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Improved Labs Energize Biomass Research

September 14, 2010

Photo of a man holding a test tube with brown liquid. Enlarge image

NREL scientist Justin Sluiter prepares biomass material for analysis in NREL's Biomass Compositional Analysis Lab.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

When you've lived in the same "home" for more than 20 years, a time comes when you need to upgrade your furnishings to keep current and spruce things up a bit. That is exactly what has happened at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL is home to the National Bioenergy Center where eight of the research labs hadn't been updated in years.

Technologies to convert plants into fuels are on the cutting edge when it comes to helping the U.S. wean itself from foreign oil. But the old laboratory designs were not helping NREL researchers in their efforts to be as efficient as possible.

"The way that labs are designed today is much different than 20 years ago and the old labs were inadequate to support the capabilities we've developed in research and analysis," said National Bioenergy Center Director Mike Cleary. "The reconfigured labs make much better use of the space and will make us much more efficient in achieving our milestones."

Biomass Compositional Analysis Lab

Photo of a man in the background putting a long very thin tube into another container with liquid. Enlarge image

The team working in NREL's Biomass Compositional Analysis Lab can tell you exactly what you are dealing with when trying to break apart plants for ethanol. Here, NREL Research Technician Rui Katahira conducts pretreatment of several biomass materials for analysis.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

To successfully produce cellulosic ethanol, you need to know what is in the plant that you are trying to break apart. The team working in NREL's Biomass Compositional Analysis Lab can tell you exactly what you are dealing with. The lab's core work is preparing biomass samples for analysis. The generated data, is fed into models for pretreatment, fermentation and other predictive tools.

"The Biomass Compositional Analysis Lab is the tip of the sword in the ethanol process," said NREL Senior Researcher Ed Wolfrum. "Here we examine the feedstock to see what's in it and how can that be used to make ethanol."

While the idea is a simple one, getting the work done was once a challenging shuffle between labs. "It used to be that we had four labs scattered everywhere throughout the building and samples were moved from lab to lab," NREL Scientist Justin Sluiter said. "We now have a single location where everyone can work together — a place that we can come home."

Being comfortable in their new home is important because the process to analyze biomass can take up to eight days with as many as 15 people working in the lab. "At the end of the day, we have a complete analysis of a biomass sample," Sluiter said. "We know how much glucose, xylose, lignin, ash, protein is in there — we know everything."

Interest in this type of work has grown along with the ethanol industry. "We've gotten a lot busier and the respect for the type of analysis work that NREL does continues to grow," Sluiter added. "People are starting to try to do this type of work themselves but end up coming to NREL because it is a lot harder than it seems and we are really good at it."

Biomass Surface Characterization Lab

One of the first labs in the Bioenergy Center to undergo a facelift now is visually one of the most striking. NREL's Biomass Surface Characterization Laboratory is focused on biomass recalcitrance research. Recalcitrance is the natural resistance of plant cell walls to deconstruction. This natural resistance is a key barrier to the development of next-generation biofuels.

Six different rooms in the Biomass Surface Characterization Lab house a plethora of imaging and visualization equipment including :

Photo of a man in shadow, standing in front of a large bank of monitors with colorful images. Enlarge image

NREL scientist Bryon Donohoe works in the Cellular Visualization room of the Biomass Surface Characterization Lab, looking at different views of ultra structures of pre treated biomass materials. One of the first labs in the Bioenergy Center to undergo a facelift, it is now visually one of the most striking.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

  • Atomic force microscopy
  • Transmission electron microscopy
  • Scanning electron microscopy
  • Total internal reflectance fluorescence microscopy
  • Scanning laser confocal microscopy

However, the centerpiece of the lab's makeover is the visualization room. The room's bank of monitors and computers provide multiple colorful slices of a biomass sample. To get these images, a microscopic amount of biomass is embedded in resin and then sectioned, nanometers thin, under a specialized ultramicrotome. Before the addition of the visualization room, researchers spent time at the microscopes examining the digital snapshots of the biomass.

"Image processing and image analysis can now be done away from the microscopes, freeing them up for the next person to come in and capture data," said NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe. "This greatly improves the efficiency of how the microscopes are used."

The new room also allows colleagues to discuss side-by-side images of a biomass sample as seen by different imaging modes. "Small groups of experts will sit here and look at their fresh-off-the-microscope data but in a way that brings up all of the correlative images at once," Donohoe said. "Bringing these images together helps people understand what really is happening and whether what we did to the biomass is really helping it to break apart and break down into sugars to be converted into fuels."

The visualization room also has proven to be a valuable educational tool for NREL. "Small groups visiting NREL can enter the lab and see a dynamic scientific poster," Donohoe said. "We can show them the real data we generate and how it fits together into a story. Humans are visual creatures and after people see images, they tell us that that they can begin to understand what it is we are doing. Once you have that picture in your mind, it's easier to think more deeply about what the problems are and how we can solve them."

Molecular Beam Mass Spectrometry Lab

Photo of a man in a lab wearing goggles with computer monitor behind him and a microscope device with a green laser. Enlarge image

Engineer Matthew Yung uses the Laser Raman Spectrometer to obtain information for catalysts used in the thermochemical conversion process.
Credit: Pat Corkery

NREL's biomass thermochemical conversion technologies and research also got a boost with the updated Molecular Beam Mass Spectrometry Lab. Thermochemical conversion technologies make fuels from biomass using heat resulting in syngas or pyrolysis oil. During this process, a Molecular Beam Mass Spectometry system (MBMS) extracts and analyzes the gases. The lab remodel means that researchers now have access to new equipment and workspace.

"We acquired two new MBMS instruments and needed space to install and use them," NREL's Mark Davis said. "Everything is now centralized, which now allows us to use all pieces of equipment at once rather than one at time. We are able to tailor the experiment that we want to do to the result that we want to get, rather than to the equipment available."

The reason the added equipment is so valuable to NREL is that, according to Davis, "mass spectrometry enables us to have a fundamental understanding of thermochemical biomass conversion." The MBMS gives researchers online, real-time measurements of the gasification processes and also provides rapid readings on plant cell wall and lignin structure.

Other research institutions and private industry also seek this technology. Work done with the MBMS supports the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC), a collaboration of 20 university, industrial and national laboratory partners developing insight into the factors controlling the release of sugar in biomass feedstocks. The two new MBMS systems are being used for all of the collaborative work coming to NREL via the BESC.

NREL also has developed portable versions of the MBMS, which researchers can take to operating biomass gasifiers to measure their gas stream in real time and provide suggestions to help optimize their process.

Biomass Catalyst Characterization Lab

Biomass Related Labs Recently Updated at NREL

  • Molecular Beam Mass Spectrometry Lab
  • Algal Research Lab
  • Biomass Catalyst Characterization Lab
  • Macromolecular Crystallography Lab
  • Robotics and High Throughput Characterization Lab
  • Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Lab
  • Biomass Compositional Analysis Lab
  • Biomass Surface Characterization Lab

Catalysts are used in thermochemical processes to convert tars (a byproduct of gasification) to syngas and then to convert syngas to liquid fuels. In the Biomass Catalyst Characterization Lab, NREL teams are working to understand and enhance the performance of catalysts to help realize the production of efficient biomass-derived fuels.

"The overarching goal of the Biomass Catalyst Characterization Laboratory is to intelligently design, characterize, and evaluate next generation catalysts for the efficient thermochemical conversion of biomass to fuels," NREL Principal Scientist Kim Magrini said. "We have the ability to look at things like surface area, particle size and distribution, and surface and bulk elemental analysis."

Working primarily with metals and ceramics, researchers in the Biomass Catalyst Characterization Lab use high temperatures to convert biomass to fuel. The recent upgrades to this lab gave researchers tools such as:

  • New tabletop microscopy equipment that can take a snapshot of the catalyst surfaces and give an elemental readout at the same time;
  • Four new high temperature reaction systems with real time product analysis;
  • High temperature Raman microscope cells that enable scientists to study catalytic reactions while they are happening;
  • Two-dimensional gas chromatography mass spectrometer that tells researchers what is in very complex liquids like pyrolysis oil. That information helps teams come up with ways to manipulate oil chemistry and turn it into fuels.

"Materials development and characterization is at the heart of any industrialized process that takes biomass to fuels," Magrini said. "These new reactors and instruments help us understand how they work and then how we can make them work better."

Learn more about biomass research at NREL.

—Heather Lammers