Biomass (overview)

Biomass is the oldest and most versatile renewable fuel. It has added benefits, particularly for Hawaii, because farm-grown energy crops can create new agri-businesses, reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels, serve as alternatives to more expensive renewable energy resources, and be cleaner because of new burning and cleaning techniques.

HNEI's previous work included assessing the potential of various crops, evaluating various biomass-to-energy technologies, identifying high-value co-products, and developing technologies to produce solid, liquid and gaseous fuels and chemicals from biomass.

For Hawaii, there is specific interest in liquid biofuels to displace imported petroleum products for both transportation and power generation, along with disposal of waste products in an efficient and potentially energy neutral or beneficial manner.  HNEI’s specific areas of biofuel development span the value chain and include the following:


The Renewable Resources Research Laboratory (R3Lab) is a test-bed for the development of innovative processes for the conversion of biomass into fuels, high-value chemicals, and other products.  A consistent theme of the lab's research throughout its history has been the search for new uses for Hawaii's abundant agricultural crops and by-products.  Recently, the R3Lab's research has focused on the efficient carbonization of biomass.  Biocarbons are a key ingredient in the production of silicon, and are also used to clean water and cook food.  As a substitute of coal in coal-fired powerplants, biocarbons greatly reduce harmful emissions of CO2, SOx, and heavy metals. 


HNEI's program in biomass energy conversion includes pretreatment, conversion processes, and downstream processing. Studies of thermochemical conversion processes are part of the program with emphases on combustion and gasification to produce liquid fuels from synthesis gas. In this process, biomass gasification generates a synthesis gas consisting primarily of H2, CO, and CO2.  HNEI is developing a new technology to produce liquid fuel from the syngas.  The technology includes: (a) catalytic conversion of CO and H2O into CO2 and H2; (b) capture and conversion of CO2 and H2 by an autotrophic bacterium into polyester; and (c) thermal degradation of polyester into a liquid fuel.  A liquid oil via methanolysis of polyester has been obtained in the laboratory.  This research will further improve the microbial conversion efficiency of gas to polyester, and reform the liquid fuel into hydrocarbons (CnH2n) as a “drop in” alternative fuel.

Resource Assessments

HNEI routinely performs assessments of renewable energy resources, both locally and internationally.  For Hawaii, biomass has long been targeted as a major renewable energy resource.

With funding from the State of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism and the US Department of Energy, HNEI recently completed the Bioenergy Master Plan for the State of Hawaii.  This and other reports focused on biomass resources and related analyses are available at Resource Assessment Reports.


Bioprocessing offers the opportunity to use biomass from agricultural and other sources along with low-value waste streams to become a resource for bioenergy and high-value product development.  HNEI is investigating a variety of bioprocessing technology options in value chains focused on energy production and product development. 

Recent R&D

A wide variety of research is underway in the Biomass and Fuels Processing Laboratory, including activities in biomass resource assessment, thermochemical conversion of biomass, evaluation of energy conversion and utilization processes, and reforming of transition fuels for the hydrogen economy. In addition, HNEI researchers led the preparation of the Hawaii Bioenergy Master Plan.



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