NREL Transforming Agricultural Waste into Biofuel

The NREL is partnering up with Ecopetrol, an oil company in Colombia, to use residue from palm oil and sugar cane harvesting to make fuel ethanol for blending with gasoline.

In order for the NREL to use the waste from palm oil and sugar cane harvesting for biofuel, funds were needed. Ecopetrol decided to fund the $2.3 million project that is expected to take 18 months to reach completion. The Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between NREL and Ecopetrol will help the two enhance the conversion process for bagasse, the material that remains after the crops have been harvested, and then to determine the full economic benefits for biofuel production from this agriculture waste.

“We’re going to help them figure out if the performance they’re getting from the available lignocellulosic feedstocks is going to make economic sense,” said Rick Elander, biochemical conversion manager at NREL’s National Bioenergy Center said. “On paper, you could make a pretty good case for it because they’re not starting from scratch. They have a facility and infrastructure in place and they have that captive bagasse feedstock that is already at the facility.”

Sugar cane is a large crop in Colombia, being harvested eight months a year, and has large potential for biomass production. The waste, or residue, from the crops can be stored for a long time after its harvested, making its potential even greater. The bagasse from the sugar cane is currently used to make steam used to operate turbines for electricity, but biofuel may prove to be a more economic venture.