Earth’s atmosphere and the American economy would greatly benefit from the commercial development of clean, green and renewable domestic biofuels. Advanced biofuels, capable of a gallon-for-gallon replacement of petroleum-based fuels, are by definition, capable of exploiting common engine designs and using today’s fuel distribution infrastructures. Studies show advanced biofuels have a carbon life cycle that produces low or net-zero green house gases. Helping to commercialize advanced biofuels is the primary mission of Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit (ABPDU), the West Coast’s only state-of-the-art facility providing industry-scale test beds for laboratory discoveries in advanced biofuels research.
“At ABPDU we can fill an important niche when it comes to the commercialization of advanced biofuel technologies,” says James Gardner, the ABPDU’s Operations Manager. “There’s a term in the fuels world called the ‘Valley of Death,’ where something that looks fantastic at the research scale, fails to pass through the gauntlet of scale-up testing that allows it to go on to the commercial scale. We can help nascent technologies navigate this valley and lower the barriers to market entry by providing a pilot plant that is very flexible and open-ended.”
Housed in a state-of-the art facility in Emeryville, California, about five miles south of Berkeley Lab’s main campus, the ABPDU was started in 2011 under a $20 million grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It is now funded through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Under the leadership of Gardner, a biochemist and molecular biologist, the ABPDU’s scientific and support staff works with a variety of bioreactors to produce sugars and co-products, ferment the sugars into advanced biofuels, extract these fuels, and analyze the process. Capabilities are also provided for the production of downstream feedstocks, enzymes and fuels.
“ABPDU’s reactors and other facilities hit the sweet spot of scalability where volume and surface area meet for purposes of testing fermentation processes,” Gardner says. “The sizes of the vessels we have are considerably cheaper to run than vessels that handle a thousand liters yet they still give us the valuable information we need to scale up to 10,000 liter or larger vessels.”
The ultimate goal of advanced biofuels research is to develop economical processes by which the sugars stored in lignocellulosic biomass can be extracted and fermented into liquids that are equivalent to gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. In order to be commercially successful, the cost of biofuel production processes must be competitive with the cost of producing fossil fuels. For multiple reasons, the jump from a few hundred milliliters of fuel, typically produced in a research laboratory, to the production of 100 or more liters of fuel is a comparable technological hurdle to the jump from 100 liters to 10,000 liters or more.
“The ABPDU is designed to bridge that critical one-to-100 liter gap by making its facilities available to the biofuels community at large, including researchers from federal laboratories, academic institutes and private industry,” Gardner says.
Read a news release about the ABPDU opening here