National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is the primary laboratory of the United States government used in the investigation of energy efficiency research and renewable energy research. It is funded through the U.S. Department of Energy and operates as a government funded, but privately operated facility. Roughly $35.4 million of NREL's budget in 2009, out of a total of $141.7 million, went to biofuel research. The rest of the lab's funding is divided between wind and solar.

NREL divides renewable energy into three categories as follows:

1.       Renewable Electricity and End Use Systems, which includes

a.        Photovoltaics

b.       Wind

c.        Concentrating Solar Power

d.       Geothermal

e.       Water

f.         Building Efficiency

2.       Renewable Fuels and Vehicle Systems, which includes

a.        Biomass

b.       Hydrogen and Fuel Cells

c.        Advanced Vehicles and Fuels

3.       Energy Sciences

a.        Biosciences

b.       Chemical and Materials Science

c.        Computational Science

Biomass at NREL: National Bioenergy Center

The goal of biomass research is to determine how plant matter, grasses, and other biological material can be converted into fuel to reduce dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality, and support local communities. Biomass projects at NREL focus on biomass characterization, conversion processes, biorefinery processes, microalgal biofuels, and sustainability analyses. An overview of each of these project categories is provided below.

The National Bioenergy Center (NBC) is a nationwide “virtual” lab that is headed by NREL. The NBC was established in 2000 to support and coordinate biomass research throughout the nation. Laboratories that fall under the guidance of the NBC include NREL, Oak Ridge, Idaho National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory. Major focuses at NBC are in Biorefinery research and development, feedstock development, harvesting technology, syngas and bioproducts, and reaction engineering and separations.




Biomass Characterization

Feedstock/Process Interface: NREL is working to understand how feedstock and feedstock pre-processing affects the conversion process. The point is to understand how characteristics of a feedstock (like composition, moisture, particle size, etc.) impact conversion to a fuel.


Biomass Structure and Development: This project focuses on how pretreatment chemistry impacts the structure of biomass and how this can change the effectiveness of enzymes. Examples include how plant cell wall structure affects both chemical and biological conversion to fuel.


Cell Wall Structure and Porosity: The goal is to understand how particle structure impacts product release and tar formation so that these changes can be mitigated so that the efficiency and sustainability of a process can be enhanced.


Biochemical Conversion

Pretreatment and Enzymatic Hydrolysis: The goal is to understand how pre-treatment can reduce costs and increase sugar yields of cellulosic and hemicellulosic biomass so that they are more easily digested by enzymes.


Bioprocess Integration: This project focuses on refining a process known as hydrolyzate conditioning, which removes toxins in biofuels.


Biochemical Platform Analysis: This project looks at the larger picture in relation to the biochemical conversion process. Its goal is to improve the economics of biofuel processing and reduce impact on the environment.


Thermochemical Conversion

Gasification Process Modeling and Optimization: Computational and experimental techniques are used to investigate chemical and physical process that occur during gasification to reduce the formation of unwanted byproducts and reduce the cost of syngas cleanup and conditioning.


Integrated Gasification and Fuel Synthesis: The point is to develop a process for converting syngas to other fuels.


Core Pyrolysis: A method for bio-oil deoxygenation that can be used to created a clean fuel.


Chemical and Catalyst Science

Catalysis Fundamentals: Working to understand the performance of catalyst and sorbent-based systems to achieve efficient clean up of syngas.

Fuel Synthesis Catalyst:  Working to achieve a catalyst that will allow for the economic conversion of syngas to ethanol.

Syngas Quality for Mixed Alcohol Synthesis: Improve mixed alcohol synthesis catalyst productivity to provide higher yields.

Integrate Biorefinery Processes

Sorghum to Ethanol: A look at how sorghum will act as a feedstock.

Biochemical Process Integration: A look at improving feedstock processing to reduce the cost of ethanol to $1.33/gallon (U.S. dollars).

Microalgal Biofuels

Develop of Algal Strains:  Molecular biology techniques are being used to improve algal strains for the production of liquid fuels.

Develop Algal-based Jet Fuel: Work with the U.S. Air Force to create algae that can produce a cost-effective jet fuel.

Development of High-Performance Computational Framework for Combinatorial Systems Biology:  The project is creating a detailed model of algae metabolism with sophisticated software for analyzing data and understanding these processes.

Isolation, Characterization, and Preliminary Assessment of Scale-Up Potential of Photosynthetic Microalgae for the Production of Biofuels: This project looks at moving projects from the bench-top scale to the industrial scale.

Development of a Comprehensive, High-Throughput Technique for Assessing Lipid Production in Algae: The use of robotics-based platforms to characterize lipid production in algae.

Development of a Genetic Model for Biodiesel from Cyanobacteria: this project focuses on using cyanobacteria for solar biodiesel production with the goal of redirecting normal carbon fixation toward lipid accumulation.

Biomass Process and Sustainability Analyses

Life Cycle Assessment of Energy Independence and Security Act for Ethanol: This project looks at the impact of ethanol on the environment and how the mandate of blending 36 billion gallows of renewable fuels with conventional fuels by 2022 will impact the environment, GDG emission, soil fertility, water consumption, air emissions, and direct land use.

Technoeconomic Comparison of Biochemical, Gasification, and Pyrolytic Conversion of Corn Stover to Ethanol: A look at how corn stover (the inedible parts of corn) can be converted to various biofuels.

NREL also maintains maps of the United States that relate to biomass. Maps illustrating crop residue, forest residue, urban wood waste, methane emissions, etc. are all maintained by the GIS arm of NREL.

Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems (CTTS)

This branch of NREL focuses on vehicle innovations in areas such as fuel technology, emissions, efficiency, components, and systems. The purpose is to reduce dependence on imported oil and improve air quality.

One of the major focuses of CTTS is on fuels and lubricants. The Fuels and Lubricants Performance group evaluates renewable and alternative fuels as well as blended fuels to assess performance, quality, fueling infrastructure compatibility, combustion, emission, and fuel economy. The section devoted to biofuels is known as the Nonpetroleum Based Fuels (NPBF) activity. Projects include the following:



Biodiesel and Renewable Diesel

Renewable Diesel is any diesel fuel that can replace petroleum. Focuses are on fatty acid esters from vegetable oil and ethanol/diesel blends.

Biodiesel R&D focuses on supplying 3-5% of the distillate fuel market with biodiesel.

Gas-to-Liquid Fuels

This project looks at the production of natural gas and biogas to liquid fuels that can be further refined to gasoline and diesel.

The CTTS also sets standards and procedures for things like biomass analysis and maintains databases of feedstock composition and properties.