Biofuel Research at Brookhaven

The first thing that strikes a visitor to Brookhaven’s biofuel research lab is that one key to the United States’ future energy independence may very well smell something like a cross between a ripe French brie and heavy crude oil. That’s because the biofuel being tested here — flowing from a 55-gallon drum through a maze of shiny copper piping to a standard industrial boiler in the corner — is a truly recycled natural product, with its origins in, of all things, turkey waste. It’s all part of collaborative research project involving Brookhaven Lab and KeySpan Energy, and is emblematic of Brookhaven’s focus on renewable energy and alternative fuel research.

Tom Butcher of Brookhaven's Energy Research Division.

“What we’re burning here are three different blends of bio-oil, derived from turkey waste, and #6 home heating oil,” said Tom Butcher, head of the Energy Research Division in BNL’s Energy Sciences & Technology Department. “This particular biofuel shows a lot of promise, but we need to determine how well it burns, what emissions are generated, and which blends are optimal for industrial use.”

As anyone who has made a recent trip to the gas pump can attest, U.S. reliance on fossil fuels can have a significant impact on the economy. Energy security is crucial for our nation’s future success, and will likely be the most important problem of the 21st century.

Finding new and sustainable fuels is key to solving that problem, and Butcher’s program is focused on testing the viability of alternative biofuels like biodiesel and bio-oil in a variety of applications.

Biofuels are any fuel derived from biomass — recently living organisms or their metabolic by-products, such as manure from cows. They are a renewable energy source, unlike other natural resources such as petroleum and coal, and are often derived from agricultural products like corn, soybeans, flaxseed, rapeseed, and hemp, or from industrial, agricultural, or household waste. Many subcategories of biofuel exist, from the ethanol touted as a future alternative to gasoline, to methanol, biodiesel, and the bio-oil being tested at Brookhaven. As of 2005, biofuels accounted for 15 percent of the world’s energy production. Biofuel research in the U.S. has grown tremendously in the past few years under a number of programs supported by the Department of Energy and other federal and state agencies. New York has been particularly active, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has joined with DOE to fund several Brookhaven projects.