New energy lab searches for next biofuel breakthrough (photos)

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's cutting-edge biofuels demonstration unit opens its doors, with the hopes of streamlining the process of researching various biofuels' viability.

James Martin
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
James Martin
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Biofuels demo unit

EMERYVILLE, Calif.--A cutting-edge facility opened here this week in the hopes of finding the next big breakthrough in biofuels.

The United States spends $300 billion a year on imported fuels, and the Department of Energy believes advanced biofuels are one way to bring that figure down and gain more energy independence.

The DOE says there are a billion tons of biomass available that could be turned into biofuels, with huge potential benefits for the United States, possibly replacing up to a third of the transportation fuels used today and about half of the imported oil.

But, it says, it will take a lot of science, technological developments, and translation from research into industry to make that happen.

A new research facility at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, called the Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit, aims to make that possible. The lab, which opened on Thursday, will provide a facility where researchers can tinker with biofuel production processes and quickly develop energy solutions for the future.
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Harvey Blanch

In 2007, the Department of Energy created three Bioenergy Research Centers to focus on developing the most advanced biotechnology solutions to the challenges of biofuel production. The Emeryville plant is intended to take the science developed in these three centers and translate the scientific principles into actual production fuels--scaling, commercializing, and pushing them out into the market.

"Energy research is a science of scale," said Harvey Blanch, the principal investigator of the ABPDU, seen here during Thursday's opening day introductory remarks in Emeryville.

The hope is that the lab will help scientists identify the bottlenecks in the implementation of advanced fuels, and find practical ways to move the science out of the lab and into the real world.
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15,000 square foot facility

The 15,000-square-foot facility is now available for use by Bioenergy Research Centers, Department of Energy-supported researchers, academic institutions, nonprofit research organizations, and companies involved in biofuel research and development.

Working in conjunction with incoming institutions, the Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit staff will, in essence, "cook" fuel "recipes" that have been developed elsewhere and process them alongside the researchers, then analyze and optimize the fuels to study their viability in the real world.

With a capacity of about 45-90 kilograms per day for biomass pretreatment and 11-20 liters per day for biofuels production, the ABPDU will be producing biofuels in quantities sufficient for actual engine testing--a significant step forward--said Jay Keasling, Berkeley Lab's associate director for biosciences.
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Thermochemical pretreatment

Biomass such as wood needs to be thermochemically pretreated to make the cellulose more accessible to enzymes. The pretreatmet lab has four 2-liter stirred enzymatic saccharification reactors, which are temperature controlled up to 100 degrees and made available for the study of enzymatic biomass hydrolysis processes.
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Biofuels demo unit

These 10-liter reactors are capable of operating at pressures of up to 1,800 psig for pretreatment processes, with mixer-settler tanks, decanters, and centrifuges available for the recovery of resulting biomass fractions.
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Analytical chemistry

The analytical chemistry and biology lab allows the kind of highly detailed analysis of fuels that is critical to understanding how different technologies might work--or not work--at large scale.
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Biomass pretreatment

Here in the analytics lab, ABPDU's Rakesh Banka (right) explains the lab capabilities as Paul Bryan (left), of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, listens with the first group to tour the facility following Thursday's ribbon cutting.

The DOE believes the lab will help move development iterations through the pipeline more rapidly. Some of the diagnostic tools here include a high-performance anion-exchange chromatograph; gas chromatography; flame ionization detectors for measuring organic compounds; NIR spectroscopy, which uses the near-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum; and a biochemical analyzer.
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Fermentation on many scales can happen here to fit the facility's bioengineering needs. The facility has 20-liter, 150-liter, and 300-liter fermenters, with both anaerobic and aerobic operation capability.
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Lab technicians examine the 300-liter fermenter at the Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit in Emeryville, Calif.
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The fermenters, seen here, have the capacity to grow bacteria, fungi, or yeast engineered to produce either advanced biofuels or enzymes for deconstruction of plant biomass.

The reactors are equipped with advanced controls, allowing researchers to carefully monitor and adjust pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen, among other characteristics.
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The DOE hopes that this facility, in conjunction with the Bioenergy Research Centers, will put the United States on a fast track to a clean, renewable replacement for gasoline that will eventually be integrated with today's engines and infrastructures.

The facility is "one of the country's deans of biofuels research," said Harvey Blanch, the principal investigator of the ABPDU. "With the opening of the ABPDU, we have vastly improved our capacity to test new innovative approaches to the production of advanced biofuels on a larger, integrated scale."

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