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NREL Co-Leading New Consortium to Overcome Catalysis Challenges for Biomass Applications

June 1, 2017

The ChemCatBio Consortium consists of technical capabilities experts, technology transfer/agreement experts, and data analysis experts from seven national laboratories with demonstrated experience in developing advanced catalytic materials. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is co-leading the Chemical Catalysis for Bioenergy Consortium (ChemCatBio), a new research and development consortium dedicated to identifying and overcoming catalysis challenges for biomass conversion processes. Consisting of seven U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories, ChemCatBio leverages unique lab capabilities to accelerate the development of catalysts and related technologies for the commercialization of biomass-derived fuels and chemicals, leading to enhanced energy security and national leadership in the global bioeconomy.

Catalysts Twice as Fast and at Half the Cost

The consortium is managed by a board of directors, which consists of Josh Schaidle and Rick Elander from NREL, along with Corinne Drennan from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Schaidle, manager for NREL’s biomass thermochemical conversion platform within the National Bioenergy Center, explains that there is a huge impetus for targeting catalysis research. “Approximately 85% of all existing chemical processes in the world rely on the use of a catalyst. Every dollar spent on a catalyst can produce up to $1,000 worth of product. This paradigm is not likely to change for a bioeconomy, so we need to develop advanced materials to tackle biomass-specific challenges that are not currently being addressed by catalyst materials on the market today. This is where ChemCatBio comes in.”

With funding from DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), ChemCatBio’s mission is to bring new catalytic materials to commercial bioenergy applications at least two times faster and at half the cost. “The typical catalyst development cycle is 15 to 20 years and much of this time is dedicated to developing the process surrounding the catalyst,” says Schaidle. “ChemCatBio is trying to reduce that to 7 to 10 years by integrating catalysis and process research and development.”

The consortium aims to reduce the time and cost required to transition catalytic materials from discovery to deployment by targeting both pathway-specific and overarching catalysis challenges. “ChemCatBio goes all the way from foundational science through integrated biomass-to-fuels processes,” says Schaidle. “One of BETO’s purposes in establishing ChemCatBio is to advance the state of technology for catalysis in general, not just to solve incremental problems for one individual biomass conversion step.”

To that end, an integrated and collaborative portfolio of catalytic and enabling technologies forms the foundation for the consortium. The core catalysis projects target technological advancements for specific conversion processes, such as catalytic fast pyrolysis, indirect liquefaction, and catalytic upgrading of biochemical process intermediates, while the enabling technologies provide access to world-class capabilities and expertise in computational modeling, materials synthesis, advanced in-situ and in-operando catalyst characterization, and catalyst design tools.

Collaborating with Industry from Discovery to Deployment

A key goal of ChemCatBio is to facilitate industry engagement and access to national laboratory capabilities to accelerate catalytic materials development for advancing the biofuels and bioproducts industries. The consortium co-leads, NREL and PNNL, are responsible for identifying the existing catalysis and bioenergy technology capabilities within the national laboratory system, developing and implementing a mechanism to support industry access to the network, and producing an interface and infrastructure to host and share public access data and code developed within the network.

“ChemCatBio’s structure allows us to interact with industry at all phases of the development cycle,” explains Schaidle. “We can help them at the early stages of development where discovery or design of an improved catalyst for a specific step in their process is needed. And, further into the cycle, we can help understand catalyst performance by probing reaction mechanisms and developing structure-function relationships, leading to further optimization. Finally, toward the end of the cycle, we can evaluate existing industrial catalysts in biomass conversion processes at the pilot scale using real-world feedstocks and provide direct feedback to our partners on catalyst productivity, lifetime, and operability, enabling informed decisions around deployment.”

Catalysts and corresponding processes must have a compelling value proposition to justify deployment and commercialization. To aid the catalysis and bioenergy community in assessing the value proposition of novel catalytic materials, the consortium is developing a catalyst costing tool, which estimates the bulk production costs of pre-commercial materials and provides constant feedback during the catalyst design and optimization process. No such tool is currently available in the public domain and this tool will enable cost to be a design parameter from the onset of the catalyst development cycle.

Structured for Success

ChemCatBio falls under the umbrella of the Energy Materials Network, a DOE/Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy and national laboratory initiative focused on bringing high-performance materials for clean energy technologies to market faster. ChemCatBio’s structure includes a board of directors, a steering committee made up of technical experts from all of the participating labs, and an industry advisory board, providing a collaborative environment for addressing larger, cross-discipline catalysis issues. “There are many broad issues—such as catalyst stability and deactivation—that affect every project in the consortium,” says Elander, manager for NREL’s biochemical conversion platform. “Through an integrated approach, ChemCatBio can now address those issues from multiple angles using multiple techniques. It’s a huge advantage of the consortium.”

Another key component of ChemCatBio’s structure is a single point of access for potential external collaborators. “We often hear from industry that it is very difficult to navigate the national lab system,” explains Elander. “Now, industry has a single point of contact via the ChemCatBio website. Our team can direct them to the right subject matter expert or lab within the consortium, or to the right tool to help them solve the problem.”

Accelerating Catalysis Research and Applications around the World

The consortium has launched at the right time. Projections show that by 2030, more than 1.3 billion tons of biomass can be sustainably harvested every year, enough to displace 30% of the U.S. demand for transportation fuels. “With a target of 7–10 years for the catalyst development cycle and more than a billion tons per year of a domestic resource becoming available in the next 10–15 years, it’s time for a collective, focused effort on catalyst R&D coupled with process integration to enable deployment of biomass conversion technologies,” says Schaidle. “ChemCatBio provides an opportunity to not only move industry forward and grow the bioeconomy, but to help it grow faster, help the technologies at the national labs solve problems quicker, and develop the bioeconomy at a much more accelerated rate.”

—Kathy Cisar