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EPA Smiles on Biofuels in Small Biz Innovation Awards

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Biofuels are hardly the belle of the ball these days among private investors — previous interest in the tech seems to have trended more toward electric vehicles and EV infrastructure, according to investment figures for the first quarter of 2010 out from the Cleantech Group this week. But in one of the most recent award rounds from the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency this week awarded $2.38 million to 34 enterprises under the Small Business Innovative Research program, including four awards (under the biofuels and vehicle emissions category) for R&D firms working on tech related to biofuels.

The awards are relatively small, but as entrepreneurs told us following the ARPA-E awards last fall, this type of funding can help kick-start research that would otherwise sit on the back burner. Here’s what the four companies plan to tackle over the next five months with the new funding:

IntAct Laboratories of Cambridge, Mass., won the smallest award in this category ($46,770) to work on bio-electrochemical systems for treatment of wastewater from ethanol production. The company will research what it calls “a completely novel approach to ethanol stillage treatment based on microbial fuel cell (MFCs) processes.”

The idea is to eliminate the need for costly steps in the treatment of wastewater from ethanol production — which typically results in 3-5 liters of waste for every liter of ethanol, according to the company’s project summary. With applications in conventional as well as cellulosic ethanol plants, IntACT “anticipates that such a system, if proven, will be in high demand as worldwide capacity and production increases significantly in the coming years.”

For Bryan, Texas-based Lynntech, meanwhile, the EPA has awarded $70,000 to help the company develop a better “heterogeneous catalyst for the transesterification of triglycerides to biodiesel.” Put more simply, Lynntech — like IPO hopeful Codexis — is working on a biocatalyst for biofuel production. Lynntech aims to produce a catalyst that is “rapid and stable in the presence of high concentrations of methanol,” and use it in the process of turning renewable oils into biodiesel. In a later phase of the project, Lynntech plans to work on improving the catalyst (in particular, its methanol tolerance and reusability), and collaborate with an industrial partner to produce and use the catalyst.

TDA Research of Wheat Ridge, Colo. plans to research a thermochemical process for producing diesel fuel from biomass waste materials, and has won a $70,000 award. The company aims to develop a “a direct substitute for ultra low-sulfur diesel,” first by converting biomass (from wood, grassland, municipal compost or cellulosic waste material, for example) into what’s called pyrolysis oil, and and then upgrading it to diesel. The innovation is to reduce the amount of by-products resulting from the upgrade process, TDA explains. “Essentially any biomass material or solid waste (e.g., food waste, shipping materials, etc.) can be converted to fuel in high yield in the proposed process,” according to the project summary. “The environmental benefits include reduced GHG emissions from on-road diesel vehicles, and converting waste materials into useful fuel products.”

Eltron Research & Development of Boulder, Co., awarded nearly $70,000, plans to work on a low-cost retrofit system for controlling emissions from off-road sources. The project summary explains that while “considerable progress has been made in reducing emissions from stationary and highway sources,” such as cars, new emission standards call for off-road diesel engines to rein in emission levels for nitrogen oxides to levels on par with on-road sources.

Plus, Eltron notes, vehicles running on biodiesel “offer the potential for increased NOx emissions.” If the company can commercialize its system for removing NOx from diesel exhaust at a cost 25 percent less than current alternatives, it expects to leave competition in the dust, since “There are currently no inexpensive, effective retrofits for either source category.”

Image courtesy of DOE