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July 27, 2008

2 Min Read
Greening of an Industry: Dow, NREL pursue nonfood biomass for fuels, chemicals

Golden, CO—Rapid, global increases in food prices over the last year have focused intense scrutiny on using foodstuffs like corn for anything other than nourishment, in some cases stalling the development of biofuels and biochemicals, but now chemical and plastics giant Dow (Midland, MI), in coordination with the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL; Golden, CO), have announced a collaboration to bypass that controversy and work to create fuel and chemicals from non-food biomass.

In a July 16 ceremony at NREL’s visitor center in Golden, NREL Director Dan Arvizu and Dow’s President of Hydrocarbons and Energy, Juan Luciano, signed an agreement that will apply Dow’s mixed alcohol catalyst technology and NREL’s expertise in biomass conversion to gasify materials like agricultural waste into synthetic gas, which can then be further refined into transportation fuels or chemical building blocks like ethylene and propylene.

Luciano told the assembled crowd that Dow uses approximately 600 trillion BTUs of power at its global plants every year, costing it $28 to $30 billion annually. The rapid increase in energy prices have hit Dow twice—as it powers its plants and purchases its feedstocks.

Arviso said that rapid rise in fossil fuels has also generated renewed focus in sustainable energy research. “It’s a great time to be in the renewable energy business,” Arviso said. “I think a year ago it would have been difficult to account for the volatility in the energy market. It makes what we’re doing here more urgent.”

That work will shift from emphasizing biochemical processes, fermentation of corn to ethanol, towards thermochemical processes, which use catalysts and heat to break down agricultural waste like corn stover, as well as new biomass sources like hybrid poplar and herbaceous grasses.

Mike Cleary, who joined NREL last year as the director for the national bioenergy center, told MPW that at this stage of research, no one biomass source has emerged as a favorite, with a “multiplicity” required. The most research has been undertaken on corn stover, and Cleary said that substance will serve as a benchmark for all new biomass sources. The Dow/NREL collaboration marks a significant shift in the U.S., where biochemical, fermentation research into ethanol has enjoyed a 2:1 funding advantage over thermochemical, non-food research, according to NREL.—[email protected]

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