Cattle waste and wastewater. Sludgy grease ensconced in restaurant and cafeteria grease traps. Food waste—uneaten leftovers or culinary mistakes. Taken singularly, these things are typically unpleasant to the human eye, and even the nose. But the research community sees more than garbage, poop, and sludge. They see biofuels. Fuels that can replace fossil fuels, such as petroleum, for powering cars and airplanes.
Biofuel is one answer to the quest for reducing dependence on petroleum. It’s a clean solution for reducing carbon emissions generated by traffic. It’s also a lower-cost fuel alternative for an exploding population, which relates directly to additional concerns about the security of the global energy supply. Last but not least, it reduces the amount of waste choking the nation’s landfills and groundwater.
PNNL bioenergy research supports the Department of Energy's Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO). BETO’s goal is to develop a viable, sustainable domestic biomass industry that produces renewable biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower; enhances U.S. energy security; and reduces dependence on foreign oil.
PNNL research & development
PNNL bioenergy research and development focuses on processes that convert biomass and wastes into chemicals and biofuels that are infrastructure ready (e.g., gasoline, diesel and jet fuel). Researchers with technical expertise in advanced biotechnology, catalysis, and thermal processing enable these advances to take place.
One such technology developed at PNNL, hydrothermal liquefaction, mimics the geological conditions the Earth uses to create crude oil. Using high pressure and temperature, this process achieves in minutes what typically takes millions of years.
Researchers are teaming with other national lab partners and industry to understand where potential biofuel feedstocks—wastes—are most greatly concentrated across the nation. Their aim is to help the biofuels industry boost production capability.
Commercially, PNNL’s partnership with LanzaTech—a global leader in gas fermentation technology—led to the addition of ethanol as an approved feedstock for low-carbon sustainable jet fuel. The aviation industry now has a way to make such jet fuel blends that meet jet standards and are more cost competitive than ever.
Tools and facilities
PNNL possesses a robust suite of bioenergy analysis tools in the areas of liquefaction, gasification, and catalytic hydrothermal gasification, and fermentation. One example is the Biomass Assessment Tool, which resolves questions about the amount of energy that can be produced, where production can occur, and how much land, water, and nutrient resources will be required. And in a unique partnership with Washington State University, the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory houses labs for fungal strain and bioprocess development and optimization, as well as a biorefinery for technology development.
Animal manure, sludge, and food waste are just garbage to most people. But to the biofuels research community, these things represent the future of the nation’s energy independence.