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PNNL, WSU TC get stim funds for biofuels research

RICHLAND — Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will receive $14 million and Washington State University Tri-Cities will receive $620,000 in economic stimulus money for research on ways to make biofuels practical for routine use.

The two institutions in Richland competed for the grants, which are part of $80 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds awarded Wednesday by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to help bring new biofuels to the market.

"Our goal is to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, stimulate local industry and job creation, and achieve a cleaner environment," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who announced the Tri-City awards along with awards to the University of Washington, WSU Pullman and some biofuel companies in the state.

"Within just a few years these initiatives should lead to new techniques for turning biomass into fuels that we can use in our existing refineries, pipelines and cars," she said in a statement.

DOE is interested in biofuels that have more energy density than ethanol, can be used for applications such as gasoline, jet fuel and diesel for heavy trucking, and fit into the nation's current infrastructure.

That means they could be distributed economically through pipelines and processed in existing refineries, whether going in at the front end like crude oil or processed in a form that starts with a near-finished fuel.

PNNL and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado will co-lead $33.8 million in research on converting lignocellulosics, or plant fuel such as wood and agricultural residue, into fuels.

PNNL will receive $7 million of that to spend over three years to work on converting the residues into oils that can go into a petroleum refinery to produce gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

PNNL will focus on methods that heat up the biomass and add a catalyst to convert it and biotechnology methods, such as fermentation, to convert it, said John Holladay, PNNL biomass manager and chief technology officer for the project.

The first year will focus on understanding the merits of different approaches to narrow research to the most promising methods.

WSU Tri-Cities will contribute technology for converting biomass into materials that can be fermented into hydrocarbons instead of ethanol in research at the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory on the Richland campus.

"This is only the start of more great things to come in the BSEL building," said Birgitte Ahring, director of WSU's Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy, in a statement. "This opportunity lays the groundwork for amazing partnerships nationwide and will help us find new ways to make fuels from nonfood plants."

In the second project that PNNL is involved in, researchers will focus on ways to help produce oils similar to vegetable oils from algae in an inexpensive enough way to be practical for use as fuel.

PNNL will spend $7.2 million on that work in Richland and at its Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim.

In Richland, PNNL will use its environmental biotechnology resources at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory to improve biological strains of algae. In Sequim it will focus on algae cultivation, Holladay said.

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

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