As the Biden Administration has renewed a U.S. prioritization in reducing carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), advancing cleaner transportation alternatives to petroleum is increasingly prioritized too. Transportation is the world’s largest source of CO2 emissions.
While electrification is a cleaner alternative for some transportation modes, it’s not the answer for all of them. So, the Department of Energy (DOE) is focusing on alternatives – biofuels from municipal solid waste, crop residues, and other agricultural wastes. Its research shows potential to produce 8.3 and 10 billion gallons of biofuels, respectively (depending on the feedstocks).
BETO has invested nearly $124M recently (between two funding opportunities) to advance biofuels, believing this will help reach the federal government’s 2050 net zero emissions goal. This two-part series includes interviews with Valerie Reed, director of DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), and Joshua Messner, a technology manager at BETO. They shed light on DOE’s work in this space, progress to date, and work to be done.
The Biden Administration has set an aggressive goal for the American economy: net zero emissions by 2050.
Recognizing that the transportation sector is the largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the Department of Energy (DOE) has announced $59M in funding to expand biofuels production and reduce emissions from those biofuels. This is the agency’s second consecutive year of funding these projects to advance transportation decarbonization.
The monies will support the development of energy conversion technologies from research through demo scale to help attain a goal of DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO): advancing biofuels that are cost-competitive to petroleum and achieving at least a 70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) (vs. petroleum baseline) by 2030.
This new funding opportunity announcement (FOA) focuses on several hard-to-electrify sectors: aviation, heavy-duty trucking, rail, and marine—transportation modes that will require a different decarbonization pathway.
Reaching BETO’s 2030 goal, and ultimately the Administration’s 2050 net zero emissions goal, will mean looking at multiple technologies, says Valerie Reed, director of the Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO).
“BETO is interested specifically in technologies that can convert diverse forms of renewable feedstocks from around the country to fuels. Much of that feedstock will be biomass from waste. Hard-to-electrify sectors are energy intensive, and most of their needs will be met with liquid biofuels due to their energy density,” she says.
Among feedstock types, BETO is vetting are agriculture residues such as corn stover, as well as the organic fraction of municipal solid waste (MSW).
Corn used to make ethanol has an environmental impact. One way to mitigate that impact is using the corn stover left from harvest to produce fuel. Corn stover can be made into sugars or converted to syngas through gasification, then made into a final fuel product.
Similarly, MSW can be gasified and separated into components to be fed into different technological processes, while reducing volumes of methane-producing organics at the landfill.
BETO is also looking at conversion of forest residues in order to create a renewable fuel without impacting trees, and at the same time manage waste and reduce risk for fires. Another wood waste, construction and demolition debris, can be collected and treated along with forest wastes and can potentially use similar technology pathways, Reed says.
Advancing technologies and feedstocks to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) are among BETO priorities as demand for this nascent fuel type grows.
The U.S. uses 21 billion gallons of aviation fuel today, almost all petroleum based. By 2050, 35 billion gallons will be needed to meet demand of the aviation sector, while the industry is simultaneously charged with reducing its GHG emissions.
“So, we are looking to make renewable, sustainable aviation fuel and displace petroleum costs competitively, while achieving greenhouse gas reductions of 70 to 90 percent over petroleum by 2050,” Reed says.
First-generation ethanol facilities could provide substantial volumes of SAF–17 billion gallons of ethanol are produced annually today, with potential to produce more, says Joshua Messner, a technology manager at BETO.
Ethanol producers are ready and willing to help advance SAF, especially as they may soon lose their primary market. Today most ethanol is blended with gasoline to provide oxygen that’s required for cleaner combustion. But demand for that application will shrink as electricity takes over the gasoline market.
BETO is interested in technologies to convert this feedstock to SAF, but the GHG profile needs to improve.
So, there is an opportunity in this FOA to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from first-generation ethanol production facilities. Potential candidates would have to propose technologies to reduce ethanol facilities’ greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent, Messner says.
BETO’s goal is to support four or five demo scale SAF facilities by 2030 that leverage multiple feedstocks and processes.
“This FOA enables us to get these technologies in the ground to show potential investors we are de-risking them. Then, the investors should be more willing to fund the commercial-scale facilities so we can get the gallons we need to decarbonize the aviation sector as quickly as possible,” Messner says.
Why is the government investing in these projects, which can cost upward of $100M to greater than $200M to get off the ground?
“It’s risky for industry to take this work on themselves. The government’s role is to bring the risk down to a point where the private sector will be able to expand on its own to meet those high-volume goals and replace petroleum as a fuel,” Reed says.
“Our hope is to provide opportunities for many years because technology readiness happens at different times. And we want to provide opportunities in a timely manner—as the technology is ready to bring to demo scale.”
Recipients of the first FOA, also focused on hard-to-electrify transportation modes, are now in design phases for pilot or demo facilities (Phase 1). Upon successfully meeting the metrics of Phase 1, the projects will be eligible for Phase 2 funds, available through the 2022 scale up funding opportunity.
New awards selected in the 2022 FOA will be able to come in either at Phase 1 or Phase 2 (construction and operations).
Full applications are due Sept. 9, 2022. Selections will be announced before Dec. 31, 2022.