Engineers working to develop sustainable biofuels within the Department of Energy are turning to industry to play a major role in advancing the broad economic shift away from petroleum.
Reyhaneh Shenassa, the chief engineer at the agency’s Bioenergy Technologies’ Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, discussed where the department wants to drive its bioenergy technologies research and development at an OurEnergyPolicy panel Wednesday.
A key ingredient in biofuel development will be cellulosic materials—a naturally occurring polymer found largely in wood and other plant matter.
“We at the Department of Energy, at BTOB, are hoping to [collaborate] with industry to have technologies that are using cellulosic material to make a ton [of biofuel],” she said.
Shenassa explained that cellulosic biomasses could serve as a foundational ingredient in next-generation biofuels. One example she cited of where private sector partnerships can work is in the use of cellulosic biomass algae, as well as other natural and “waste” materials, to create hydrocarbon fuels.
Hydrocarbon is an ingredient within petroleum products like gasoline and diesel, but it is also found through biomass resources. Research teams within Energy are aiming to scale these technologies to potentially serve as a petroleum-based fuel substitutes, particularly within the transportation sectors.
The biggest market application and use case for biofuels is in sustainable aviation.
“Sustainable aviation fuel, and use of biofuel, can be used to power aircraft, and it has similar properties to conventional jet fuel, but with a smaller carbon footprint. And the greenhouse gas emission can dramatically be lower than the conventional jet fuel,” she said.
Shenassa’s comments follow the broader federal push towards a stronger domestic biotechnology manufacturing sector. President Joe Biden signed an executive order last fall that aims to jumpstart the biotechnology sector in the U.S.—an industry senior administration officials say demands investment to avoid the U.S. lagging on the international stage.
As with other emerging technologies, regulation and production costs greatly impact biofuels’ broader market entrance and potential for commercialization.
Shenassa said that some biofuels—primarily jet fuel replacements—will have to abide by global regulations to be successfully adopted.
“If we look at sustainable aviation fuel, that is a global biofuel because airplanes have to fill up their tank where they land,” she said. Following existing international regulatory standards will help facilitate biofuel use across international airlines.
“If we want to export sustainable aviation fuel, for example, that should be used in Europe, it has to be—even if it is used in the United States—I think it has to go with that description of carbon intensity in order to be considered sustainable,” she said.
Regarding the cost of producing and using sustainable biofuels, Shenassa said that the price of biofuel shouldn’t be compared directly with fossil fuels.
“What we have to see is that these products are not equivalent to fossil fuel,” she said. “They are better products. They do not add to the greenhouse gas emissions. They have sometimes additional benefits. So I think that we shouldn’t be looking at the price or look at the cost, we should see what is the cost of not doing that.”