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Accelerating the Bioeconomy: NREL Researchers Share $40 Million with Partners To Scale Next-Gen Biotechnologies

Sept. 24, 2020

A researcher works with beakers in the lab.
NREL researcher Alli Werner prepares an experiment to evaluate the ability of engineered P. putida (in the flasks) to degrade polymeric plastics. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Net-zero jet fuel made from food scraps and used cooking oils? Affordable and renewable chemicals produced by algae? Electrolyzers that capture and use carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from industrial processes?

For leading scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), such high-impact technologies are not in the distant future. They are already on the cusp of making it to the marketplace.

That is thanks largely to a combined award of nearly $40 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Bioenergy Technologies Office to support NREL researchers, along with partners from universities and industries, to develop and scale up 11 groundbreaking bioenergy projects. NREL is a major federally funded research and development center subcontractor in these awards, which are led by industries and universities to develop exciting new technologies to produce fuels, chemicals, and materials using a broad variety of renewable resources, according to Zia Abdullah, the laboratory program manager for NREL’s bioenergy research.

“The implications of this research are huge,” he said. “We will be contributing across a broad slate of projects ranging from CO2 upgrading, plastics upcycling, and sustainable aviation fuels, to process improvements across biomass conversion. This will enable our researchers to accelerate the introduction of bio-based technologies that will help us meet our nation’s energy and sustainability goals.”

While each project will be supported by a unique team of scientists from NREL and elsewhere, all support four focused DOE bioenergy research and development priorities that aim to accelerate the bioeconomy. These include scaling up bioenergy bench applications, reducing the cost of algae bioproducts with CO2 capture, upcycling plastic waste into valuable products, and scaling technologies that convert CO2 into fuels and chemicals through electrochemical processes.

Scaling Up Bioenergy Bench Applications

Converting corn stover into a cyclohexane-rich sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Corn stover will be preprocessed by Idaho National Laboratory and shipped to NREL, where it will be converted using NREL’s dilute alkali deacetylation and mechanical refining process to produce lignin. This lignin will then be converted to a cyclohexane-based SAF blendstock at the University of North Dakota using catalysts developed at Washington State University.

Partners: Idaho National Laboratory, University of North Dakota, and Washington State University

Improving 2,3-butanediol conversion to produce SAF that meets current fuel performance standards. NREL has developed a novel fermentation process to exclusively produce 2,3-butanediol from biomass sugars, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed technologies to convert 2,3-butanediol to hydrocarbons. This project targets key process scale-up, as well as techno-economic and life cycle analysis considerations, in the conversion of 2,3-butanediol to kerosene blendstocks, which can be part of SAF.

Partners: Georgia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and ExxonMobil Research & Engineering

Improving the reliability and efficiency of the Szego Mill—a key mechanical component of biomass preprocessing. Szego Mills are an integral component of the deacetylation and mechanical refining process developed at NREL. This project will improve the energy efficiency, performance, and reliability of the Szego Mill, culminating in a large, pilot-scale mill that can efficiently and effectively process 1–5 tons of biomass per day.

Partners: University of Alabama and General Comminution Incorporated

Scaling a cost-effective, environmentally sensitive process for converting biocrude—a petroleum substitute made from forestry or agricultural waste—into high-quality anode materials for lithium- and sodium-ion batteries. This project will scale up the key “delayed coker” process for converting biomass pyrolysis oil into high-quality graphite and hard carbon, which are economically and environmentally preferred as anode materials in energy dense lithium- and sodium-ion batteries.

Partners: North Carolina State University, Ensyn, Birla Carbon, Battery Innovation Center, Zeton Inc., and Yale University

Demonstrating the world’s first flight powered by SAF produced from wet waste. Using wet waste previously destined for landfills, researchers will use an anaerobic digestion process to produce volatile fatty acids, which they will upgrade to produce SAF. The team will then use this SAF as a blendstock in a first-of-its-kind demonstration flight.

Partners: Earth Energy Renewables, University of Dayton Research Institute, Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center, Southwest Airlines, and Boeing

Reducing Costs for Algal Bioproducts with Direct CO2 Capture

Amplifying the potential of algae to convert atmospheric CO2 into bio-based chemicals. Drawing on expertise in computational biology, bioengineering, algae cultivation, and economic and environmental analysis, the team will create molecular films that improve the ability of algae to capture carbon from the air—an economical and sustainable process for producing renewable bioproducts.

Partners: University of California, San Diego, Gross-Wen Technologies, and Algix

Cultivating energy-dense spirulina—a widely cultivated algae with promise for biofuel, food, oils, and other products—using air as the major supply of CO2. Current cultivation techniques of spirulina (Arthrospira platensis) rely on a purified and concentrated CO2 supply, so decoupling production from CO2 point sources with direct air capture would both improve its scalability and improve its cost structure in existing algae markets (e.g., nutrition, animal feed). This project aims to lessen spirulina cultivation dependence on concentrated CO2, increase its content of energy dense components, and develop genetically engineered spirulina strains with superior expression of valuable heterologous protein bioproducts.

Partner: Lumen Bioscience

Upcycling Plastic Waste into Biopower and Products

Increasing recycling rates by evaluating chemical pathways for converting plastic waste into reusable resin. Alongside an evaluation of the costs, infrastructure, and processes behind plastic waste streams, NREL will collaborate with multiple academic institutions and industrial partners through the Center on Chemical Upcycling of Waste Plastics to evaluate thermal depolymerization and solvent-targeted recovery and precipitation followed by catalytic upgrading of plastics-derived oils into aromatics and olefins.

Partners: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Iowa State University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Virginia, Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Iztapalapa, University of Guelph, Amcor, Atando Cabos, EcoStar/Placon, Frontline BioEnergy LLC, Revolution, and SABIC

Scaling Up Electrocatalysis Technologies for Converting CO2 into Fuels and Chemicals

Producing formic acid—a precursor for a range of products—from CO2. Researchers will design a novel, energy-efficient reactor that produces high-purity formic acid molecules from CO2 using an electrochemical reduction reaction, a process that can be combined with downstream bioreactors to create valuable fuels and chemicals.

Partners: University of Delaware, Rice University, and OCO Inc.

Developing larger, more robust electrolyzers to capture and use CO2 emissions at industrial-scale biorefineries. To enable large biorefineries to recycle and use CO2 generated while producing transportation fuels, researchers will design larger, more powerful electrolyzers with catalyst layers that are better at responding to changes in gas composition in industrial flues.

Partner: Dioxide Materials

Laying the groundwork for CO2-derived biofuels and bioproducts using a scalable polymer-electrolyte membrane (PEM). Using renewable electricity to power the process, researchers will develop scalable PEM electrolyzers that can be installed at biorefineries to transform CO2 into carbon monoxide, which can then be a precursor for chemicals and fuels.

Partner: Opus 12

Learn more about NREL’s bioenergy research.