- Number 323 |
- October 25, 2010
Improved labs energize biomass research
NREL scientist Bryon Donohoe
works in the Cellular
Visualization room of the
Characterization Lab, looking
at different views of ultra
structures of pre treated
biomass materials. One of
the first labs in the Bioenergy
Center to undergo a facelift,
it is now visually one of the
Innovative research laboratories at DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory have gotten a facelift and infusion of new equipment to help researchers make environment friendly and economic biofuels.
NREL is home to the National Bioenergy Center where eight of the research labs hadn’t been updated in years.
Technologies to convert plants into fuels are on the cutting edge when it comes to helping the U.S. wean itself from foreign oil. But the old laboratory designs were not helping NREL researchers in their efforts to be as efficient as possible.
“The way that labs are designed today is much different than 20 years ago and the old labs were inadequate to support the capabilities we’ve developed in research and analysis,” said National Bioenergy Center Director Mike Cleary. “The reconfigured labs make much better use of the space and will make us much more efficient in achieving our milestones.”
Biomass Compositional Analysis Lab
To successfully produce cellulosic ethanol, you need to know what is in the plant that you are trying to break apart. The team working in NREL’s Biomass Compositional Analysis Lab can tell you exactly what you are dealing with. The lab’s core work is preparing biomass samples for analysis. The generated data, is fed into models for pretreatment, fermentation and other predictive tools.
“The Biomass Compositional Analysis Lab is the tip of the sword in the ethanol process,” said NREL Senior Researcher Ed Wolfrum. “Here we examine the feedstock to see what’s in it and how can that be used to make ethanol.”
While the idea is a simple one, getting the work done was once a challenging shuffle between labs. “It used to be that we had four labs scattered everywhere throughout the building and samples were moved from lab to lab,” NREL Scientist Justin Sluiter said. “We now have a single location where everyone can work together – a place that we can come home.”
Biomass Surface Characterization Lab
One of the first labs in the Bioenergy Center to undergo a facelift now is visually one of the most striking. NREL's Biomass Surface Characterization Laboratory is focused on biomass recalcitrance research. Recalcitrance is the natural resistance of plant cell walls to deconstruction. This natural resistance is a key barrier to the development of next-generation biofuels.
The centerpiece of the lab’s makeover is the visualization room. The room’s bank of monitors and computers provide multiple colorful slices of a biomass sample. To get these images, a microscopic amount of biomass is embedded in resin and then sectioned, nanometers thin, under a specialized ultramicrotome. Before the addition of the visualization room, researchers spent time at the microscopes examining the digital snapshots of the biomass.
“Image processing and image analysis can now be done away from the microscopes, freeing them up for the next person to come in and capture data,” said NREL Senior Scientist Bryon Donohoe. “This greatly improves the efficiency of how the microscopes are used.”
Molecular Beam Mass Spectrometry Lab
NREL’s biomass thermochemical conversion technologies and research also got a boost with the updated Molecular Beam Mass Spectrometry Lab. Thermochemical conversion technologies make fuels from biomass using heat resulting in syngas or pyrolysis oil. During this process, a Molecular Beam Mass Spectometry system (MBMS) extracts and analyzes the gases. The lab remodel means that researchers now have access to new equipment and workspace.
“We acquired two new MBMS instruments and needed space to install and use them,” NREL’s Mark Davis said. “Everything is now centralized, which now allows us to use all pieces of equipment at once rather than one at time. We are able to tailor the experiment that we want to do to the result that we want to get, rather than to the equipment available.”
The reason the added equipment is so valuable to NREL is that, according to Davis, “mass spectrometry enables us to have a fundamental understanding of thermochemical biomass conversion.” The MBMS gives researchers online, real-time measurements of the gasification processes and also provides rapid readings on plant cell wall and lignin structure.
Other research institutions and private industry also seek this technology. Work done with the MBMS supports the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC), a collaboration of 20 university, industrial and national laboratory partners developing insight into the factors controlling the release of sugar in biomass feedstocks. The two new MBMS systems are being used for all of the collaborative work coming to NREL via the BESC.
Biomass Catalyst Characterization Lab
Catalysts are used in thermochemical processes to convert tars (a byproduct of gasification) to syngas and then to convert syngas to liquid fuels. In the Biomass Catalyst Characterization Lab, NREL teams are working to understand and enhance the performance of catalysts to help realize the production of efficient biomass-derived fuels.
“The overarching goal of the Biomass Catalyst Characterization Laboratory is to intelligently design, characterize, and evaluate next generation catalysts for the efficient thermochemical conversion of biomass to fuels,” NREL Principal Scientist Kim Magrini said. “We have the ability to look at things like surface area, particle size and distribution, and surface and bulk elemental analysis.”
Working primarily with metals and ceramics, researchers in the Biomass Catalyst Characterization Lab use high temperatures to convert biomass to fuel.“Materials development and characterization is at the heart of any industrialized process that takes biomass to fuels,” Magrini said. “These new reactors and instruments help us understand how they work and then how we can make them work better.”
[Heather Lammers, 303.275.4084,