IDAHO FALLS – From Styrofoam to polyester to corn husks, a $15 million upgrade at a research facility in the East Idaho desert can turn your garbage into new products that might help save the planet.
In a ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday, the Idaho National Laboratory and U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm unveiled the upgraded Biomass Feedstock National User Facility in Idaho Falls.
The laboratory’s upgraded facility uses equipment that turns garbage such as wood, agricultural residues, municipal solid waste and energy crops into fuels and chemicals.
The upgrade comes after the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office invested $15 million in the INL’s research facility.
“Thanks to the investment that the Bioenergy Technologies Office has put into this facility, we now have these tools,” INL relationship manager Lynn Wendt said at the ceremony. “We don’t have just one tool, we’ve got all of the tools. This really is a test bed for industry, for academia, and for national labs.”
Accompanied by tech partners, Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper, and Tribal members, INL leadership celebrated the upgraded facility as a step toward its goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2031, or when the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the laboratory equals the amount of greenhouse gasses removed from the atmosphere.
Achieving net zero: US Energy Secretary announces new Earthshot initiative
During the ceremony, the U.S. Department of Energy secretary announced the Clean Fuels and Products Shot, adding to the department’s series of initiatives to help solve climate change and find more affordable, abundant and reliable clean energy in upcoming years.
The new initiative is focused on devoting national scientific resources to create 100 and 400 million tons of clean fuels and chemicals per year by 2035 and 2050, according to a press release from the INL.
“Our goal with this shot is firstly to make these alternatives for fuels and for products more cost effective,” Granholm said. “Secondly, by 2035, we want each of them to deliver alternatives to create an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas pollution compared to their fossil input.”
Granholm said the initiative’s success would mean cutting over 650 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year by 2050, or roughly the same as removing more than half of all the gas powered cars in the U.S. off the roads.
Granholm said INL biomass feedstock research will play an important role to fulfill the initiative and achieve the Biden administration’s net zero goal by 2050.
What is biomass feedstock? INL scientists talk benefits, circular economy
The Idaho Falls biomass feedstock facility is the only one of its kind in the nation, according to INL senior staff scientist Jeffrey Lacey.
Lacey said the INL began developing the facility in 2010, with the original design based outdoors. Since receiving the $15 million investment, the INL has added intelligent automation and sensory technology that can sort, clean and compress waste into building materials, car parts and aviation fuel.
“Feedstock is something that is ready to be made into something else,” Lacey said. “The feedstock for something like this would be assorted, cleaned, finely ground material ready to go into the press. It’s something we can go after to extract value to make products, chemicals or fuels.”
Lacey said the feedstock technology can help minimize the amount of plastic that goes into the environment and reduce the need for landfills – particularly in metropolitan areas where garbage disposal costs are high.
Lacey said his team focuses on turning traditionally non-recyclable items into new materials.
“If we can replace an unsustainable item with a sustainable item or a virgin item with a recovered item, we’re improving things and moving toward a circular economy,” Lacey said.
Lacey said the new technology would decrease reliance on other countries for fuel.
“We’re trying to limit the number of virgin resources that we have to keep going after in oil products,” he said. “If we can start to decrease our dependence on oil products, it helps secure our nation to where we’re not relying on the Middle East or Russia, or whatever conflict zone, for our oil prices.”
Manager and senior staff engineer Vicki Thompson said low-income communities would also benefit from feedstock technology.
“Especially in disadvantaged communities — this could be an income source,” she said. “Instead of having to landfill it and pay to collect it, they could get this material sorted and they can make products they can sell.”
‘Idaho is doing great’: U.S. Energy secretary says
Idaho is one of the only Western states that does not have legislation that establishes a clean energy goal. Instead, clean energy goals come from the private sector, where Idaho Power, the state’s largest electricity provider, has set a goal to provide 100% clean energy by 2045.
Granholm told the Idaho Capital Sun that she believes that Idaho is on track to reach the Biden administration’s 100% clean energy goal by 2035 despite not having its own goal as a state.
“We want to work with states in their own way,” she said. “There’s not a plan to require states to do anything.”
Granholm said the INL’s work will help add clean energy sources to the state in the future.
“Idaho is doing great,” she said. “Here in Idaho, you have a massive amount of your energy that’s already produced by clean sources, particularly by hydroelectric power. But we also want to continue to move that along.”
INL director John Wagner said he also anticipates Idaho will use nuclear energy by 2029.
While wind and solar power projects increase across Idaho, Granholm said she understands the backlash from rural communities who oppose those developments.
“Change is hard for anyone,” she said. “And so for communities that haven’t been exposed to this, there needs to be a lot of engagement.”
Granholm said farmers would benefit from engaging in clean energy projects because they would add wind, solar, and now waste streams to their income in addition to income from selling crops.
“Those are ways to keep our farms and our rural communities really vibrant,” she said. “I think farmers understand the importance of sustainability, because they’re seeing what is happening to their own crops because of these extreme weather events.”
Editor’s note: The Idaho National Laboratory provided travel assistance to the Idaho Capital Sun for its ribbon-cutting ceremony.