State-of-the-Art Programs and Infrastructure to Quench the Thirst for Fuels of the Future

By Chris Zygarlicke
The world's thirst for fuel is driving an increasing need for renewable fuels and a greatly reduced carbon footprint. The Energy & Environmental Research Center entered the competition more than two decades ago to convert biomass to renewable energy and fuels.

Ten years ago, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., instituted the Center for Biomass Utilization at the EERC, which evolved to become a world-class research program inventing, demonstrating, and commercializing new technologies for converting biomass to alcohols, distillate fuels, chemicals, heat and electricity-with the ultimate goal of reducing U.S. dependency on foreign imports, while stimulating the domestic economy.

To satisfy the world's hunger for renewable fuels, the EERC is pursuing several new programs and infrastructure that will foster the development of a variety of new biomass research projects. The EERC will break ground on a Fuels of the Future facility this year that will allow the EERC to transfer fundamental research from the laboratory into commercialization.

The 7,500-square-foot facility will be added onto the current National Center for Hydrogen Technology facility. When the NCHT was dedicated in 2008, it was already full of a variety of technologies and test systems for the production and utilization of hydrogen.

Ongoing research, as well as a variety of new fundamental and applied research and development projects, are waiting in the wings for the Fuels of the Future facility.

Structurally, the new building will include a traditional laboratory area with ventilating hoods and bench-top work areas, a high-bay area with multiple levels, a control room, and a biomass preparation and handling area to accommodate a wide range of biomass types and processing systems. This preparation area is critical since biomass can range from low-density straw or grasses to higher-density wood chips. In some test scenarios, biomass must be downsized, dried, pelletized or treated before it is fired in reactors. The new facilities will accommodate all of these functions.

Actual systems and test equipment that will fill the building are the result of existing and new contracts with commercial and government partners. Some of the projects of note this year will include:

Construction and testing of new novel technologies for the production of renewable liquid fuels, inkling renewable jet fuel, green diesel and other renewable byproducts. A system design for the subscale pilot facility has already been completed. The system will be designed to convert nonfood-grade biomass oils derived from crambe or camelina into a liquid distillate fuel.

Development of an ASTM International standardized method for characterization of biomass for use as fuels and feedstocks, expediting biomass acceptance. Some of the first biomass types included in this study will be corn stover, livestock waste, beet pulp, wood residues and switchgrass.

Utilization of nonfood-based waste biomass for conversion to liquid fuels or heat and power generation in small-scale biomass gasification systems.

Strategic studies of paradigm-shifting technologies as well as educational outreach activities.

As long as America needs to get places, fuels will be required. The EERC is using its world-class facilities and expertise to advance a variety of fuel technologies with its private-sector partners. These fuels may be available to fill your tank sooner than you think

Chris Zygarlicke is deputy associate director for research at the EERC. Reach him at or (701) 777-5123.