The Beltway Biochemist

Valerie Reed faces the challenges of driving down the cost of biomass conversion, replacing the whole barrel and holding her own at Thanksgiving amongst a family full of scientists.
By Tim Portz | November 20, 2012

Valerie Reed, acting manager for the U.S. DOE Biomass Program, is leading a federal government initiative of nearly $200 million to expedite the commercialization of next-generation, biomass-based fuels and chemicals. With investments being made in pilot-scale demonstrations to commercial-scale facilities, Reed and the DOE Biomass Program coordinate the efforts of national laboratories, universities and private companies as they all work to prove out commercially viable conversion pathways and begin meeting the volumes set forth by the renewable fuels standard (RFS). As the industry anxiously awaits the commissioning of the biofuel and biochemical facilities of the future in places like Emmetsburg, Iowa, or Lake Providence, La., Reed looks toward 2013 with growing anticipation.

You have a doctorate in biochemistry. What is your earliest memory of your interest in science?

Science seems to have been with me since the beginning of time. My mom was the head of a science department for a high school, teaching chemistry, physics and technology. My dad was a chemical engineer for the pharmaceutical industry. My brother has a physics degree and my sister a medical degree, add to that my biochemistry degree and Thanksgiving dinner is a lot of fun! But I really knew I would follow a science career path when I took high school chemistry. I had the coolest teacher and was just in awe of the fun things we got to do in lab.

One of your program’s recurring talking points is the notion of replacing all of the product streams that come from a barrel of oil. Why is this so critical? 

In the United States, we spend about $1 billion a day to import oil.  Domestically produced biofuels can improve this situation by decreasing imports. For example, ethanol already displaces about $20.9 billion worth of imported gasoline annually. But in order to fully reduce dependence on foreign oil we are pursuing a portfolio approach to develop additional technologies to replace gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, heavy distillates as well as a range of biobased chemicals and products.

You’ve led efforts in biomass utilization that have resulted in significant reductions to the price of cellulosic ethanol production. How exactly does research accomplish this, and, where are the savings found? 

Over the past decade, the DOE’s Biomass Program has supported a range of research and development projects focused on reducing the cost of cellulosic ethanol. These include a biochemical conversion case (fermentation to ethanol) and a thermochemical conversion case (gasification to ethanol) that have both shown the potential to be viable in the near term.

In the biochemical case, the process scenario was based on dilute acid pretreatment of corn stover followed by enzymatic saccharification (which depolymerizes cellulose into glucose and hemicellulose into xylose, both fermentation sugars) and cofermentation of the five and six carbon sugars to yield ethanol, which is then distilled and purified. We worked with our partners at national laboratories, universities and industry to use this as a roadmap for the research needed to target the cost-reduction goals. From 2001 through 2012, production cost improvements across this process helped decrease the price of cellulosic ethanol from about $9 per gallon to around $2 per gallon.

In the thermochemical case, the process scenario was based on the gasification of woody biomass followed by syngas cleanup, tar reforming, and catalytic mixed alcohol synthesis followed by the separation and purification of ethanol from the mixed alcohol stream. Thanks to technology and engineering improvements, we’ve seen the production costs of this process come down about $2.70 per gallon over the last five years.

A handful of advanced biofuels facilities have received DOE funding and are expected to begin commercial production in 2013. Is there a sense of anticipation for you as you wait for these facilities to come online?

I most definitely feel a growing excitement as we get closer to meeting goals set within this program over 20 years ago. I started my career in the Biomass Program straight out of graduate school. At that time, we were talking about possible sources of enzymes and what it would be like if fermentation organisms could utilize multiple sugars. When I would tell people what I was working on, there was a great deal of skepticism. Even within the DOE, I would hear people say that I would probably not see these goals met in my lifetime. Yet, here we are validating multiple technical pathways capable of meeting the modeled costs for cellulosic ethanol and seeing not just one, but several commercial facilities being built. It was not always a smooth trip, but the  research and development of the past couple decades is clearly paying dividends and will continue to advance better production processes and more efficient conversion technologies in the future.

Clearly the DOE is interested in working toward conversion strategies for a geographically diverse mix of biomass. Why is it so critical that advanced biofuels become plausible in all regions?

While the current U.S. biofuel industry is centered primarily in the Midwest, we are committed to deploying every available feedstock and are investing in technologies that utilize biomass feedstocks from every region of the country. We are looking at woody feedstocks in Maine, Michigan and Oregon as well as energy crops, like switchgrass and sorghum, throughout the Southeast and in California and Colorado. Additionally, we are supporting technologies that can develop fuel from municipal solid waste in urban areas throughout the country and algae in states like Florida and in the deserts of the Southwest.

This is important for several reasons. First, in order to significantly reduce our dependence on imported oil we need to maximize the potential of biomass. Our recently updated billion ton study shows that across the U.S., there is potential to displace about one-third of our current transportation petroleum use with biomass in a sustainable manner. It’s also important because we recognize that seasonal variability, weather and other factors could sometimes inhibit production in one area of the country or another, and we want to be able to maintain a consistent supply of biomass feedstocks. In the end, we believe that every region has characteristics that make it advantageous to produce certain types of biomass and every part of the country has an important role to play in securing America’s energy future. 
The RFS calls for 22 billion gallons of advanced biofuels to be in the marketplace by 2022. So far, the industry has been unable to meet the modest targets. Is 2013 the year real production matches RFS mandate requirements? 

Over the past several years, we have invested significantly in a variety of projects focused on bringing down technology costs, enhancing the yield of different biomass strains and increasing the efficiency and sustainability of production processes. We are committed to helping the industry achieve the targets set by Congress in 2007.

We are certainly optimistic for 2013. We expect several of our integrated biorefinery projects will be coming online in the next few years. As you may know, Ineos Bio, Poet LLC and Abengoa BioEnergy have major commercial-scale plants under construction, and we are on track with several other of our demonstration-scale projects as well. As these projects are completed, the lessons learned from their scale up will help reduce market and technology challenges across the industry, driving private industry financing and helping meet the ambitious RFS goals.