EERE Success Story—Department of Energy Delivers on R&D Targets around Cellulosic Ethanol

April 19, 2013

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In September 2012, scientists at DOE national laboratories successfully demonstrated technical advances required to produce cellulosic ethanol that is cost competitive with petroleum. Cellulosic ethanol is fuel produced from the inedible, organic material abundant in agricultural waste, including grasses, farm waste, and virtually every type of plant. Although cellulosic ethanol represents a significant opportunity for the renewable fuels industry, the high costs and inefficiencies associated with the technology have been barriers to commercialization. However, with this new breakthrough accomplished by our national lab researchers and industry partners, those barriers are diminishing.

Ultimately, this accomplishment is the culmination of more than 10 years of research and development by both the public and private sector. These conversion technologies were demonstrated at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility and Thermochemical Users Facility, where scientists led pilot-scale projects for two cellulosic ethanol production processes: biochemical conversion and thermochemical conversion. Both processes demonstrated process yield and operating cost improvements that are consistent with producing cellulosic ethanol at prices competitive with petroleum at $110 per barrel. At the biochemical pilot plant, cellulosic ethanol was produced at a modeled commercial-scale cost of $2.15 per gallon—a process that was approximately $9 per gallon just a decade ago. For the thermochemical pilot plant, cellulosic ethanol was produced at a modeled commercial-scale cost of $2.05 per gallon.

Biochemical Waterfall Chart of Minimum Ethanol Selling Price (in 2007 dollars per gallon).

Major improvements included improving the following:

  • Biomass harvesting and feedstock supply system logistics, like more energy and cost-efficient mechanisms for preprocessing
  • Biochemical conversion, developing efficient pretreatment and enzyme processes that increased sugar yields and improved organisms that are more inhibitor tolerant
  • Thermochemical conversion, developing simultaneous tar and methane reforming capabilities and improved fuel synthesis strategies from syngas.

The successful demonstration of these cost-efficient technologies is helping the private sector to ramp up efforts to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production. Facilities that will produce cellulosic ethanol are under construction across the nation, including Energy Department-supported projects led by Abengoa in Hugoton, Kansas; POET in Emmetsburg, Iowa; and INEOS in Vero Beach, Florida. Due to DOE’s support for these new technological innovations, the Unites States is now able to better harness its abundant natural resources, cut costs at the pump, and reduce national dependence on imported oil.

The Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) works with a broad spectrum of industrial, academic, agricultural, and nonprofit partners across the United States to develop and deploy commercially viable, high-performance biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower from renewable biomass resources in America to reduce our dependence on imported oil.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) success stories highlight the positive impact of its work with businesses, industry partners, universities, research labs, and other entities.

Project Overview

Positive Impact

Achievements in bioenergy. EERE Bioenergy Technologies Office demonstrates a broad series of R&D advancements.


Colorado, Idaho


National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Abengoa, POET, INEOS

Clean Energy Sector

Sustainable transportation