NREL to help scale up biofuels operations

When it comes to fostering new biofuels technology during a recession, a big barrier can simply be cash

When it comes to fostering new biofuels technology during a recession, a big barrier can simply be cash. US Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu recently gave the industry a boost when he announced the selection of 19 integrated biorefinery projects that are eligible to receive up to $564 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to accelerate the construction and operation of pilot, demonstration and commercial scale biofuel facilities.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is partnering with five of the winning companies — Algenol, Amyris, Clearfuels, Gas Technology Institute, and the Renewable Energy Institute International — to help launch pilot scale and then commercial scale development of biomass based second generation fuels in the U.S.

"NREL was approached by approximately 20 companies asking us to partner with them for this DOE solicitation," said John Ashworth, NREL Team Leader for Partnership Development at the National Bioenergy Center. "DOE wanted private firms to be the lead organizations in any proposal, so we partnered with a number of different companies on a variety of projects."

According to Ashworth, DOE has been consciously trying to stimulate innovation in converting non-food biomass into fuels. The government is putting up risk capital to attract private investors to put their money into pushing technologies forward. "It's a forward thinking approach," Ashworth said. "It's taking risk, but it's working. Billions of dollars are being committed to these scale-up activities, helping to cut down the timeline for when these fuels are in the marketplace."

In DOE's request for proposals, companies were encouraged to develop pilot facilities to convert cellulosic mass into biofuels or to use existing small scale facilities to test various processes for using many types of biomass for fuels creation. "DOE deliberately supported a number of different technologies in an effort to move these technologies to the point where they can be tested at scale," Ashworth said.

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