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Ten years ago the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) instituted the Center for Biomass Utilization (CBU), which has evolved to become a world-class research program inventing, demonstrating, and commercializing new technologies for converting biomass to fuels, power, heat, and chemicals to aid in reducing dependence on fossil fuel imports as well as building a sustainable bio-industry in the United States. This program has grown considerably since its inception, and as part of that continued growth, the EERC is just completing a new facility that will be instrumental in developing future bio-based and alternative fuels.

The new Fuels of the Future facility incorporates a 70-foot-tall high-bay area with multiple levels and two control rooms to accommodate a wide range of biomass types and processing systems. The facility will enable the EERC to perform proof-of-concept studies for novel applications of conversion of biomass to fuels, heat, power, and chemicals that otherwise may not have been possible because of a lack of required vertical space. The 7500-square-foot facility is adjoined with the current National Center for Hydrogen Technology (NCHT) facility and is set to become a leading center for innovation and demonstration.

The EERC has already been heavily involved in converting crop and algae oils to drop-in-compatible hydrocarbon jet fuels for the U.S. Department of Defense. That research has involved upgrading catalytically cracked hydrocarbon fuel products using tall columns for distillation, separation, and reaction. This new facility will make those types of operations much more efficient and cost-effective to operate.
While the facility will be ready for occupancy in July, there is already a growing list of commercial entities waiting to fill this building with new systems and test equipment. Some of the early projects to be housed in the facility are the following:

  • As mentioned earlier, the EERC’s bio-based jet/diesel research requires suitable space for reactors and distillation columns. Work in renewable jet fuel development will continue in the Fuels of the Future facility to test new improvements to the catalytic cracking and upgrading process for renewable jet fuel, green diesel, and other renewable by-product fuels and chemicals. A system design for a subscale pilot facility has already been completed and will be optimized for conversion of non-food-grade biomass oils derived from crambe, camelina, pennycress, and even algae-based oils into liquid fuels.
  • Development of a novel modular gasification system for producing heat and power from agricultural wastes and manures. This technology will aid in reducing runoff of valuable nutrients from the soil which then enter the local watershed and cause eutrophication of rivers and lakes.
  • Development of new biochemical production systems that require tall separation and reaction columns for research that cannot be performed in traditional laboratory facilities lacking the space and accommodations. This technology can be pilot-tested at a scale allowing for easy scale-up to commercial systems, reducing the time and effort required to bring these essential technologies to market.
  • Several projects have been proposed for prototyping systems that actually make liquid transportation fuels from a combination of both unconventional natural gas and bio-based gas such as from a biomass gasifier or anaerobic digestion system. If the research projects prove out, these types of combination systems will help offset the overall carbon footprint of fossil fuels.
Along with the technical projects taking place in the Fuels of the Future facility, the EERC will also utilize this space for outreach activities, providing dissemination of lessons learned and clear and obtainable alternative pathways to a sustainable future for fuels.

Because of the dramatic increase in U.S. oil and gas production, fossil fuels will continue to be a dominant energy source, but bio-based fuels and chemicals will continue to gain ground. The EERC is committed to moving these sustainable technologies into the marketplace using new critical infrastructure such as the Fuels of the Future facility.

By Bruce Folkedahl, Senior Research Manager, Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC)