Project billed as promising wayto create biofuel

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerMay 17, 2011 

A Department of Energy grant will pay for a pilot project to test a promising new way to produce biofuel and use Mid-Columbia ag and other waste to do it.

The $1.5 million "BioChemCat" pilot project will be conducted at the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory at Washington State University Tri-Cities in cooperation with the Port of Benton, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and startup company Clean-Vantage.

Its goal is to show that many types of ag waste can be efficiently converted into jet fuel, diesel or gasoline using the new BioChemCat process.

"The concept is feedstock agnostic. It doesn't really care what kind of biomass you use," said Birgitte Ahring, director of the WSU Center for BioProducts and Bioenergy and the Battelle distinguished professor, in a statement.

Initially the process may be tested with wheat straw, winery waste, hop waste, switch grass and waste from logging operations in the state, said Keith Thomsen, assistant director of the WSU center.

Unlike most biofuel manufacturing, the fuel doesn't need to be bone dry, which requires energy at the front-end of the production process and increases cost and production time. In fact, BioChemCat works better with wet biomass, Thomsen said.

In addition, initial processing can be done in small-scale local facilities and then material can be shipped for upgrading into advanced fuels in a few specialized hubs. That could make using waste in many areas practical, rather than just waste produced near major processing plants.

The initial processing uses a patented heat and pressure process to break down the biomass and tear it apart at the molecular level to free up sugars, Thomsen said.

Then microbes are used to ferment the sugars, but the process is stopped to remove fuel intermediaries before biogas -- methane and carbon dioxide -- is produced. The fuel intermediaries then are processed with a method developed by PNNL researchers that uses high pressure and temperatures with zeolite mineral as a catalyst to recombine the fuel intermediaries into heavier and more energy dense products.

The production also will rely on processes patented by Ahring before she came to the Tri-Cities and available through Clean-Vantage.

"It's unique in that it couples biological with thermochemical processes to get better results than either on their own," Thomsen said.

The technology is expected to be high-yield, potentially making more than 70 gallons of jet fuel per ton of dry materials. That's more than other known processes.

"We think we will be capable of demonstrating within two years that the BioChemCat process has major value," Ahring said.

DOE provided a grant of $951,000 to the Port of Benton for the project and that will be matched with $549,000, largely from access to equipment at WSU Tri-Cities.

"The growth of the university leads to the growth of the port," said Diahann Howard, of the port, in a statement. The port also is looking forward to more options to use local ag waste, she said.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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