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From the Lab to Your Gas Tank: 4 Bioenergy Testing Facilities That Are Making a Difference

December 16, 2013 - 2:46pm

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The Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado enables partners to test conversion technologies on up to one ton of biomass material a day.  | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado enables partners to test conversion technologies on up to one ton of biomass material a day. | Photo by Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Bioenergy, or renewable energy generated from organic materials, is an abundant domestic energy source that can help reduce our reliance on imported oil while cutting greenhouse gas emissions and giving drivers more options.  But before bioenergy sources can transition from the testing tank to the tank in your car, it must go through a number of complex processes to convert it into a combustible product.

Processing and converting a biomass feedstock into a useable biofuel or bioproduct after the feedstock has been delivered to a biorefinery can be complex and costly. The Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) is working to cut costs and improve efficiencies by supporting advanced development/demonstration facilities throughout the country that enable researchers to fully examine their efforts on a large scale without having to purchase or install equipment, or maintain an expensive pilot plant. These facilities allow industry to test the pretreatment, conversion, and recovery processes for biofuel production, bringing vast resources and cutting edge research and development together all in one place.

To that end, BETO has aided four of the Energy Department’s national laboratories in establishing state-of-the-art, multipurpose facilities.

Feedstock Preprocessing at INL

The Process Demonstration Unit at Idaho National Laboratory’s Energy Systems Laboratory facility provides pilot- and industrial-scale testing for a variety of preprocessing techniques. Preprocessing is essential to preparing biomass feedstock for conversion, ensuring the material is high-quality and provides as much fuel as possible. The facility’s Characterization Laboratory enables researchers to use advanced methods, such as particle characterization and microscopy, to better understand the relationship between feedstocks and their conversion performance.

Conversion Processes and Analysis at LBNL

The Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit (ABPDU) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California gives researchers a much-needed, small-scale testing and demonstration platform -- a necessary step towards full commercialization of biofuels. ABPDU covers five key areas of expertise: pretreatment, enzymatic conversion, fermentation conversion, product recovery, and analysis. More importantly, it is one of the only facilities in North America that focuses on advanced solvent pretreatment technologies such as ionic liquids, which can help boost the energy efficiency of biomass conversion. ABPDU aids researchers in generating, collecting, and analyzing data that will improve the biofuel before full pilot-scale testing begins.

Scaling Up with Bio-Oils at PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s (PNNL) Fixed Bed Upgrading and Separations System facility in Washington is scaling up for bio-oil and hydrocarbon fuel production. PNNL recently expanded their hydrotreater, which can now upgrade or stabilize large quantities of bio-oils for potential use at pilot-scale plants. The fixed bed facility can collect samples in each production phase and perform a wide range of analyses, enabling researchers to collect valuable performance and usability information.

Pilot-Scale Testing and Heating Things Up at NREL

The Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado is taking early stage biofuel development to pilot-scale by enabling partners to test conversion technologies on up to one ton of biomass material a day. NREL researchers and operators have the expertise to troubleshoot any potential process complications that could occur during demonstration. On-site chemists can also develop specialized analytical methods to streamline and improve production processes for partners and can help partners develop and utilize these models to estimate market feasibility, cost sensitivities, and environmental sustainability of commercial-scale production of biofuels.

NREL’s Thermochemical Users Facility is the nation’s leading center for test reactors, filters, catalysts, and other operational tools for biofuel production. In addition to its on-site capabilities, selected partners can also obtain analyses at their own project sites, giving them more options to evaluate pilot scale heat- and pressure-based conversion technologies like gasification and pyrolysis.

These testing facilities are enabling comprehensive assessment, testing, and demonstration of bioenergy technologies. Together, they represent one of the many ways BETO is helping the nation develop reliable, sustainable, and domestic fuel sources and products. 

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