US DOE Clobbers Fossil Fuels With $$$ For Bioenergy & Solar Fuel R&D

Credit to Author: Tina Casey| Date: Sat, 08 Aug 2020 21:39:10 +0000

Published on August 8th, 2020 | by Tina Casey

August 8th, 2020 by  

This one’s gotta hurt. The US fossil fuel industry is still reeling from the fall of its one and only large scale carbon capture project, and along comes the Department of Energy to twist the knife. They are putting up more than $97 million to extend federal support for bioenergy alternatives to fossil fuels, $68 million to improve bioenergy crop production with a focus on marginal lands, and another $100 million to re-up a solar fuel research hub. Wait — since when did solar fuel become not a unicorn?

US researchers are taking on the bioenergy challenge from all angles with an assist from the US Department of Energy (photo by Dennis Shroeder/NREL)

Before we get to the solar fuel, let’s start off with the new round of $97 million for bioenergy. It covers funding for 33 R&D projects, including a handful of waste-to-energy projects. Under that topic are projects aimed at recycling plastic waste as well as municipal solid waste and other bio-based waste.

The plastic angle is a bit off topic, but it does chip away at the demand for virgin petrochemicals. Mounds of ocean plastic are ripe for the picking, and hard-to-recycle petrochemical products overflow the landfills of the Earth, like mattress foam and other furniture foams.

The other projects do focus more exclusively on bioenergy. The main topic areas are reducing risk in the biofuel field, deploying regenerative agriculture to demonstrate the broader economic and environmental benefits of bioenergy crops, improving residential wood heaters, scaling up carbon dioxide electrocatalysis technologies (more on that in a second), and improving the efficiency of algae farming with a focus on direct air capture to improve carbon intake.

Funding for the selected projects is heavy on the academic side, so let’s zero in on two of the private sector awardees. One is Dioxide Materials, which bills itself as “The CO2 Recycling Company.” The firm is getting $2.5 million for work related to its electrocatalysis system.

Dioxide Materials crossed the CleanTechnica radar back in 2015 for its pioneering work in the commercial green hydrogen field, which deploys electrolysis to “split” hydrogen from water. Ideally, the electricity to run the operation comes from renewables. Green H2 is a huge pie in the face for fossil gas stakeholders, who currently dominate the hydrogen industry.

The company has also been in the eyeball of ARPA-E, the cutting edge clean tech funding office of the Energy Department, for an electrocatalysis system that deploys electricity to convert CO2 into other products, including carbon monoxide.

The biobased angle comes in with Dioxide’s highly regarded electrocatalysis membrane. The funding will enable the firm to work on the interface between its membrane and biofuel refineries.

The other electrocatalysis project is a $2.5 million award garnered by the firm Opus 12, which lays claim to prize-winning CO2 recycling technology. The company has long been known for its water-splitting technology, and the new funding will build on its work in drawing directly on wind and solar power for CO production.

The Opus 12 project is also aimed at interfacing with biofuel refineries. Now take a look over at the regenerative agriculture topic and things really start to get interesting, because solar energy is emerging as a tool in the regenerative agriculture toolkit.

For those of you new to the topic, regenerative agriculture refers to farming practices that restore and improve soil health, conserve water, and otherwise contribute to a more sustainable environment in which to grow crops.

In days gone by, solar arrays meant taking land out of farming. However, the emerging field of agrivoltaics is demonstrating that the combination of shaded areas and soil rest can assist the goals of regenerative farming.

Researchers are also finding that vegetation under and around ground-mounted solar panels can provide a cooling effect that improves solar cell efficiency.

The basic idea is to raise the panels higher than in typical solar arrays to allow for grazing livestock or establishing pollinator fields. Farmers are also beginning to experiment with growing cash crops in solar arrays as well.

The new round $68 million in funding for improving bioenergy crop productivity also comes into play. The funds will mainly focus on marginal lands that cannot be farmed for food, so it’s possible that lands leased for solar arrays may be included in that category.

Turning now to the solar fuel unicorn, which refers specifically to artificial photosynthesis, in which human-made devices replicate the beautifully calibrated work of nature to convert sunlight into fuel products, using little more than water and a catalyst.

Nature has quite a large headstart on photosynthesis, so it’s little wonder that early attempts at artificial photosynthesis fell flat.

There is still a long row to hoe before full commercial scale-up, but the Energy Department is a big fan. The new round of $100 million for solar fuels will go to two awardees.

One is them is The Liquid Sunlight Alliance. Helmed by the California Institute of Technology in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, LiSA is focusing on something called “co-design,” which refers to a whole-of-process approach that zeroes in on improving individual steps while ramping up the efficiency of the whole solar fuel system.

The other awardee is focusing more on the hardware side of the equation.

“The Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels (CHASE), led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, seeks to develop hybrid photoelectrodes for fuel production that combine semiconductors for light absorption with molecular catalysts for conversion and fuel production. CHASE will also blend experiment with theory to understand and establish new design principles for fuels-from-sunlight systems,” enthuses the Energy Department.

So, what does this all have to do with bioenergy? Not much, at least not directly. The basic idea is to develop an artificial leaf, not a new and improved actual leaf. However, the LiSA research could dovetail with efforts to improve bioenergy crop efficiency.

If you have any ideas about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that last week Mark W. Menezes was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of Energy. That’s of interest considering his background with the diversified energy company Berkshire Hathaway Energy. BHE has a strong wind power portfolio, and is dipping a toe into solar as well.

Menezes is deputy to recently minted Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, whose auto industry background is also of interest considering that the Energy Department is helping the US auto industry transition to electricity and energy storage. Brouillette succeeded former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who ended his tenure last year by telling energy stakeholders that renewables and energy storage will pick up where coal and nuclear left off.

None of this bodes well for the future of fossil fuels and carbon capture. Sure enough, last month the Houston Chronicle reported that the power company NRG is putting its much-hyped Petra Nova carbon capture facility out to pasture after only three years in “operation.”

The scare quotes are there because “operation” is used loosely in this context. As Reuters reported, the $1 billion facility “suffered chronic mechanical problems and routinely missed its targets” from the get-go.

Petra Nova was the largest carbon capture project of its kind in the world and the only one to hook up with a coal power plant.

Perhaps it’s just as well. Petra Nova was only aiming for 33% carbon capture to begin with, which still leaves a lot of carbon lying around. In addition, the captured carbon was supposed to be shunted over to a nearby oil field to assist with…pumping more carbon out of the ground.

That doesn’t sound like much of a greenhouse gas benefit for $1 billion. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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Photo: Bioenergy research via National Renewable Energy Laboratory. 
 
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specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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