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What Is a Biorefinery?

A biorefinery is a facility that integrates biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce fuels, power, and chemicals from biomass. The biorefinery concept is analogous to today's petroleum refineries, which produce multiple fuels and products from petroleum. Industrial biorefineries have been identified as the most promising route to the creation of a new domestic biobased industry.

By producing multiple products, a biorefinery can take advantage of the differences in biomass components and intermediates and maximize the value derived from the biomass feedstock. A biorefinery might, for example, produce one or several low-volume, but high-value, chemical products and a low-value, but high-volume liquid transportation fuel, while generating electricity and process heat for its own use and perhaps enough for sale of electricity. The high-value products enhance profitability, the high-volume fuel helps meet national energy needs, and the power production reduces costs and avoids greenhouse-gas emissions.

Conceptual Biorefinery

NREL's biorefinery concept is built on two different "platforms" to promote different product slates. The "sugar platform" is based on biochemical conversion processes and focuses on the fermentation of sugars extracted from biomass feedstocks. The "syngas platform" is based on thermochemical conversion processes and focuses on the gasification of biomass feedstocks and by-products from conversion processes.

Illustration of the Biomass Refinery Concept. Biomass is converted to sugars using biochemical conversion processes and syngas using thermochemical processes. The resulting sugar feedstocks, residues, and syngas are then used to produce power, fuels, chemicals and products.

NREL Biorefinery Development Activities

The NREL Biomass Program is involved with six major biorefinery development projects that are focused on new technologies for integrating the production of biomass-derived fuels and other products in a single facility. The emphasis is on using new or improved processes to derive products such as ethanol, 1,3 propandiol, polylactic acid, isosorbide, and various other chemicals.

  • Second Generation Dry Mill Refinery (Broin and Associates, Inc.) This project will enhance the economics of existing ethanol dry mills by increasing ethanol yields and creating additional co-products.
  • Integrated Corn-based Biorefinery (E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc.) This project will build a bio-based production facility to convert corn and stover into fermentable sugars for production of value-added chemicals.
  • Making Industrial Biorefining Happen (Cargill Dow LLC National) This project will develop and validate process technology and sustainable agricultural systems to economically produce sugars and chemicals such as lactic acid and ethanol.
  • Advanced Biorefining of Distiller's Grain and Corn Stover Blends (High Plains Corp.) This project will develop a novel biomass technology to utilize distiller's grain and corn stover blends to achieve significantly higher ethanol yields while maintaining the protein feed value.
  • MBI/USDA (John Ashworth)

DOE Biorefinery Development Activities

  • New Biorefinery Platform Intermediate (Cargill, Inc.) This project will develop a biobased technology to produce a wide variety of products based on 3-HP acid, which is produced by fermentation of carbohydrates.
  • Separation of Corn Fiber and Conversion to Fuels and Chemicals (National Corn Growers Association) This project will develop an integrated process for recovery of the hemicellulose, protein, and oil components from corn fiber for conversion into value-added products.