The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is looking to share its Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility (IBRF) and its advanced equipment with members of the private sector working to become second generation biofuel pioneers. The idea: to provide not only NREL but also industry leaders with a place to test demonstration-scale projects so the commercialization of biofuels can move more quickly.

"The IBRF is designed specifically to help industry scale up their technology," said John Ashworth, NREL team leader for partnership development. "We have created an empty bay in the facility so someone can bring in their own pretreatment reactor or other equipment required for biochemical biomass conversion. Companies can use part of our system, or they can use their own technology and we can run it in parallel with ours. That way, they can see if their system is better than ours.

"Industry partners can come in and try whatever they might have in mind from a very mild pretreatment to a very strong pretreatment, and the system is set up for that," Ashworth said. "The high solid enzymatic hydrolysis reactors sit directly beneath the pretreatment reactors. All of this allows us to really push the limits of how you can use the system and still get to sugars."

NREL employees Bob Lyons and Cindy Gerk

NREL employees Bob Lyons and Cindy Gerk inspect the biomass pretreatment reactor at the IBRF, which is capable of supporting a variety of advanced biofuels projects. Credit: NREL

NREL’s $33.5 million pilot plant and facility upgrade is capable of supporting a variety of advanced biofuels projects, including a 27,000-square-foot high bay with an area where industry partners can bring in and test equipment. The IBRF also features enhancements to NREL’s existing biochemical pilot plant, which now includes:

  • Three parallel, front-end process trains for pretreatment through enzymatic hydrolysis;
  • The ability to do research on pretreatment using a range of pH conditions; and
  • The capability to handle high solids concentrations through enzymatic hydrolysis.

Although research into producing cellulosic ethanol derived from corn stover — the stalks, leaves and cobs — is a focus for research at NREL, the new capabilities of the IBRF open the doors to all types of fuels research.

"The IBRF is not restricted to one end fuel," Ashworth said. "The technology here will work just fine if someone wants to make butanol or take lignocellulose and go to jet fuel or diesel. All of these technologies on the biochemical side use pretty much the same front-end pretreatment and enzymatic hydrolysis equipment."

This new ability to work with industry partners to test alternative fuels is timely, with the goal for cellulosic ethanol to be cost competitive with corn grain ethanol by 2012. Longer-term goals outlined in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) require that the U.S. use 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022, all in an effort to offset U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

"The idea is for us to facilitate industry success by showing that it is possible to achieve these conversion goals, and that, with the right circumstances, industry can have more confidence in their ability to commercialize the technology," said Dan Schell, NREL Manager for bioprocess integration R&D.

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