The Bioenergy Bridge

PSU bought equipment to bring industry professionals together
| April 25, 2011

Tom Richards is serious about bioenergy. As the initiator of Penn State’s new renewable energy collaboration called the Bioenergy Bridge, Richards is also committed to making sure that the growth trajectory of bioenergy in the next couple of years becomes what he feels it should be. He’s already worked with the Chesapeake Bay commission on projects including winter energy crop practices, perennial grass development and even woody biomass utilization, all of which happened well before he formed the Bionergy Bridge. Now, he has set out to “pull together industry, other external stakeholders and a variety of different university researchers relating to the challenges of bioenergy.”  As for where he believes bioenergy should be, look at what he has done in his short time leading a bioenergy effort—one that includes 70-plus researchers and $15 million in funding.

The best part about Richards’ work, however, isn’t about what he’s already done, but about what he might do in the future. While the current total for members of the bridge is only four, the center (if one wants to call it that) is positioned to benefit a number of research areas. Members will have access to a biomass energy center, a center for lignocelluloses structure and function, shared fermentation equipment, a center for nanocellulosics and others. To this point, Richards says the pretreatment facility has generated the most interest. “It is basically a user facility for something that is bigger than bench-scale but less than tons per day,” he says. “The facility is set up as a user facility for companies to come in and do their own work, or for us to get our own things done.” People, he says, are starting to recognize that they have to test out their organisms and their processes with real materials.

Myriant Technologies has already visited the facility for testing purposes, and AdvanceBio Systems LLC recently installed a cellulosic pretreatment reactor. In addition to access to equipment like the pretreatment reactor, members will also be able to participate in bioenergy symposiums between faculty at PSU, other researchers and other companies that range in topic from winter energy crop development to catalysis. The hope, Richards says, is to create face-to-face interaction. “We structured this to try and encourage that.”

Part of the reason Richards points to as an inhibitor to bioenergy growth has to do with that interaction. “Too often university people aren’t interacting with industry people and finding out what they need,” he says. And, “there are also a lot of other stakeholders out there, including landowners, environmental organizations, state and local governments and federal regulatory agencies that don’t always know what is going on.”

Richards and his team have already worked with a company looking into torrefaction and a biodiesel producer using locally grown camelina. His partner at the Bioenergy Bridge, Dan Ciolkosz, is already forming a master’s degree focused on renewable energy.

For an individual focused on the future of bioenergy, Richards seems to be on the right path, and his work so far might be enough to consider following him, even if it isn’t. “My philosophy is to bring these folks together, get them to interact, define some common challenges and shared opportunities, and then get to work.” 

—Luke Geiver