PNNL recognized for moving biofuel, chemical analysis innovations to market

January 30, 2015

RICHLAND, Wash. - Developing renewable fuel from wet algae and enabling analysis of complex liquids are two of the latest innovations Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has successfully driven to the market with the help of commercial partners.

As a result, the Federal Laboratory Consortium has honored the Department of Energy national laboratory with two 2015 Excellence in Technology Transfer awards. The consortium is a nationwide network that encourages federal laboratories to transfer laboratory-developed technologies to commercial markets.

The consortium selected PNNL's two technologies from 57 nominations nationwide to be among 16 winners. PNNL has earned a total of 81 such awards since the program began in 1984. The 2015 awards will be presented April 29 at the consortium's annual meeting in Denver, Colorado.

Renewable fuel from algae
Process efficiently turns algae into biocrude oil

Scientists and engineers at PNNL have created a process that produces biocrude oil minutes after they pour in a slurry of green algae.

The continuous process uses heat and pressure to chemically and physically change the algae to biocrude, mimicking the way Earth made crude oil millions of years ago. The biocrude can then be turned into aviation fuel, gasoline and diesel using conventional refining technology.

PNNL teamed with Utah-based Genifuel Corporation to ready this technology for industry-their collaborative research led to two joint patents. With the new designs, Genifuel built a pilot plant for Reliance Industries Ltd. in Colorado, where the company plans to test the technology before producing renewable biofuel on a larger scale.

Unlike traditional extractions methods, which separate lipids out of algae to make biodiesel, PNNL's process converts whole algae into biocrude, fuel gas and usable byproducts. This doubles the yield of biofuel from algae and cuts the cost of production by 86 percent.

The process can be applied to other forms of wet materials as well, such as sludge from wastewater, dairy farms or food processing, increasing the potential impact of this technology. More companies have approached Genifuel about using PNNL's process.

The team recognized for transferring this process includes: PNNL's Doug Elliott, Dan Anderson, Todd Hart, Andy Schmidt and Eric C. Lund; and James Oyler, president of Genifuel Corporation. The Department of Energy's Bioenergy Technology Office provided funding to develop the algae-to-biocrude process.

A window into liquid analysis
SALVI enables instruments to view wet samples

In the vacuum of instruments like scanning electron microscopes, liquid samples boil away, evaporating before they can be studied. Now PNNL's System for Analysis at the Liquid Vacuum Interface, or SALVI, allows these instruments to-for the first time-image liquid samples in real time and a realistic environment.

The idea for SALVI came when PNNL scientists wanted to study atmospheric particles called aerosols, but they quickly realized their device could help other researchers gain new insights about nanoparticles, bacteria, cells, batteries and more.

To make their technology available for the broader scientific community, PNNL worked with Pennsylvania-based Structure Probe Inc. The analytical equipment supplier licensed the associated patents and adapted PNNL's design to offer a commercial product called Wet Cell II. The first orders of their product will ship this year.

SALVI is small enough to fit in your hand. The device can take as little as two drops of a sample and flow that liquid through a channel to a window the size of a pinhole. There, the ion beam of an instrument can analyze the sample. The small window and flow reduce evaporation in a vacuum.

PNNL won an R&D 100 Award for SALVI, naming it one of the 100 most innovative scientific and technological breakthroughs in 2014.

The team recognized for transferring SALVI to the market includes: PNNL's Xiao-Ying Yu, Bruce Harrer and Zihua Zhu; and Li Yang, former PNNL scientist. Gene Rodek of Structure Probe Inc. also played an important role in bringing the technology to the commercial market. SALVI was developed in collaboration with scientists at EMSL, DOE's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory user facility at PNNL.

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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