NREL and Johnson Matthey announce 5-year collaboration on biofuels

December 18, 2012

The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will partner with Johnson Matthey, a global specialty chemicals company, in a five-year, $7 million effort to economically produce drop-in gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from non-food biomass feedstocks, the federal laboratory announced today.

The work will be conducted under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between NREL and Johnson Matthey.

"It's a way of leveraging the expertise of two organizations to solve a pressing national and international problem," NREL Senior Project Leader for Partnership Development Rich Bolin said. The goal is to improve vapor phase upgrading during the biomass pyrolysis process in order to lower costs and speed production of lignocellulose-based fuels.

Currently, NREL has 184 active CRADAs with industry, the most of any national laboratory.

"We're delighted to be collaborating with NREL in this exciting field," Andrew Heavers, Business Development Director for New Technologies at Johnson Matthey, said. "Combining Johnson Matthey's understanding of catalysis with NREL's biomass processing capabilities will help accelerate the development of more economic routes to biofuels."

It's a meeting of heavyweights. NREL is a world leader in biomass conversion research and will be conducting the necessary testing, from bench scale to pilot scale. Johnson Matthey is one of the world's leading suppliers of catalysts and process technologies for a range of environmental and chemical applications, with facilities in the United Kingdom, the United States and over 30 other countries around the world. As part of this agreement, the company will supply and develop innovative new catalytic materials to upgrade pyrolysis vapor to biofuel components.

"The goal is to find catalytic systems that can produce biofuels cost effectively at scale," said Mark Nimlos, NREL's research supervisor for molecular sciences and the principal investigator in the CRADA.

The non-food derived feedstocks used to produce the biofuels will vary from fast-growing poplar or pine trees to switch grass, forest and agriculture residue and municipal solid waste. It will not include anything that is actually food for humans.

The vapor produced from the pyrolysis of biomass can be used to make transportation fuel, if industry can efficiently convert it into the hydrocarbons similar to petroleum-based fuels used in modern engines.

Pyrolysis involves thermally decomposing organic materials using heat and pressure in the absence of oxygen. Although the pyrolysis vapors contain carbon that can be condensed into an oil, impurities in that condensed oil make it not suitable to be used in an engine or even readily converted into a fuel. This CRADA will develop catalytic materials that can convert these vapors into liquid fuels that can be use in cars, trucks, train engines and jets.

"The best outcome would be, in five years, to have a new catalytic process which can make gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel at a price range that is better than, or competitive with, the cost of existing fuels," Nimlos said.

If that happens, industry would face less risk in getting the financing necessary to scale up biofuels technologies, and the industry will move closer to producing hydrocarbon fuels from biomass for about $3 per gallon, which is a 2017 DOE goal.

Nimlos said the agreement means the two teams of experts will work together from the very beginning, when the experimental and testing scale is smallest. "We'll scale up the equipment, while Johnson Matthey develops and scales up the catalysts," he said. "By working together and sharing our expertise, we'll make a lot more progress."

Bolin agreed: "Together, we can make bigger and better strides."
NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy's primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for DOE by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.

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DOE/National Renewable Energy Laboratory

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