From the Antarctic to biofueling America – Marc Pomeroy

Marc is a quiet, unassuming kind of guy – you only realize how smart and competent he is when you get to know him and work with him. After a career in the US Antarctic Program (USAP), he now works at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. Marc is a recent member of NN, so he’ll probably be happy to answer questions here! His wife is Sue Pomeroy.
Here’s a quick disclaimer.[1]

Can you describe your current project in 5 sentences?…

I am involved in the pilot-scale transformation of biomass by thermochemical means to advanced bio-fuels. Whew. We take non-food cellulose biomass or other municipal waste and heat it to high temperatures. In the absence of oxygen and depending on temperature, we either gasify the material to syngas (Hydrogen and Carbon Monoxide) that can be synthesized into liquid fuels or converted to energy, or pyrolize the material and the resulting oil can also be converted to bio-fuels, bio-products or bio-energy.

What impact does this have – or will this have – in the bigger context?

In the US, the largest amount of petroleum is used as liquid transportation fuels, which result in the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases when combusted. If done correctly, using biomass and waste products to create bio-fuels or other useful forms of energy (electricity and heat) will lessen the requirements for petroleum-based transportation fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide jobs in rural areas, can actually increase soil quality and lead to a greater energy independence. Bio-fuels will not be the silver bullet to solve all the energy problems but can play a significant role on the production side.

Where do you think NREL should focus its efforts?

The US Department of Energy just renewed the contract for operation of NREL and took the opportunity to re-focus the mission of the lab – I think they did a pretty good job: provide timely market analyses, drive technology development and increase understanding of underlying scientific principles, and accelerate commercialization of renewable technologies. I would also like to see a greater commitment to the education of school children and of the general public, not only on how energy use dominates our lives, but how the US can change our economy through the creation of jobs and net savings by first conserving energy and secondly by replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources.

Your career before this, for many years, was with the USAP. What made you change to NREL?

I’ve been interested in the efficient use of energy since I was small. I also saw the direct impacts of using energy from fossil fuels in the Antarctic, and am attracted to environments where multi-disciplinary science is going on all around me. At NREL, while I am focusing on thermochemical biofuels, there are also world leaders in wind, solar, biochemical biomass conversion, hydrogen, vehicles, building systems, electrical infrastructure, etc. busy all around me. We are looking at a common goal and take different approaches to solve a piece of the puzzle.
I also get to stay home with my wife and children – even if it means less frequent flyer miles..

What was your favorite Antarctic moment?

Sitting atop the Labyrinth Dais in the upper Wright Valley. The noise of the helicopter that dropped us off was gone and I was gazing down at the Airdevronsix Icefalls where the Polar Plateau spills in to the valley. In a moment of cold and quiet contemplation, I was looking into the face of God. It was truly one of the most profound moments of my life and made me appreciate what a gift it was to visit one of the most beautiful places on our planet.

What do you miss?

I especially enjoyed travel and being at sea. There is nothing quite like the way sea ice yields to the bow of a ship. I also enjoyed working with dynamic and fun people from all walks of life.

What – so far – has been your best moment at NREL?

When I first started I had – and still have – a tremendous amount of learning to do about all things energy related. One of my co-workers was a wonderful mentor with over 20 years experience in the energy field who gave me a lot of perspective and technical understanding. Just talking with him every day gave me new things to think about. Unfortunately for me, with the boom in the renewable energy field, a lot of private companies are offering attractive jobs for those with experience, and he has moved on.

What causes you to work overtime?

Because I work on a pilot plant, it is fairly expensive to get up and running for a series of experiments. We typically run for extended periods of time and overtime is always a possibility, but this only happens a couple of times per year. Otherwise I just get lost in the day and don’t realize what time it is.

What are your biggest challenges right now?

Time constraints – my commute can vary between 45 minutes and two hours each way, depending on traffic or whether I take public transportation. Trying to balance work with making time for the family or jobs around the house is hard. We would like to move across town but are limited by the current housing market.
What gives you the most satisfaction?

Looking toward the possibilities of the future. Helping design new systems or improve old ones to do things that have never been done before. Knowing that I did my job well, especially when I have made an improvement that makes my life or that of others easier in the future.

What ‘special requirements’ would you say are needed for your job?

As boring as is sounds, patience is the greatest special requirement that I struggle with. The government moves slowly and not always in the directions we want. The important thing is to be patient, do the best job you can, and propose different approaches to situations backed by reasons that appeal to the audience.

Sue – what do you think of Marc’s career? What are you happier with?

I haven’t seen Marc this happy with what he’s doing in a long time. He cares about what he’s doing – for the environment, for the world population, for science. And that makes a huge difference for him. He loves talking about biofuels, the science and the politics, and I enjoy the engaging conversations we have. There’s still cross-over, I think – it’s as if Marc moved into the sequel of his Antarctic career, from supporting the science of discovering and identifying the climate change issues, to figuring out some of the possible solutions to it.

fn1. Marc has to add that all of the above is his personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect that of NREL, the US Government or its contractors.

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The post has been moved to SciLogs, where you can also read the comments made at the time.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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6 Responses to From the Antarctic to biofueling America – Marc Pomeroy

  1. Maxine Clarke says:

    Fascinating interview. Biofuels are such a controversial area – some people say that growing crops for fuel, rather than for agriculture, is in itself environmentally “suspect”. Others disagree. I’ve read good articles and arguments for both views, and I am not sure which seems to be the best supported.

  2. Marc Pomeroy says:

    I really think it depends on the local ecology and how it is managed.
    For example:
    Cutting down sections of a rain forest to either grow fuel crops directly or to grow food crops that were displaced by energy crops is very damaging. – Maybe not the best idea.
    However, on another extreme, planting a diverse mixture of prairie grasses that don’t need irrigation or fertilizer on marginal land had a strong positive impact on soil quality and wildlife habitat as well as being a renewable energy source.
    Requiring additional inputs such as fertilizer and water can dramatically impact how beneficial a fuel crop might be in the overall balance.
    Crop rotations can also be beneficial to soil quality where there may be a food crop for a couple years and then an energy crop.
    So as a scientist I say it all depends… (That really drives my friend nuts). There are many factors to consider and the local ecology, additional inputs, and transportation distance to use defines what impacts could be.

  3. steffi suhr says:

    Yes.. I remember reading somewhere that the EU legislation on ethanol in fuel has already had an impact on the Amazon rainforest in terms of more being cut down to grow soy. Dumb.
    Instead, I like the idea of prairie grass – but Marc, have there been studies on possible erosion problems that may(?) arise when the grass is ‘harvested’?

  4. Marc Pomeroy says:

    Although I am not an agricultural expert, with proper harvesting techniques, erosion should be a minor problem.
    I would think that the majority of erosion would result from wheel ruts of heavy equipment. With proper timing of harvest and varying direction of harvest, etc. gully type erosion should be minimized. I’m sure that there is a lot of agricultural research on the best ways to accomplish that.
    Also collection of hay would have to leave enough height to protect root material, protect valuable topsoil from wind, and encourage retention of water during winter months.
    Part of the benefit of a mixed prairie is that it sequesters carbon (and other nutrients) in the soil. Only by maintaining a healthy ecosystem will that benefit be realized.

  5. steffi suhr says:

    Marc, is this – effects of prairie-grass use on the prairie ecosystem – being looked at by NREL at all? Or do you concentrate just on making the fuel?
    Has anyone done the calculations on how much fuel could realistically be ‘made’ from prairie grass?

  6. Marc Pomeroy says:

    The prairie ecosystem impacts and feedstock resources are being studied by other national labs, Federal agencies (USDA and NSF) and universities. We will take their data to help with the overall picture but we don’t generate that data ourselves.
    Mixed Prairie Grasses Better Source of Biofuel Than Corn Ethanol and Soybean Biodiesel

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