Skip to main content

NREL's Advanced Biofuels Research (Text Version)

The video NREL's Advanced Biofuels Research describes how NREL researchers are using the tools of science to develop the biofuels of the future.

Our world is really big—7.8 billion people—and they are always on the move. Providing these people with enough energy in the form of transportation fuels is an enormous challenge. Today's fuels come mostly from fossil sources—petroleum, natural gas, and coal—but the fuels for tomorrow will come increasingly from renewable sources like biomass, the largest sustainable source of carbon on the planet—enough in the United States alone to provide up to 30% of our transportation fuels needs annually.

Enter the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one of the world's leaders in the development of innovative and cost-effective technologies for sustainable mobility.

Here at NREL, scientists and engineers work on a broad portfolio of processes for converting biomass to transportation fuels such as gasoline, diesel, jet, and synthetic natural gas. 

Let's start with the biochemical platform. Biomass is comprised of a mix of bio-polymers including cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. These polymers can serve as the source for cellulosic sugars that can be upgraded to transportation fuels, such as ethanol.

Cellulosic ethanol—made from material such as forest residues and agricultural waste (the 90% of the inedible mass that farmers typically throw away)—holds great promise for reducing our reliance on foreign oil and securing our energy independence.

Through a multiyear research project involving private industry, NREL made significant improvements in pretreatment, enzymatic hydrolysis, and fermentation to help meet the cost goals for biochemical conversion—proving that cellulosic ethanol can be cost competitive with other transportation fuels.

Scientists also led pilot-scale projects at NREL's Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility that enabled private industry to ramp up efforts to commercialize the production of cellulosic ethanol.

And NREL continues to perfect these technologies with its partners, making the next generation of biofuels more cost-effective and carbon efficient.

A second major focus at NREL is thermochemical conversion. As the name implies, thermochemical technologies use heat and chemistry—often enabled by inorganic catalysts—to drive the transformation of biomass into liquid transportation fuels.

NREL is taking its expertise in thermochemical processes to new heights by tackling the challenge to develop sustainable aviation fuels for an industry that uses nearly 1.7 billion barrels of petroleum-derived jet fuel each year.

NREL researchers are developing a pathway toward sustainable aviation fuel using an abundant and underutilized feedstock: food waste, animal waste, and urban sewage sludge.

Taking a cue from the typical decay process in landfills—or cow guts—that turns biomass into methane, NREL, in partnership with Boeing, Southwest Airlines, Earth Energy Renewables, and World Energy, is engineering catalysts and processes to better upgrade volatile fatty acids from an anaerobic digester into jet fuel that is actually carbon negative.

NREL's third major platform for producing biofuels is algae. This technology uses very different tools, combining agriculture to grow the algae with thermochemical and biochemical processes to recover intermediates and produce fuels, as well as final products like chemicals, nutraceuticals, and even food.

In partnership with ExxonMobil, NREL is working to better understand and improve the processes involved in using algae as a platform technology for making carbon-negative biofuels.

Algae can be cultivated indoors, but to scale it up for biofuels, the work needs to move outside, where strains are heavily impacted by varying sunlight, carbon dioxide, and nutrients in the water. Scientists are taking advantage of NREL's computer modeling capabilities to understand the complex variables for cultivating algae, with a goal to optimize the locations and conditions of algae farms.

Working with NREL, engineers and scientists can leverage all the resources the laboratory has to offer to develop technologies needed to solve industry problems. To find out more about working with NREL on the energy challenges facing our society and planet, please visit our website.

The video ends with a video of planet earth at night, which fades to black leaving the NREL logo and URL: