PNNL, WSU partner in new biomass research lab

By Susanne Retka Schill
Internationally recognized microbiologist Birgitte Ahring will be taking the helm of Washington's new Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory in August. The $24.8 million center on the campus of Washington State University in Richland, Wash., was dedicated in May. The 57,000-square-foot laboratory is a partnership between WSU and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and will include 10 jointly appointed scientists to work on the advancement of biomass research.

Ahring, previously a professor at the Technical University of Denmark, is the founder and chief executive officer of BioGasol, an engineering and technology company spun off from the Danish university in 2006. BioGasol is building a demonstration plant on an island off the coast of Sweden, using its proprietary equipment, patented processes and a unique thermophilic bacterium to convert biomass into ethanol. It will also provide the technology for Pacific Ethanol Inc.'s cellulosic ethanol plant to be built adjacent to its corn-based
ethanol plant in Boardman, Ore. Pacific Ethanol received a $24.3 million grant earlier this year from the U.S. DOE to advance this project.

Researchers at the BSEL will work on biochemical and thermochemical conversions of cellulosic biomass to ethanol. The thermochemical studies will include work on hydro-treated pyrolysis oil that can be further refined in existing petroleum refineries to create direct diesel and gasoline replacements. The BSEL features a facility that will enable researchers to test new concepts close to industrial scale, increasing commercialization potential. The collaboration at the BSEL will combine WSU's expertise in agricultural research with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's proficiency in conversion technologies. "The new Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory is a cornerstone of the efforts by our university and our state to take a leadership role in the areas of sustainability and clean energy," said WSU President Elson Floyd.

At the BSEL's grand opening ceremonies, Andy Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the DOE, reminded attendees of the importance of cellulosic ethanol to the United States. "Cellulosic ethanol is a critical component of [President George W. Bush's] comprehensive strategy to diversify our nation's energy sources in a sustainable manner, enhance energy security and address the serious challenge of global climate change," he said. "BSEL's work to develop and deploy clean and affordable renewable fuels will prove pivotal as the Bush Administration works aggressively to mitigate climate change and meet the rapidly growing demand for energy."