An innovative idea for making advanced biofuels such as jet fuel, diesel and gasoline from regional resources is moving forward with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

“This process will demonstrate the use of local biomass from our community and our farmers and it will answer questions across the state,” said Diahann Howard, Port of Benton economic development director.

“It will also give more options locally to use waste for energy and not stockpile ag waste, which can create hazardous or unappealing situations,” she said.

The team of Washington State University Tri-Cities, the Port of Benton, Clean-Vantage LLC and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) will conduct the $1.5 million “BioChemCat” pilot project in the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory (BSEL) at WSU Tri-Cities under the leadership of Birgitte K. Ahring, director of the WSU Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy and the Battelle Distinguished Professor.

BioChemCat refers to the biorefinery process that makes use of both biochemical and thermochemical processes for making biofuels and biochemicals.

"The concept is feedstock agnostic; it doesn’t really care what kind of biomass you use,” Ahring explained. “It can use all kind of feedstocks - municipal waste, vineyard waste, feedlot manure, woody material, ag waste like corn stalks, straw or corn cobs after the kernels have been removed. It could be implemented all over the world.”

The project is funded with a DOE grant to the Port of Benton of $951,000 plus $549,000 in matching funds. Ahring expects to have the first results by early fall.

New biofuels twists

The project includes other new twists on biofuels production, including:

  • The waste can be wet. Many biofuels processes first require that the waste be dried, which can be expensive and time consuming.
  • The process can be operated in a spoke-and-hub manner, where the initial part of the process (the creation of distillates) is done in small-scale local facilities, while the final upgrading into advanced fuels is done in a few specialized hubs.
  • Both parts of the process combine new breakthrough knowledge that allows for reducing the final fuel cost.
  • The process is expected to be high-yield. For example, it potentially could make more than 70 gallons of jet fuel per ton of dry materials. This is much higher than other processes.
  • The process can be operated to produce either gasoline, diesel or jet fuel depending on the need. Therefore, it represents an example of producing “drop-in replacement fuel” for oil-based products.

“It’s really exciting because it’s a true Tri-Cities project,” Ahring said, noting the partnership includes a local company providing the overall concept, a university campus, the port, a national laboratory setting up and operating the pilot facility, and the regional biomass materials that will be used.

“We think we will be capable of demonstrating within two years that the BioChemCat process has major value,” she said.

“The growth of the university leads to the growth of the port,” Howard said. “This is exactly what we’re here to do.”

The BSEL building at WSU Tri-Cities is the core of the Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy. The $24.8 million, 57,000-square-foot building opened in May 2008 in partnership with the state, WSU, DOE and PNNL. Half of the building, including the high bay, is occupied by PNNL research teams.

Another advantage of the BioChemCat research project is that it uses equipment purchased with state STAR researcher funding provided as part of the 2008-2009 recruitment package for Ahring.

WSU Tri-Cities is located along the scenic Columbia River in Richland, Wash. Established in 1989 with upper division and graduate programs, WSU Tri-Cities expanded in 2007 to a four-year undergraduate campus offering 17 bachelor’s, 13 master’s and seven doctoral degrees. Learn more about the most diverse campus in the WSU system at www.tricity.wsu.edu.