they see the FDA and drug companies in that way. They also see the oil companies and the EPA in that way. They apparently have never heard of conflict of interest, or if they have it does not bother them.


Once again, NSF has every conceivable hydrocarbon output, even hydrogen, but no methane. Even though we got a few hundred thousand NG vehicles on the road TODAY.

What is wrong with these people? Admittedly, methane isn't the most convenient fuel of all time, but it also has many fewer processing steps to synthesize. How much energy is lost in converting synthesized methanol to gasoline, for example? What about the added plant costs? I'd say 90% of that chart represents thing that one COULD do technically, but what one SHOULDN'T do economically, if we are serious about solving this problem.

And further, the biofuels people never seem to want to think about PHEVs, the reality of which could influence the best overall fuel choice.


I like biomethane, because it does not have to be refined and the transport by pipeline is easy. Methane is used for so many things, that it becomes a very useful and versatile fuel.

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