DOE on Rewiring the Carbon Cycle and What It Means for Transportation

10.04.17 | Blog | By:

The second web conference for Future Fuels Outlook service members was held on Tuesday, September 19. The topics focused on engineered carbon reduction and its application not only to the bioeconomy but to the transportation fuels space.  Our speaker was David Babson, Technology Manager from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO). BETO continues to work to de-risk biomass supply chains and upgrade technologies to promote the emergence of the advanced bioeconomy, including for transportation fuels.

Recent trends in the deployment of cheaper and cleaner renewable power are providing new opportunities to not only enhance the efficiency of biomass conversion, but to fundamentally change how organic carbon is synthesized from carbon oxides.  This has implications for transportation fuels, including advanced biofuels and even electric vehicles.

Key points covered:

  • Our economy is carbon-based and that won’t change. What will change is the sources of carbon used to maintain economic growth and competitiveness.
  • Growing a carbon-based economy sustainably requires renewable sources of carbon like biomass, but growing more biomass could create additional land use burdens.
  • Simultaneous development of new technologies and deployment of low-carbon renewable power are creating an opportunity to bypass land use requirements for generating renewable carbon.
  • BETO is starting an initiative to explore technologies and strategies that can leverage a clean power sector to decarbonize other, more difficult sectors, like the transportation and chemical sectors.

BETO is re-imagining the carbon cycle without photosynthesis, and is exploring technologies that can efficiently leverage renewable power to reduce carbon oxides and generate relevant organic chemical intermediates non-photosynthetically. Reduction approaches could include thermocatalytic, electrocatalytic, or biocatalytic platforms.

Following are a few highlights. Members can access the post with the video, presentations and full transcript here.

On the Reality of Living in a High Carbon Society:

“Just like a funding agency we have performance metrics that we use to validate the processes that we’re funding and the technologies we’re helping to advance and we have very ambitious energy and climate goals that we are trying to achieve and those are sort of the metrics that we apply to the technologies we fund. Ultimately, our goal is to reduce risks up and down the biomass supply chain, to advance the bioeconomy, the sustainable bioeconomy. So, let’s talk about the fact that we live in a carbon-based economy, the products around us, the fuels we use, the materials we need many of which are carbon-based.  We live in a high-carbon society and this isn’t going to really change, but in a carbon conscience economy we need to understand that it needs to be based on renewable carbon.”

On How This Fits in With the Current Administration’s View on Climate Change:

“It’s very unclear beyond what we read in the media exactly what the position is on climate, whether we don’t believe in it or we don’t accept the human role in it or that we do but it’s not that bad. There’s a lot of different permeations of that. I would say with this administration we would just play up and we do play up the significant other benefits associated with our efforts towards promoting a bioeconomy. We’ll be able to produce more domestic products using domestic resources and take something that’s very cheap and a waste and is in the atmosphere, CO2, and produce chemicals and fuels and products and create jobs and promote new technologies. Then, as byproduct of that, we also make the air cleaner and reduce our carbon footprint that may or may not be contributing to climate.”

Where Do Biofuels Fit In with BETO’s Strategy Considering the Rising Popularity of EVs?

“This is happening. Electric cars are coming on and they’re coming on much faster than I would have expected and it’s just going to happen very, very quickly. Now, there’s broad acceptance; the traditional range anxiety doesn’t exist with the new vehicles that will go 200 or 300 miles on a charge and with new infrastructure we could see a lot of the light-duty fleet go towards electric, very, very rapidly. Another thing I would note on that front is the announcement by China to consider at what date they will decide to ban additional petroleum sales, you know internal combustion engine sales. They want to go to all electric.


I mean, 30% of the car market is now China, and once that happens it’s over and it doesn’t matter what the United States does or what kind of, you know, backward-facing and regressive policies we have in place, it will just happen. Where I see things happening in biofuels space is for the amount of remaining petroleum that we have, there are benefits to using cheap ethanol in higher level blends to enhance engine efficiency, you know in the midlevel blend area as increasing octane. So, increasing high octane fuels through renewable ethanol blending for the remaining petroleum we have and you know, increasing the compression ratios of the vehicles we sell and having dynamic systems in place to most efficiently tailor a blended fuel for vehicles when they are internal combustion and they pull up to the pump…but again fewer and fewer of those vehicles will exist and so in terms of the large-scale biofuel outlook and long-term outlook this needs to turn more towards the aviation sector, the marine sector and heavy-duty truck sector because largely the light-duty fleets will be electrified and the remaining ones will be the high compression ratio internal combustion engines and even those will be a few of those.


That’s kind of where I see it going. We do need to consider where all the additional electricity is going to come from for driving carbon reduction. That needs to be a component of it so that we can get those carbon. But then you also need to think about what the products are going to be and likely in the biofuels space it makes a lot more sense to target those products for aviation-type of fuels and marine fuel sectors and the heavy-duty sector. So, we need to move away from trying to produce biofuels for every car on the road.”

Tammy Klein is a consultant and strategic advisor providing market and policy intelligence and analysis on transportation fuels to the auto and oil industries, governments, and NGOs. She writes and advises on petroleum fuels, biofuels, alternative fuels, automotive fuels, and fuels policy.