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Fueling America's Transportation Industry

March 2015

Liquid fuels from fossil-based resources are the backbone of the transportation industry. What if we could create these fuels from biomass – plant and waste sources? Researchers at PNNL have been experimenting with this possibility for decades, and have now advanced their capabilities to the large-scale.

In mid-January 2015, they successfully demonstrated part of the biomass fuel creation process using a 14-foot distillation column located in PNNL’s Process Development Laboratory-West (PDL-West) building. The system, funded by DOE's Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), separates upgraded bio-oil into gasoline, diesel, and jet range fuels. The distillation column start-up consisted of a test run, where two cuts were collected from the upgraded bio-oil, producing approximately 10 liter quantities of gasoline and diesel/jet range fuels. These results demonstrated that usable fractions of gasoline and diesel/jet range fuels can be generated on a large-scale level.

The distillation process represents the last step in producing fuels from pyrolysis, which uses flash heating to turn plant matter into a bio-oil. The next step is to use a catalyst to chemically remove oxygen from the liquid to turn it into a hydrocarbon, or "hydrotreated bio-oil", which can then be separated into the fuel fractions by distillation.

Like the large-scale distillation, the catalytic part of the process will move to a large-scale system when PNNL researchers complete the start-up of the hydrotreater, co-located in PDL-West. Together, these two systems will be able to produce the quantities necessary for fuel qualification, bringing the technology one step closer to commercialization. Successfully moving this technology to market will improve the domestic fuel supply and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, while also introducing a new and much needed fuel supply to the transportation industry.

To learn more about PNNL's work in this area, watch the Biofuel Catalyst Life and Plugs video on YouTube.

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