Two of the most significant scientific questions facing scientists and engineers in the development of technology for the conversion of biomass into fuels and chemicals are

(A) How can the energy efficiency of the conversion processes be improved?


(B) Can a system be designed which achieves high yield of fuels and chemicals while retaining economic viability of modestly scaled facilities?

Use of biomass to produce fuels and chemicals has many advantages over use of petroleum, but there are a few very important disadvantages.  Key among these is the fact that biomass is seasonal, distributed, and has a low-energy density.  Thus, biofuels production facilities have been located such that the feedstock can be transported no more than 50 miles.  Currently, large ethanol facilities produce about 100 million gallons of ethanol per year, 1/40th the size of a standard petrochemical refinery.  Increasing the size of a biorefinery allows one to take advantage of the economies of scale but will result in higher transportation costs.  Currently, little is known regarding which biomass feedstocks will best serve a biorefinery and how they will be harvested and transported. Thus, estimating the largest size biorefinery which might be economical is difficult.  Yet, it seems clear facilities will be smaller than those employed by petrochemical facilities as the cost of feedstock transportation from a region of 310,000 square miles to approach a crude-oil refinery scale will likely be prohibitive. 

Technical department homepages:

Chemical Engineering

Grain Science and Industry

Biological and Agricultural Engineering