Screen shot 2009-11-13 at 2.22.32 PMBiomass is often overlooked in favor of sexier renewable energy sources like solar and wind — it’s dirty, capital intensive and not emissions free — but it is one of the only drop-in technologies in the alternative fuel space (meaning that it will work with legacy technology, traditional gas tanks and the like). Finally, it has captured the attention of the Department of Energy, which partnered with the Department of Agriculture to give out $24.4 million in stimulus grants to biofuel development projects.

The stated goal of the grants program is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50 percent — with the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture actually ponying up $19.5 million, the bulk of the money. But biofuel may have the best chance of any cleantech sector to generate thousands if not millions of green-collar jobs, particularly in the hurting agricultural sector. Many people would be needed to grow the trees, switchgrass and other feedstock necessary to supply biofuel plants.

In order to qualify for the government grants, the development projects had to agree to match a minimum of 20 percent of the amounts given, and demonstration projects pledged to match 50 percent. Twelve companies and educational institutions were selected overall to divvy up varying amounts. They are split between the USDA and the DOE, which administered the money through its Biomass Program.

Notably absent from the list are larger biofuel companies that often get mentioned in the media, including Coskata, LS9, Synthetic Genomics and Codexis.

Here’s a brief roundup of the recipients under the categories assigned by the DOE and USDA:

Biofuels and Biobased products

USDA Awards:

GE Global Research, $1.6 million, developing simpler and more cost effective models for biomass gasification, capable of handling a wider variety of feedstocks.

Gevo, Inc., $1.78 million, developing an organism for yeast fermentation to turn cellulosic sugars (derived from wood) into isobutanol, a biofuel product.

Itaconix, $1.8 million, developing an extraction-fermentation-polymerization process to turn hardwood biomass into polyitaconic acid, which could be used to replace petrochemical detergents and other chemicals.

Yenkin-Majestic Paint Corporation, $1.8 million, to demonstrate a dry fermentation system that turns consumer food waste, along with grass, leaves, and woody materials, into fuel for heating and generating electrical power.

Volocys, $2.65 million, developing microchannel hydroprocessing to make energy conversions more efficient and biorefineries more economically viable.

DOE Awards:

Exelus, Inc., $1.2 million, developing biomass-to-gasoline technology using engineered catalysts that create fuels for automotive applications.

Biofuels development analysis

USDA Awards:

– Purdue University, $933,883, building a model for the environmental impact of biofuels, taking policy and econoics into account.

– University of Minnesota, $2.7 million, determining how feasible and sustainable it is to use forest feedstocks to produce biofuels in the states surrounding the Great Lakes.

DOE Award:

Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials, $1.4 million, examining the environmental and economic impact of using mixed waste, forest waste and short rotation crops for biofuels.

Feedstock development

USDA Awards:

Agrivida, $1.95 million, breeding new crops of switchgrass designed to be more easily converted into biofuels.

– Oklahoma State University, $4.2 million, developing best practices for sustainable and profitable use of cellulosic feedstocks to produce ethanol on a large scale.

DOE Award:

– University of Tennessee, $2.3 million, comparing three varieties of switchgrass to see which can be the most efficiently and cost-effectively converted into biofuels.

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