Research at the BCRL
Mission of the BCRL
The mission of the Biomass Conversion Research Laboratory at Michigan State University is to develop cost effective and environmentally attractive means of generating fuels, chemicals, materials, foods and feeds from renewable plant biomass. We seek to shift the raw material basis of modern society away from excessive dependence on fossil resources, particularly petroleum, and toward biomass. As a global society, one of our greatest economic and environmental risks is our near total reliance on petroleum as a source of liquid transportation fuels. Obviously, the BCRL has chosen no small mission. But we do not believe it is “mission impossible”. In fact, the mission is completely possible.
Why Do We Think This Mission is Possible?
Annually, plant biomass captures an energy equivalent to about 8 times the total energy in all forms used by humankind (oil, coal, natural gas, wind, hydro, etc). Therefore, there is ample stored solar energy in biomass to meet a very large fraction of our total energy needs. Literally mountains of waste and residual biomass exist, for instance as crop processing residues. We could also grow much more biomass for conversion to fuels and chemicals, if there were a market for this additional biomass.
Another key truth that makes our mission possible is that biomass costs much less than petroleum on both a cost per ton and a cost per BTU or kcal of energy content. If this biomass energy content can be efficiently converted to fuels, particularly liquid fuels replacing petroleum products, there is no raw material cost impediment to our mission. Thus biomass is both abundant and inexpensive enough to provide a significant alternative to petroleum as a raw material.
However, while biomass raw materials are cheap, biomass processing to fuels, chemicals and other products is generally not inexpensive enough to overcome the built in advantages of low cost petroleum processing. If we can develop sufficiently inexpensive processing technology to complement the low cost of plant biomass, there is every reason to believe that we can displace large amounts of petroleum derived fuels and chemicals with plant derived fuels and chemicals. The BCRL focuses on developing inexpensive processing technology to convert renewable plant biomass to fuels and chemicals efficiently and at high yield. This is how we will accomplish our mission.