Biomass: A Federal Perspective

By Ron Kotrba
For those familiar with the "Billion Ton" study, the Biomass Program under the U.S. DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program should ring a bell. The Biomass Program has been responsible for many important research and development breakthroughs in the area of biomass conversion to fuels. The U.S. DOE grant funding for commercial-scale biorefineries and the 10 percent validation plants; a series of grants for cellulase and hemicellulase development; funding for advancements in thermochemical processing; and the report titled "Effects of Intermediate Ethanol Blends on Legacy Vehicles and Small Engines," are all products of the Biomass Program. Valri Lightner, formerly the strategic planning designated federal officer for the program and now acting director, spoke with Biomass Magazine shortly after President Barack Obama's inauguration.

Q: I think the question on everyone's mind is how is the Obama administration is going to affect the Biomass Program?
A: I think time will tell on that. It appears that he supports renewable energy, biofuels and the work we're doing in the biomass program as part of that, and the program continues to have bipartisan support, so we're expecting we'll continue getting support.

Q: Recently the Energy Information Administration predicted that the U.S. would likely fall short of its aggressive biofuels targets under the new renewable fuels standard, commonly referred to as RFS2. What is the Biomass Program doing to ensure those goals are met?
A: We're mainly focused on next-generation technologies-for the advanced biofuels portion of the renewable fuels standard goals. Our program is focused on doing the research, development and demonstration to drive down the cost that would enable those technologies to compete with those in place so those goals can be met. There are different analyses that can be done-inclusion of different policy incentives and scenarios that enable different numbers. The numbers did fall a little short but they weren't too far off the mark from the RFS.

Q: One of the program's goals is to make cellulosic ethanol cost competitive by 2012. Do you think this is something that can still be done?
A: Let me just clarify what that goal is. That is a research and development goal, based on pilot-scale and bench-scale data put into a model projected to get to commercial scale, so we don't think we'll have commercial facilities operating and producing advanced biofuels at $1.33 a gallon by 2012. But we do expect to have research that shows if you projected the scale and integrated, you could achieve that. At this time, we're currently on target but we continue to evaluate our progress every year. It does require that some breakthroughs occur over time, but we continue to evaluate those numbers each year.

Q: You mentioned breakthroughs. Specifically, what kind of breakthroughs?
A: We do tend to focus on two primary routes, although different technologies can be mixed and matched so things can be done slightly differently. The enzymes are one area we focus on-trying to drive down the cost. That is probably one of the key areas but we're also looking at some of the pretreatment technologies for the biochemical route, as well as fermentation organisms. On the thermochemical side, the more expensive area tends to be the cleanup of the synthesis gas, so finding catalysts that have lifetime and reduced cost, and also, converting that clean gas into fuel-the fuel synthesis piece. Those are some of the key areas we are working on to drive down the cost. Having said that, one of the areas that is probably least demonstrated is the ability to take these cellulosic biofuels from the field to the plant gate-we call that feedstock infrastructure. This includes harvesting, storage, transportation and collection systems. Demonstrating that is going to be critical also.

Q: I understand many of the national labs are working on these issues, but as far as infrastructure is concerned, is the Biomass Program conducting any work on the finished fuel end of distributing the product more efficiently?
A: Within the past year-and-a-half or two years we started working on the back end of the infrastructure-getting the fuel product from the plant gate to the vehicle tank. Our current focus has been on testing blends of ethanol that are greater than 10 percent and less than 85 percent, to evaluate the impact on legacy vehicles and small engines, and that's primarily where we've been focused. The DOE has done some feasibility work on pipelines, and we've done a lot of work evaluating that so it's an area we're following, and we're trying to determine exactly what our role in that research and development would be, and trying to enable pipeline use for biofuels in the future. Right now we're primarily focused on the ethanol, but we're also expanding to fuels other than ethanol that might be compatible with the existing infrastructure.

Q: What about biomass to power, cofiring biomass or green chemicals? Are these areas the program is involved in and, if so, to what extent?
A: Not at this time really. The only time we'd do a project like that is if it's also producing fuels, such as our integrated biorefinery activities where the primary product is a biofuel, but some of the biomass is also being used to provide power and heat back into the process. That's part of our activity, but we don't have any projects looking at cofiring coal and biomass independently at this time, and really that's because of the previous administration's priorities on fuels. That's where our researchers are dedicated at this time.

Q: How is the indirect land-use issue going to affect the future of the biomass industry and the Biomass Program?
A: The EPA has the lead on that because there are some requirements within the RFS. In order to be counted against the RFS, you have to have a certain greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and within that, indirect land use is taken into account. I know EPA has been drafting a rulemaking to issue publicly and get feedback on how they would propose that this be monitored and counted. That's going to be very important-it's really going to determine what qualifies under the RFS, so it's going to be critical how that whole issue is handled.

Q: Have you got any insight into what EPA might determine? If you had a crystal ball, what would you see?
A: I don't have a crystal ball on this one. I know there's been a lot of input into the process across the federal government, and EPA is taking in all of that information and is trying to put together a rulemaking for how they would monitor what they believe is in the best interest of the country. We're trying to provide analytical support for that.

Q: Regarding all the grants for commercial-scale biorefineries and 10 percent validation plants, when DOE issues these multimillion dollar grants, to what extent is the Biomass Program involved?
A: We work very closely with our Golden, Colo., field office, which cuts the checks, but that's after a pretty lengthy process of selection. Our office is ultimately responsible for selecting grant winners, but we work very closely with the Golden office in that. But just to make sure you're aware, there is a pretty thorough merit review process. All of the proposals that come in are evaluated by people, mostly outside the government, for technical merit, and scored on their technical merit. Then, there are other points that may be outlined in the solicitation process. And before checks are cut, there's a negotiation period and an agreed upon statement of work. There is certain due diligence the government has to do to verify that the work has been accomplished according to the original agreed upon scope before we reimburse the funds.

Q: Have there been any issues with funding of the original six biorefineries (Abengoa Bioenergy, Iogen Corp., Alico Inc., Poet LLC, BlueFire Ethanol Fuels Inc. and Range Fuels Inc.), and what happens if a project falls through?
A: There hasn't been a case where we've negotiated an award and then the award falls through, but two of the projects have withdrawn their applications during the negotiation process (Iogen and Alico) and have decided not to go forward with their projects, so we now have four commercial-scale biorefineries that we're working on. And of the four, two of those are still in Phase I (BlueFire and Abengoa), which is the engineering, design and environmental compliance phase, so they haven't been awarded funds to begin construction. The other two have been awarded Phase II funds (Poet and Range Fuels), which includes the beginning of construction.

Q: Are you getting any feedback from the industry about what they like and dislike about the Biomass Program?
A: We have a formal peer review every two years, and it's coming up again this spring. The last one was about 18 months ago. What we heard then, and what we've been trying to implement, is that industry saw that we need to do more in the thermochemical area, but not at the expense of biochemical work. They also indicated that work in the feedstock, infrastructure, and feedstock production-the planting of crops-needed more emphasis and that we need to do more in cooperation with USDA. And, they recognized and applauded that we were starting to look at end-use distribution-getting biofuels from the plant gate to the vehicle tank, but it was also suggested that we do more in that area. We've been trying to follow through with those recommendations.

Q: Is there anything else you would care to add?
A: One thing that has come up lately as being a really important and critical area is sustainability. We are really working hard across the fellow governments to make sure what we are doing in biofuels is sustainable, meaning it does not harm the environment, or that it is good for the environment, good for people. We just want to make sure we are doing the right thing-that is very important.

Ron Kotrba is a Biomass Magazine senior writer. Reach him at or (701) 738-4942.