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The U.S. Department of Energy has just announced a major new biofuel research partnership between the agency's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and a London-based company called Johnson Matthey. The firm has extensive operations in the U.S. and 30 other countries, and is known partly as a manufacturer of decorative colorants for glassware and morphine among other pharmaceuticals. However, we are much more interested in its extensive sustainability-related operations.

As a supply chain company, Johnson Matthey is a good example of a business that does not have a particularly high public profile for corporate social responsibility, say on the order of Nike or Levi's, but several of its core operations involve recycling and pollution control. If successful, its new partnership with NREL will result in a new biofuel technology that might not make headlines, but it will have a enormous impact all across the spectrum of business sustainability.

Catalysts and next-generation biofuels

Johnson Matthey's expertise in industrial catalysts was a key factor in winning the $7 million, five-year contract with NREL. A catalyst is a substance that promotes a chain of chemical reactions. One familiar example is the catalytic converter that transforms airborne pollutants from car exhaust into less harmful gases.

Catalysts generally involve substantial gains in effectiveness and energy efficiency compared to other manufacturing processes.

In this new project, Johnson Matthey and NREL will work together to perfect a process called pyrolysis, which involves using heat to decompose biomass.

Pyrolysis is a highly efficient process that yields vapors that are rich with carbon, which could be used as a building block for creating petroleum alternatives. The problem is that the vapor contains oxygen and other impurities.

The trick for Johnson Matthey and NREL will be to find cost-effective catalysts that can purify the vapor and convert its carbon into liquid fuels.

The goal is to produce a full slate of liquid fuels - gasoline, diesel and jet fuel - that can meet or beat conventional petroleum fuels on cost, by 2017. The Department of Energy estimates that mark at about $3.00 per gallon, which will motivate the private sector to start pouring more dollars into biorefinery investments and less into petroleum.

More sustainable biofuels in sight

Energy efficiency is only one reason why the investment in pyrolysis is worthwhile. The other reason is that the process could be applied to a wide range of crops that are not grown for human consumption.

That includes poplar trees, shrub willow, grasses and other kinds of woody biomass that can be grown specifically as energy crops.

It also includes biomass from secondary processes including residue from forest operations, agricultural waste like corn stover (the leaves and stems left over from harvest), and municipal solid waste.

The Department of Energy is pursuing advanced pyrolysis technology from other angles, too. Its Advanced Projects Research Agency (ARPA-E) has been working with an engineering company called RTI International to develop a highly efficient process that can be integrated within existing refinery operations.

The ARPA-E biofuel project has been taking a soup-to-nuts approach that includes working with the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland to develop more efficient ways of collecting, transporting and storing biomass.

Johnson Matthey and CSR

Getting back to Johnson Matthey, though the firm is not exactly a household name in CSR circles right now, that could change. Company CEO Neil Carson was a featured speaker at the 10th annual Responsible Business Summit in London last year and the company has developed a sustainability roadmap that includes a heavy dose of employee engagement and public communication.

[Image: Biofuel by jurvetson]

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