Turning plants into fuel

One day, your car may be running on energy produced by grasses or trees.

Four U.S. research centers are looking into this possibility as part of a Department of Energy initiative. The centers are developing technologies that can turn certain plants — such as switchgrass, poplar or sorghum — into biofuels. The research could contribute to energy security and food security not only in the United States, but worldwide.

The plants can grow on marginal lands. And, because they are not food crops, turning them into biofuel won’t harm the food supply.

“The revolution of modern biology has opened up vast new opportunities for the energy industry to develop and utilize products derived from biomass as a sustainable resource,” U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry says.

Rows of small bottles in a box (© Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)
JBEI scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analyze potentially useful compounds. (© Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

The next big thing

One promising technology simplifies the biofuel refining process by using liquids that efficiently break down biomass and convert it to usable energy products, eliminating costly multiple steps. In just one step, the best plant resource is matched with the right liquid chemicals or enzymes.

“We call them them one-pot technologies,” says Blake Simmons, chief science and technology officer of the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a research center in partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“I think that’s the next big thing,” Simmons says, touting the technology’s low cost and simplicity. “Basically, you walk up to a tank, you throw in a poplar tree, go away for a week, and you come back and fill up your car.”

A woman standing between two men holding jars (© Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)
From left, Jian Shi, Seema Singh and Blake Simmons from the Joint BioEnergy Institute show materials used in the lab’s successful efforts to turn feedstocks into biofuel. (© Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

Can it scale?

Converting the carbon in plants into biofuels and other bioproducts is the first goal. The next will be to bring the technology to market. “We are trying to open up the floodgates to carbon conversion … and then transfer that into an economic benefit,” Simmons says.

JBEI scientists have shown that carbon conversion from biomass can be done at 50 liters of scale of operation. The researchers next need to demonstrate that the process can work on a commercial level, which would involve hundreds of thousands of liters.

If they can do that — and also show that it is possible to reuse and recycle the primary components — the technology will be a game-changer.

JBEI has a track record of developing innovations that attract investors. The institute receives help in this from the University of California at Berkeley’s Cleantech to Market program, which evaluates products’ commercial viability.

Field of grass (© Matthew Wisniewski/GLBRC)
Switchgrass like this may become the next liquid fuel. It is one potential biofuel source grown by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. (© Matthew Wisniewski/GLBRC)

Three other bioenergy research centers are working to create biofuels and bioproducts from biomass and to make the products commercially available:

  • The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University.
  • The Center for Bioenergy Innovation, led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
  • The Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is the newest center.

All four centers collaborate with universities and laboratories across the country. Success will open new avenues for energy jobs — along with access to innovative energy solutions.