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Biofuels Basics

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Biofuels Basics

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NREL Research on Converting Biomass to Liquid Fuels (Text Version)

The video opens with shots of a gas station, pumps, and someone fueling their car.

High prices at the pump.

Heavy traffic goes by on a freeway, against images of a gas display counting up as it pumps gas, and images of a blue, cloudy sky.

Dependence on foreign oil.

Jim McMillan: "Our gasoline consumption is about 140 billion gallons per year."

Air pollution. They could one day be problems of the past, thanks to work going on now at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

The video switches to a shot of the NREL campus, which fades into an interview of Jim McMillan and Andy Aden.

Andy Aden: "It's never been done before. We're trying to do something that's first of a kind and really benefit society as well. That's absolutely exciting."

Jim McMillan: "We are looking at domestically-produced, renewable feedstocks that we can convert to liquid fuels."

An image of an expansive field of corn appears, with a silhouette of low mountains visible in the far distance.

Farmers are harvesting fields of corn not only for food, but for fuel. Most of the alternative fuel in the U.S. today is corn grain ethanol.

Jim McMillan: "It represents about 3 to 4% of our gasoline supply."

Not enough. NREL engineers say cellulosic ethanol could potentially eliminate the need for imported oil without eating up our corn supply.

The video pans through images of rising gas prices, heavy traffic on the freeway and, finally, focuses in on an ear of corn.

Andy Aden: "You don't get into the feed versus fuel issues."

Cellulosic ethanol. It's plant matter...

The video switches to Jim McMillan, who holds a box full of corn stover. He runs the woody, weed-like fibers through his fingers.

Jim McMillan: "You have inner parts of the stalk..."

Like the leftovers from the corn harvest...

Jim McMillan: "...pieces of cob, pieces of the leaf."

...converted to liquid fuel at NREL.

The video focuses in on a jar of clear liquid, labeled "cellulosic ethanol," and then turns to an interview of Andy Aden.

Andy Aden: "My name is Andy Aden. I'm an engineer here at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the building we're in right now is called the AFUF, the Alternative Fuels User Facility."

The video pans through images of the outside of the Alternative Fuels User Facility before it zooms in on Andy Aden, inside the facility, moving up the stairs in a hardhat.

Andy Aden is part of this pioneer project to make fuel from organic plant matter, known as biomass.

Jim McMillan: "These are biomass samples we're about to do a dry weight on."

Jim opens a machine. Inside, several trays of biomass samples are lined up. They vary in color and form, from nearly black to pale orange biomass.

Biomass is made of three components: Cellulose...

Andy Aden: "This is what was mentioned in the President's State of the Union Address as cellulosic biomass."

...long chains of sugars known as hemicellulose, and lignin.

Andy Aden: "It's kind of the glue that holds the plant together."

Image of a person holding a handful of corn kernels.

The corn kernels used for grain ethanol are composed of starch—easy and inexpensive to convert, but limited in supply. Biomass is abundant, but the cellulose and hemicellulose are structural carbohydrates.

Jim McMillan: "Nature's made these materials harder to break down. As a consequence, it takes more chemicals and higher temperatures to access the sugars in these materials."

Andy Aden: "So, here we are in the pilot plant. This is where all the magic happens."

This is where it all goes down: NREL's bioprocessing pilot plant.

Andy Aden: "This facility is built to handle one dry ton of biomass per day."

The video pans through the large machines and computers that fill the bioprocessing pilot plant.

Enough to churn out as much as 75 gallons of cellulosic ethanol. Commercial-scale plants, when they're built, will of course be much bigger and will produce hundreds of thousands of gallons a day. The biomass is brought in, cleaned up...

Image of a huge vat of tightly packed, fibrous pale biomass.

Jim McMillan: "We usually slurry that material. We essentially wash it."

...And milled down.

Andy Aden: "So, this is one of our vats of milled corn stover."

It's then moved upstairs and scanned with cutting-edge technology that originated in NREL's compositional analysis lab.

Image of several displays on a computer screen. The computer is charting a large graph composed of several different elements, with different colored lines charting similar paths across the graph.

Jim McMillan: "It's really a chemical fingerprint of the material."

Andy Aden: "So that in a matter of minutes, we can tell how much feedstock is coming in. We can tell what the composition of that is in terms of sugars, glucose, xylose... those types of things."

Next, it's pretreatment.

Andy Aden: "This is the part of the process where we start to break the biomass into its individual constituents, start to put some of the sugars into solution."

The biomass is mingled with diluted acid under high pressure and heat.

Andy Aden pulls a jar of liquid off of a shelf and takes off the top, and waves the scent towards him.

Andy Aden: "If I were to take this off and take a whiff of it, it would smell sweet, kind of like raisins or molasses, or something along those lines."


Andy Aden: "Which are just natural proteins."

...are introduced to release sugars from the cellulose. More effective enzymes are being engineered to make the conversion more efficient and less expensive.

Andy Aden: "Five years ago, the cellulose enzymes were the largest cost component of this whole process. Now within the past five years, industry has really helped to reduce that cost by over a factor of 20."

Finally, the sugars are fermented into fuel.

Andy Aden stands in a huge corridor, flanked on either side by large, metal machines.

Andy Aden: "Really, this is a glorified brewery."

Jim McMillan: "The goal is to reduce the production time down to three days and to reduce the cost from the current $2.25 a gallon estimate to $1.07 a gallon or less by 2012."

Cellulosic ethanol.

Andy Aden is holding a jar of cellulosic ethanol, and leans in to smell it.

Andy Aden: "And if you take a whiff of it, it smells a lot like hooch."

Born of biomass...

Jim McMillan: "Switchgrass. You heard that mentioned in the President's State of the Union Address."

Andy Aden searches through boxes of different types of biomass.

Andy Aden: "And then, all the way over to a hard-wood poplar feedstock like this."

Jim McMillan picks up a box and removes the top, revealing tightly-packed biomass material within.

Jim McMillan: "After they extract the juice from the sugar cane, they're left with so-called bagasse."

The video ends with a montage of images of people fueling their cars at a gas station, followed by the NREL Alternative Fuels User Facility, a blue, cloudy sky, and a sign that reads, "Alternative Fuel: Ethanol. For Official Use Only."

...and brewed into the blueprint for clean, home-grown renewable fuels.

Jim McMillan: "This could be a win for the planet because it's a carbon-neutral technology, a win for rural economies because, really, you're creating a new agricultural resource base."

The promise for a brighter tomorrow is driving NREL's biomass research today.

A car drives off into the distance.

Jim McMillan: "I'm living my dream."

The video ends with the NREL logo and the words, "U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory."

Last Updated (Monday, 28 May 2012 07:41)

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