Fuels of the Future

By Bruce C. Folkedahl | May 22, 2012

Ten years ago, the Energy & Environmental Research Center instituted the Center for Biomass Utilization, which has evolved into a world-class research program, inventing, demonstrating, and commercializing new technologies for converting biomass to fuels, power, heat, and chemicals. This program has grown considerably since its inception, and as part of that continued growth, the EERC is just completing a new facility that will be instrumental in developing future biobased and alternative fuels.

The Fuels of the Future facility incorporates a 70-foot-tall, high-bay area with multiple levels and two control rooms to accommodate a wide range of biomass and processing systems. The facility will enable the EERC to perform proof-of-concept studies for novel applications converting biomass to fuels, heat, power, and chemicals that otherwise may not have been possible because of a lack of required vertical space. The 7,500-square-foot facility is adjoined to the National Center for Hydrogen Technology and is set to become a leading center for innovation and demonstration.

The EERC has already been heavily involved in converting crop and algae oils to drop-in-compatible hydrocarbon jet fuels for the U.S. Department of Defense. That research has involved upgrading catalytically cracked hydrocarbon fuel products using tall columns for distillation, separation, and reaction. This new facility will make those types of operations much more efficient and cost-effective.
While the facility will be ready for occupancy in July, a growing list of commercial entities is waiting to fill it with new systems and test equipment. Some of the early projects to be housed in the facility include a modular gasification system for producing heat and power from agricultural wastes and manures. The technology will aid in reducing runoff of valuable nutrients from the soil, which enter the local watershed and cause eutrophication of rivers and lakes.

The facility will also house work in renewable jet fuel development, testing new improvements to the catalytic cracking and upgrading process for renewable jet fuel, green diesel, and other renewable byproduct fuels and chemicals. A system design for a subscale pilot facility has already been completed and will be optimized for conversion of nonfood-grade biomass oils derived from crambe, camelina, pennycress, and even algae into liquid fuels. In addition, the Fuels of the Future facility will host development of new biochemical production systems that can be pilot-tested, allowing for easy scale-up. And several projects have been proposed for prototyping systems that make liquid transportation fuels from a combination of both unconventional natural gas and biogas or syngas.
Along with the technical projects, the EERC will utilize the space for outreach activities, providing dissemination of lessons learned and clear and obtainable alternative pathways to a sustainable future for fuels.

Because of the dramatic increase in U.S. oil and gas production, fossil fuels will continue to be a dominant energy source, but biobased fuels and chemicals will continue to gain ground. The EERC is committed to moving these sustainable technologies into the marketplace using new critical infrastructure such as the Fuels of the Future facility.

Author: Bruce C. Folkedahl
Senior Research Manager
(701) 777-5243