A Step Beyond Biofuels

As in the movie Back to the Future, biofuels are the stuff movie legends are made of, and the new age gasoline substitutes made from plants are getting plenty of limelight here in Colorado.

The University of Colorado Boulder, the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory work together on what is called C2B2 or the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels. Scientists, researchers, students and professors are developing new technologies to convert entire plant species into fuels for cars and homes.

It hasn’t yet gotten to the point where they can throw trash and banana peels into the back of a car and take off, but the reality is just as awe-inspiring.

C2B2’s research budget varies from year to year, ranging from $1 million to $1.5 million annually. The center has two full-time staff members. The number of researchers funded by the center varies based on the number of open projects. All researchers are full-time employees of the three universities and NREL, according to Frannie Ray-Earle, managing director of C2B2.

The majority of C2B2’s resources come from corporate sponsors such as Chevron Technology Ventures, General Motors and Kimberly-Clark.

“They see it as a real value. …They get more resources for their dollar than if they went to one institution at a time,” said Ken Reardon, Colorado State University site director for C2B2 and associate department head for Chemical and Biological Engineering at the university.

C2B2 is working on ways to convert algae into fuels. Algae are prime candidates because they grow quickly and don’t require prime agricultural land to cultivate, said Reardon. “Algae sidesteps the issue of land. You can grow algae in a parking lot or a desert. It can grow on land you would never use for traditional agriculture.”

Growing algae also can use up waste materials. Wastewater can provide nutrients for the algae and carbon dioxide could be piped into algae facilities for faster growth.

“As a country we use a lot of liquid fuels, so finding a renewable and clean resource for those is important,” he said.

Most media attention has focused on biofuels because the subject seems sexier than biorefining, but biorefining will be the most important development for years to come, he said. That’s because researchers will develop ways to take biomass and use it to make many of the same chemicals that come from fossil fuels.

Turning ears of corn into ethanol is “old school,” Reardon said. “We want to take the whole plant and turn it into fuel so we get more for the effort and resources we used to grow the plant. We want to turn it into fuels, but also adhesives, plastics and even synthetic fibers.”

Colorado’s cleantech industry is one of the most extensive in the world, in part because of the close collaboration among scientists and researchers at the state’s three major research universities and NREL.

Until recently scientists had not spent much time investigating biofuels, in part because fossil fuels were so cheap and readily available. Only in the past five or six years have researchers stepped back into the discipline to take another look.

CSU’s expertise lies in plant sciences and ecology, as well as its renowned Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory. Sustainability is very important to the university. Colorado School of Mines is focused on the fundamentals of thermal processing and gasification, the production of diesel fuels from algae and bio-based plastics and chemicals.

The University of Colorado Boulder is a leader in the areas of biochemical processing, membrane separations, and environmental sciences.

CU-Boulder also is a leader in the area of solar-thermal chemical processing. The university received a three-year grant in 2008 to study the use of concentrated sunlight to heat biomass, such as grass, sorghum, corn stalks and leaves, wood waste and algae to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for just fractions of a second. The process produces an intermediate syngas, a mixture of carbon oxides and hydrogen, that can easily be converted into hydrogen or liquid fuels, according to Professor Alan Weimer of CU-Boulder’s chemical and biological engineering department and executive director of C2B2.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory conducts research on biomass characterization, biochemical and thermochemical conversion, chemical and catalyst science, integrated biorefinery processes, microalgal biofuels and biomass process and sustainability analyses. It also heads up the virtual National Bioenergy Center, which supports and coordinates the nation’s biomass research activities.

“Part of the reason C2B2 is so great is that even if someone is the only one in their area at the university, they can partner with someone at another university that has complementary skills,” said Reardon. “It facilitates the collaboration. It makes it very strong.”

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