Biomass is now three times more competitive

 By Benjamin Plackett

Biomass is perhaps the most frustrating of renewable fuels…

The concept is a proven one and unlike other alternative fuel sources, it could very easily slot in with existing energy infrastructures. Gas stations could replace their diesel tanks with biofuel tanks and motorists could fill up their cars just as they do today. There is no need to replace and rebuild distribution networks. And yet it remains a fairly insignificant slice of the energy pie. Biomass fuels contributed to just four percent of the energy consumed in the United States in 2010.

The problem is one of basic economics.

While biomass doesn’t face the large initial setup costs associated with new delivery networks, it still has to compete with fossil fuels. It remains too costly to realistically compete with traditional fuels on the open market—a problem not helped by the low oil prices of recent years.

The solution? Make biomass cheaper to produce.

That’s exactly the task that scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, set themselves in a recent research paper in the journal Science Advances. “Proving its economic feasibility and profit potential is critical for attracting investors,” said David Martin Alonso, the study’s author and a researcher in chemical and biological engineering at the university in a statement.

The Science Hall building located at the University of Wisconsin (John Kees, Wikimedia)

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research Program and the U.S. Department of Energy. Alonso and his team have rejigged the process of making biomass fuels, which they say triples the rate of return for biofuel investors from about 10 percent to 30 percent.

Part of the procedure of changing organic waste into fuel involves a solvent, which is used to separate the components of the biomass. Until now, this has been a major stumbling block on the road to making biomass competitive with fossil fuels—the solvents usually used are expensive and not as efficient as they could be. “Until now, solvent loss had been a major bottleneck for making a renewable and carbon-efficient biorefinery economically feasible,” said Alonso. That’s why Alonso and his team chose to focus on finding a new solvent and in doing so they have increased the output of valuable biofuel materials from the process. They have achieved this with a solvent called gamma valerolactone (GVL).

Chemical structure of gamma-valerolactone (Edgar181, Wikimedia)

With the discovery of GVL’s efficiency in this process, biomass-based fuels and energies may finally be able to rival fossil fuels, say the researchers. Not only is GVL highly effective in its separating function, it is much more stable than other solvents. That means that 99 percent of it can be reused, creating further economies. It gives the renewable energy a fighting chance in the market place, they hope. “Now that we have proven that GVL is very effective at separating,” says Alonso, “We see a path forward to becoming cost-competitive with a petroleum refinery.”

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about the author
Benjamin Plackett
I’m a journalist based in London. I report on all things science, tech, and health for a number of different publications. My work has been published by The Daily Dot, Inside Science and CNN among others. I earned my M.A. in Journalism at New York University and my B.Sci in Biology from Imperial College, London.