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Scalable Solutions: NREL Researchers to Help ExxonMobil Reduce Future Biofuels Emissions

June 13, 2019

The energy landscape is evolving, and companies such as ExxonMobil are getting in on the ground floor.

“How do you provide scalable energy to 9 billion people while addressing the risks of climate change?” asked Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company.

It is precisely to address this dilemma that ExxonMobil is partnering with analysts at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to develop emissions-reducing solutions for the biofuels sector.

Since 2000, ExxonMobil has spent more than $9 billion to develop and deploy lower-emissions energy solutions. In May, as part of this commitment to advanced energy innovation, ExxonMobil entered into a 10-year, $100-million partnership with NREL and other DOE-funded laboratories. This partnership, the largest in NREL's history, will fund research and analysis to bring advanced energy technologies to market, focusing on emissions reduction.

So, what does this all mean in practice? NREL analysts will be among the first to find out.

Not Your Typical Cellulosic Biofuels Life Cycle Project

Through the partnership, ExxonMobil and NREL will work on a project based on NREL's biofuels emissions work. NREL analysts will model air pollutant emissions from the entire biofuels supply chain, as well as the resulting impacts on air quality. They will also study how air quality regulations can impact the operation and sustainability of biorefineries.

In short? This isn’t your typical biofuels project—and NREL is prepared for the challenge.

“ExxonMobil came to us having recognized the years of work supported by BETO [DOE's Bioenergy Technologies Office] in developing robust understanding and analytical capability for air emissions across the biofuel supply chain, as well as our longstanding capability in developing novel biofuel conversion processes,” said NREL Senior Scientist Garvin Heath, who is principal investigator for the new project.

The project’s scope of work will include an analysis of how biorefinery designs can affect multiple environmental sustainability objectives, such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, the ability to permit new facilities or modifications to existing facilities to incorporate bio-based content, and the achievement of our nation’s air quality goals as stipulated by the Clean Air Act.

A Series of Challenges

This project is poised to achieve an integration of process and air quality models to robustly analyze multiple sustainability objectives. No models currently exist to achieve this. Biofuels projects of the past have generally focused on a singular objective, but this is the first time that multiple objectives will be viewed as an integrated set for optimization.

NREL’s analysis will also help to de-risk investment in biorefineries by contributing to their effective design. All potential industrial facilities must secure permits before beginning construction and operation, and to receive these permits, biorefineries must prove that their designs will allow for compliance with federal air quality standards. Integrating the models and analysis will ensure that no matter the changes in biorefinery plant designs—for example, to reduce emissions of certain air pollutants—the state conditions, such as temperature, pressure, and mass balance are maintained. In the end, this means that a plant can function as it was designed to, and that the permitting process can be accelerated.

Heath sees blue skies—and improved air quality—on the horizon. “The collaboration is leading towards a future where novel biorefineries can more quickly and assuredly receive their necessary air permits, and the whole biofuel supply chain contributes towards achievement of our nation’s air quality goals,” he said.

Learn more about NREL's biofuels emissions analysis work and stay tuned for more information as the partnership develops. You can also keep an eye on NREL’s new Medium page for more on this and other NREL news.