Researching the future of biofuels

Source: Written by DAN PILLER, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012

Bioeconomy Institute director says creating new products ‘never is quick’

Robert Brown, head of Iowa State University's Bioeconomy Institute, maps out the formula for biofuels' future on his office whiteboard.

Robert Brown, head of Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute, maps out the formula for biofuels’ future on his office whiteboard. / Dan Piller/The Register

AMES, IA. — Robert Brown, director of Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute, is asked frequently these days when the next generation of biofuels will flow through gas pumps and into automobile tanks.

His reply: “You tell me the price of oil.”

Brown’s reply seems like a wiseacre comeback, but it reflects the pressure commodity markets and politics exert on the science of energy

Brown spends a lot of time in Washington, D.C., talking up biofuels to federal bureaucrats and politicians. He’s become wise to the ways of the politics of energy.

Brown leads the efforts to make Iowa a global center of biofuels research. He juggles the thin patience of politicians and the public about the long time line of research, while keeping options open to remain a player wherever the research and market forces lead.

He acknowledges that biofuels research, like what he and his brethren on other campuses and in oil companies are doing, finds most support when the price of oil and gasoline is high and apparently in scarce supply.

For instance, in 2007, when oil prices shot above $100 per barrel and U.S. energy production continued its three-decade-long decline, Congress passed the Renewable Fuels Standard, which envisioned a transition from corn-fed ethanol to a new generation of biofuels.

“For three decades, the U.S. Department of Energy bet on cellulosic ethanol as the main pathway to advanced biofuels,” Brown writes in his new book, “Why Are We Producing Biofuels?”

“There is now widespread realization that multiple pathways will have to be pursued if advanced biofuels are to play a role in reducing dependence on imported petroleum,” Brown says.

The slower-than-expected development of the new generation of biofuels has fed that realization.

Tack on the sudden surge of new domestic oil, and suddenly Brown finds himself on the receiving end of the “what have you done for us lately?” question.

“I understand the impatience,” said Brown, who began his engineering career working on the development of the famous F-16 jet fighter for General Dynamics in Texas in the early 1970s.

“The military will wait for a product they believe in,” he said.

“The public gets impatient. We have to deal with that.”

Brown has turned Iowa State into a biofuels heavyweight. He oversees more than $50 million in research grants at the Bioeconomy Institute, which has facilities on the main ISU campus in Ames and at the university’s research farm west of town.

The future is uncertain, however. Federal laws require that by 2022, half of the 36 billion gallons of ethanol (up from 13 billion produced last year) come from non-corn sources. That means Brown and other scientist-engineers have to come up with new fuels made from something other than corn.

Progress has been slow. Targets for non-corn ethanol have not been met. Big Oil and energy traditionalists have responded with criticisms of delays and subsidies for advanced biofuels.

“We’ve done the low-hanging fruit,” Brown said. “Now we’re into development of brand-new products with new scientific procedures, and that never is quick.”

And now cheap, plentiful natural gas has changed energy industry economics. But where others see a threat to biofuels, Brown sees opportunity. Brown says there’s a 75-year supply of natural gas in the U.S. (the U.S. Geological Survey pegs the supply at 100 years).

Rather than burn it up in cars and trucks, Brown urges that natural gas be used as a catalyst to make biofuels.

“Natural gas makes a wonderful platform to make hydrogen, which is not produced in nature,” he said. “With natural gas so cheap and plentiful now, the opportunity is there.”

To that end, Brown is assembling a grant proposal to the Department of Energy on new pyrolysis research.

“This isn’t a problem; it’s an opportunity,” he said.