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New Air Force-Funded Process Could Make Biofuels Competitive with Fossil Fuels

Last month, some members of Congress voted to squeeze biofuels out of contention for Department of Defense fuel contracts by setting the bar at relatively low fossil fuel prices. However, a new biofuel project partly funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research could lead to low cost biofuels that meet the new standard.

The research project, developed by Purdue University Professor of Chemical Engineering Rakesh Agrawal, has led to the creation of a new high-yield process for converting biomass into liquid fuels. According to an economic analysis by Purdue, the process can yield biofuel at just above the $100-per-barrel mark for crude oil, which is within the range reached by crude oil earlier this year.

A temporary downturn in crude oil prices

Crude oil prices are currently hovering around $80 per barrel, but given ongoing tensions in the Middle East they could easily climb to $100 or more in short order.

A Forbes analysis of oil price trends earlier this week lead off with the observation that “the speed with which oil price paradigms can change is truly incredible.” Prices for 2012 peaked at around $110 per barrel just three months ago, in February.

A new way to produce biofuels

Agrawal calls the new process H2Bioil. The H2 refers to the use of pressurized hydrogen, which adds an intriguing new element to the growing roster of biofuel production methods.

Typically, biofuels can be refined from liquid feedstocks including waste food oils and animal grease, as well as virgin oils extracted from seeds or oil-rich plants including algae.

Biofuels can also be processed from biomass through fermentation (yes, like making beer) or gasification.

In gasification, biomass is subjected to high heat in a low oxygen environment. The resulting gases are then cooled and liquefied.

Agrawal enhanced the gasification process by heating biomass to 500 degrees Celsius in a hydrogen-enriched environment. The next step involves catalytic reactions that free oxygen atoms from carbon molecules in the gas.

Without the extra oxygen atoms, the resulting carbon molecules have an energy content on par with gasoline molecules.

According to Agrawal:

“The process is quite fast and converts entire biomass to liquid fuel. As a result, the yields are substantially higher. Once the process is fully developed, due to the use of external hydrogen, the yield is expected to be two to three times that of the current competing technologies.”

Fuel vs. food

One key feature of H2Bioil is its use of cellulosic or woody biomass for a feedstock. The process is designed for inedible plants or parts of plants including corn stover (stover refers to husks, stalks, cobs and leaves) as well as grasses such as miscanthus and switchgrass.

If it can be successfully commercialized, the new process will help to solve one of the basic conundrums of biofuel, which is the potential for disruptive competition between biofuel crops and food crops for humans and livestock.

Global food markets already got a taste of the conflict under the Bush Administration, which promoted a biofuel policy focused on corn ethanol. By 2006, analysts at the Department of Agriculture were already predicting that increased U.S. biofuel production would result in reduced exports of corn.

On the other hand, analysts also predicted that market disruptions could be temporary, anticipating the development of new cost-effective processes for converting non-food biomass to biofuels.

The Obama Administration’s biofuel policy reflects these lessons learned, though it will take a delicate balancing act to avoid price spikes, shortages and other impacts on the agricultural supply chain. Last summer, in the course of a much-publicized bus tour through the Midwest, President Obama unveiled a biofuel initiative focused on non-food crops that leverages the USDA rural economic development program REAP with a purchasing agreement from the U.S. Navy and assistance from the Department of Energy.

How green is H2Bioil?

Supplying the hydrogen for H2Bioil presents another thorny challenge altogether. Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, but producing hydrogen gas is an energy-intensive operation.

According to Purdue’s economic analysis, H2Bioil achieves $100-per-barrel parity only when using hydrogen generated with natural gas or coal, which are currently cheaper (generally) than solar, wind or nuclear power.

The use of fossil fuels clearly undercuts H2Bioil’s position as a renewable energy process, but that conflict may be tempered by the entrance of cost-competitive alternative fuels into the hydrogen production market.

In terms of solar power, the that movement is already well under way. Researcher Daniel Nocera of MIT has been working on a pocket sized solar-powered device for producing hydrogen from a jar of plain water, and Duke University is developing a rooftop scale solar-to-hydrogen process.

Moving into the commercial scale, HyperSolar recently teamed with UC-Santa Barbara College of Engineering to fine tune its patented solar powered hydrogen production process, which can run on impure water sources including wastewater and saltwater.

Given these advances and the likelihood of another spike in oil prices, H2Bioil could quickly reach parity with crude oil without relying on fossil fuel for sourcing its hydrogen – however, the research still has a way to go before it is ready for commercial application.

Agrawal and his team are currently working on catalysts needed to scale the process up from the laboratory to commercial size.

Image: Some rights reserved by Ingrid Truemper.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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