Bioenergy and feedstock research is a complex process. Laboratories, research institutions, and private partners each focus on distinct steps in the supply chain, such as specific harvesting or logistical technologies or cross-cutting analytical capabilities. In order to create reliable, cost-competitive bioproducts and biofuels, all of these disparate efforts have to be meticulously coordinated to ensure that the most up-to-date information on feedstock production, logistics, harvesting, processing, distribution, and end use is available. The Energy Systems Laboratory (ESL) at Idaho National Laboratory (INL)—a U.S. Department of Energy, Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) partner—is now fulfilling a critical role by enabling a unified research approach to the feedstock supply and logistics process.
Within ESL, 33,000 square feet of laboratory and high-bay research space is dedicated to three distinct bioenergy research functions: the Feedstock Process Demonstration Unit (PDU), the Feedstock Characterization Laboratory, and the Biomass Resource Library. This state-of-the-art, comprehensive laboratory expands the realm of feedstock research into previously underdeveloped fields, such as microscopy, compositional analysis, and particle morphology, enabling researchers to study the relationship between feedstock specifications and their performance during and after various conversion processes. In addition, searches for the characteristics and specifications of a specific feedstock can now be done instantaneously for use in a variety of applications, such as advanced trials and studies on how a specific type of biomass impacts feedstock conversion processes and biomass performance. The lab even houses a physical collection of more than 50,000 biomass samples for further study and characterization. The ESL facility is enabling INL, other research institutions, and industry partners to seek and develop mechanisms for delivery of cost-effective, industry-ready biomass characterization and feedstock conversion processes that could go on to inform critical shifts in the development and demonstration of biomass-to-biofuels conversion processes.
The new ESL facility, pictured here, will advance INL's capacity to research, test, and demonstrate new biomass conversion and supply processes and other program focus areas related to advanced energy storage and hybrid energy systems. (Photo courtesy of INL)
While the Feedstock Characterization Laboratory and the Biomass Resource Library are critical to the research functions of the lab, the PDU—which is the major asset of the new facility—is a pilot- and industrial-scale system that is used to test, demonstrate, and validate the preprocessing operations for feedstock. There are three traditional categories of PDU projects:
- Feedstock supply projects, in which several pounds to several tons of feedstock are processed to customer specifications
- Process development projects, in which preprocessing solutions are studied and improved upon for full commercial integration
- Process improvement projects, in which solutions to identified barriers and obstacles—such as those that result from drying, densification, size reduction, and material handling—are studied and tested.
ESL and other similar new facilities are essential to BETO’s work to enable private-sector deployment of processes resulting from high-quality research and testing. By improving its facilities and granting wider access to external users and researchers, INL is contributing to national research capabilities and providing analytical expertise, advanced processing technologies, and science-based biomass storage studies that preserve feedstock quality, improve supply reliability, and increase the cost-efficiency of feedstock. This contribution represents a major step forward for the success of future BETO-sponsored projects.