Government Grants for Biomass: DOE, USDA Dole Out $24M

DOE banner editedThe Departments of Agriculture and Energy late yesterday announced they will be doling out a dozen grants — ranging from $1 million to $4 million each — to private sector and university research projects focused on alternative fuels and bio-based products. In total, the departments will give out $24.4 million in funding, part of their standard full-year 2009 budgets, with each project expected to contribute at least 20 percent in matching funds. The projects were selected based on their potential to increase the availability of alternative fuels and bio-based products. Here’s a snapshot of five of the most interesting recipients:

Gevo: The Englewood, Colo.-based startup will receive up to $1.7 million to develop a yeast fermentation organism that can cost-effectively convert cellulosic-derived sugars into isobutanol. This liquid could then be used as a biofuel or as a chemical precursor for certain “high-value” products like PET plastic. Despite the economic downturn, Gevo hasn’t had much trouble raising funding. The startup got a $40 million investment led by French oil company Total SA in April after raising $17 million from Khosla Ventures Virgin Green Fund and others the year before.

GE Global Research: The research arm of tech-behemoth General Electric (s GE) will get up to $1.5 million to develop detailed and simplified “kinetic models” of biomass gasification, a process that converts biomass into a gas mixture called synthesis gas, or syngas. A better modeling capability could lead to the widespread design of feedstock-flexible biomass gasifiers that are cost-effective and scaled to match the regional availability of biomass feedstocks, according to the release. GE Global Research has been working with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency since late 2007 to integrate gasification and hydroprocessing, which coverts syngas into a liquid fuel, according to this report. The $3 million effort is meant to help develop bio-based jet fuel.

Exelus: The Livingston, N.J.-based company will receive up to $1.2 million to develop a biomass-to-gasoline technology. Exelus uses engineered catalysts — or solid, benign chemical substances — that could replace conventional high-temperature processes like gasification with a series of mild, low-temperature reactions. Exelus launched in 2000 with funding from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation to work on technology for converting liquid petroleum gas into gasoline. Exelus President Mitrajit Muckherjee tells us that this is the company’s first foray into the biofuel industry. Exelus, which is profitable, hasn’t received any venture funding.

Velocys: The Plain City, Ohio.-based company, part of the UK’s Oxford Catalysts Group, will receive up to $2.6 million to improve biorefinery economics through microchannel hydroprocessing. The company’s chemical processors decrease the transfer resistance between process fluids and channel walls and thereby increase throughput and reduce the required size of processing equipment. The project will explore the ability of Velocys’ technology to speed up chemical processes, which could result in more efficient conversion of cellulosic residues to liquid fuels.

Oklahoma State University: The Stillwater, Okla.-based university will receive up to $4.2 million to develop best practices and technologies related to sustainable and profitable production of cellulosic ethanol feedstocks. The project will look at the economic and environmental sustainability of switchgrass, mixed-species perennial grasses and annual biomass cropping systems and research the synergy between bioenergy and livestock production.