Biofuels initiative receives $2.3 million DOE grant

Photo of Mark HoltzappleA Texas A&M University research initiative that converts agricultural wastes into biofuels and high-quality animal feeds has received a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The three-year grant will provide funding to the biomass research program run by Dr. Mark Holtzapple, professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M.

The grant, announced by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, is part of a larger federal effort to cut foreign oil imports. That effort is funding up to $36 million for six projects in California, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin -- all directed at advancing the technology improvements and process integration needed to produce drop-in advanced biofuels and other valuable bio-based chemicals.

"Projects such as these are helping us to diversify our energy portfolio and decrease our dependence on foreign oil," Secretary Chu said. "Together with our partners, the Department is working hard to expand the clean energy economy, creating jobs in America, and providing sustainable replacements for the fuels and products now provided primarily by petroleum."

"Biomass" refers to biological feedstocks including energy crops, agricultural residues, trees, grass, manure, sewage sludge and even household garbage. Holtzapple's processes not only have the potential to convert biomass into affordable gasoline products, they also can impact agriculture -- something equally important, Holtzapple says, noting that the price of corn has tripled in recent years.

Joining efforts with Texas A&M's animal science department, Holtzapple said he plans to continue his promising work with a biomass conversion process known as shock treatment, which increases the digestibility of biomass.

Through this process, Holtzapple said, an aqueous slurry of biomass is placed in a pipe. A high-pressure pulse is then applied to the head space of the pipe. The resulting shock wave propagates through the aqueous slurry and disrupts the biomass structure, rendering it more digestible, he notes. At the laboratory scale, the shock is generated by shooting the biomass with a shotgun shell. Industrially, the pressure pulse will be generated by other means, Holtzapple said.

"Texas A&M is famous for the Borlaug Center and the Green Revolution of the 1960s," Holtzapple said. "Some people say Norman Borlaug prevented one billion people from starving, which was accomplished by increasing the world's ability to feed people using the latest plant varieties and agricultural methods.

"By now, we are probably reaching 'diminishing returns' of the original Green Revolution. Although there will certainly be continuing improvements, the more that time passes, the less likely these historic methods will yield step-changes in our ability to feed ourselves. My hope is that our research will lead to a Green Revolution 2, and produce the necessary step-changes to feed a hungry planet."

DOE's Biomass Program works with industry, academia and national laboratory partners on a balanced portfolio of research in biomass feedstocks and conversion technologies. For more information on DOE's Biomass Program, please visithttp://www1.eere.energy.gov/biomass/.