CU-Boulder Awarded $1 Million From USDA, DOE For Solar-Thermal Biomass-To-Gas Conversion Project

March 5, 2008

The University of Colorado at Boulder has been awarded $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy to develop rapid solar- thermal chemical reactor systems for the conversion of biomass material like switchgrass and algae to synthesis gas.

The three-year award was made to a team led by Professor Alan Weimer of CU-Boulder's chemical and biological engineering department. The team will use concentrated sunlight to heat biomass like grass, sorghum, corn stalks and leaves, wood waste and algae to more than 2,000 degrees F for just fractions of a second. The process will produce an intermediate "syngas" -- a mixture of carbon oxides and hydrogen -- that can be easily converted into hydrogen or liquid fuels, he said.

Weimer also is executive director of the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels, or C2B2, a joint center of CU-Boulder, Colorado State University, the Colorado School of Mines, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and industry. Headquartered at CU-Boulder, C2B2 -- which has a goal to increase the production and use of energy from renewable resources -- was founded in March 2007 by the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, a consortium involving all four institutions.

CU-Boulder will subcontract out to NREL in Golden to provide a high-flux solar furnace for the research and to CSU to study switchgrass growth and supply quantities of the tall prairie grass to CU-Boulder for conversion. The CSU collaboration will be led by CSU horticulture Professor Yaling Qian, while the NREL collaboration will be led by Carl Bingham at NREL's High Flux Solar Furnace.

"We are thrilled that USDA and DOE selected us to move forward on this effort," said Weimer. "This award supports both CU-Boulder and our partners, and is an example of the results that can be obtained through collaboration within C2B2."

Weimer said he envisions a totally renewable technology, in which a significant fraction of the nation's fuel supply is provided using solar-thermal processing in marginal lands where the farming of crops like switchgrass and algae can provide the needed biomass. "Since the process is driven by sunlight and converts biomass to fuels, the end result is a process that is 'carbon negative,'" Weimer said. "This provides an opportunity to substantially reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere without impacting the food supply."

The CU-Boulder grant was part of the USDA/DOE award package announced yesterday to spend up to $18.4 million to fund 21 biomass research and development demonstration projects over three years for a total of $18.4 million. The projects are aimed at addressing barriers to making the production of biomass more efficient and cost-effective, according to the USDA and DOE.

"The University of Colorado at Boulder has been working in the area of solar-thermal chemical processing for more than 10 years and is the largest academic research team in this area in the world," said CU-Boulder Chancellor G.P. "Bud Peterson. "This award recognizes the university's expertise in the field and provides Professor Weimer and his team with an opportunity to move this process closer to commercial reality."

David Hiller, executive director of the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, said Weimer's research on the solar conversion of biomass, the multi-institutional involvement on the project team and the public and private support for the effort are a "perfect reflection of the Collaboratory model."

"The Collaboratory brings together some of the world's best researchers to work on promising renewable energy technologies, with guidance and financial support from private industry and public agencies," said Hiller. "Professor Weimer, C2B2 and this new project demonstrate the Collaboratory's incredible research power and growing reputation."

Other team members on the winning CU-Boulder proposal include Xcel Energy, Abengoa Solar and Abengoa BioEnergy, which have facilities in the United States and Europe, Arizona Public Service Co., Copernican Energy of Boulder and the Swiss Federal Research Institute.

Copernican Energy is a technology leader in solar-thermal chemical reactor engineering, Xcel Energy will supply utility engineering support for the solar-thermal process technology and Arizona Public Service will supply algae to CU-Boulder for conversion, Weimer said.

Abengoa is the largest green energy company in the world and built the world's first commercial "central receiver" solar-thermal facility that produces electricity for Seville, Spain. The Spain facility is equipped with mirrors on the ground that reflect sunlight to a receiver on an adjacent tower, allowing the achievement of higher temperatures.

The Swiss Federal Research Institute has been partnering with CU in the solar-thermal research area for almost 10 years and provides solar research facilities and expertise in the area of solar radiation modeling and heat transfer.

For more information on C2B2 visit the Web at: www.c2b2web.org or contact the following institutional directors: Will Medlin, CU-Boulder, (303) 492-2418, will.medlin@colorado.edu; Ken Reardon, CSU, (970) 491-6505, Kenneth.reardon@colostate.edu; John Dorgan, CSM, (303) 273-3539, jdorgan@mines.edu; and Al Darzins, NREL, (303) 384-7757, al_darzins@nrel.gov.

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