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Iowa Energy Centre delves into the bioeconomy

May 14, 2012, Ames, IA - Three research teams affiliated with Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute have won Iowa Energy Center grants to help them combine biorenewable technologies for better production of fuels and chemicals.


May 14, 2012
By Iowa State University

May 14, 2012, Ames, IA – Three research teams affiliated with Iowa State University’s
Bioeconomy Institute have won Iowa Energy Center grants to help them
combine biorenewable technologies for better production of fuels and
chemicals.

The Iowa Energy Center awarded one year research and
demonstration grants to the teams with negotiated renewal terms of up to
three years. Funding for all three years, for all three research teams,
would result in up to $983,000 in grants.

The Iowa Energy Center,
which is based in Ames and administered by Iowa State, annually awards
research and demonstration grants designed to improve energy efficiency
and renewable energy technologies across the state.

“Part of the
Iowa Energy Center’s mission is to develop alternate energy systems that
are based on renewable resources,” said Chitra Rajan, interim director
of the center and an associate vice president for research at Iowa
State. “And so we’re excited about these grants because they support
studies of technologies that produce and use biorenewable fuels and
products. These research projects can help to decrease our dependence on
imported fuels while increasing opportunities for our state’s economy.”

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All
three projects involve the thermochemical conversion of biomass to
biorenewable fuels and products. Project and grant details include:


Up to a three-year, $468,000 grant to a research team led by
Song-Charng Kong, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.
Other researchers working on the project are Robert C. Brown, an Anson
Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering and the Gary and Donna
Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering; Eliot Winer, an associate
professor of mechanical engineering and associate director of the
Virtual Reality Applications Center; and Guiping Hu, an assistant
professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering.

Researchers
from the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies have built a
unique gasifier that uses high temperatures and pressures to convert
bio-oil to a synthesis gas that can be processed into transportation
fuels.

The process combines two thermochemical technologies that
convert biomass such as corn stalks to fuels: First, the researchers use
fast pyrolysis – quickly heating biomass without oxygen – to produce a
liquid bio-oil that can be used to manufacture fuels, chemicals and
asphalt. And second, the gasifier developed by Brown and Nicholas
Creager, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, vaporizes the
bio-oil to produce the mixture of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and other
gases that make up synthesis gas.

The energy center grant will
allow Kong’s and his students to gasify bio-oil and develop a computer
simulation of the gasifier and its performance. The experimental testing
and computational tool will help them improve gasifier performance and
predict the performance of a commercial-size plant. They’ll also use
virtual engineering tools to visualize the layout and operation of a
commercial plant.

“This study is to develop enabling technology to
produce transportation fuels via bio-oil gasification,” Kong said. “If
successful, the technology developed in this study can potentially turn
Iowa’s agricultural residue into valued feedstock to produce biofuels.”


Up to a three-year, $315,000 grant to a research team led by Laura
Jarboe, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering.
Other researchers working on the project are Brown; Zhiyou Wen, an
associate professor of food science and human nutrition; Zhanyou Chi, a
post-doctoral research associate for the Center for Sustainable
Environmental Technologies; and Shengde Zhou, an assistant professor of
biological sciences at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

Jarboe
and her research team will use pyrolysis to release fermentable
substrates from biomass. Microbes convert these substrates to ethanol
and other biorenewable chemicals.

The grant will allow the
researchers to study how pretreatments of these biomass-derived
substrates, such as the addition of ozone, can improve fermentation. The
grant will also support studies to see how genetic changes to the
bacteria can increase their ability to use the substrates released from
biomass. And the project includes an economic analysis of the entire
process to identify areas that need improvement.

“This means that
we can use types of biomass that are not currently suitable for use as
human or animal feed,” Jarboe said. “Our focus is on increasing the
economic viability of this overall process so that the chemicals and
fuels we produce will be economically competitive with petroleum-based
products.”

• Up to a two-year, $200,000 grant to a research team
led by Brown. The team also includes Jarboe; David Laird, a professor of
agronomy; and Bernardo del Campo, a graduate student in mechanical
engineering.

The researchers are converting biochar, a charcoal
that’s produced by fast pyrolysis, to activated carbon, a form of carbon
that’s processed to be porous with a large surface area. Activated
carbon is often used to remove impurities from gases or liquids.

The
researchers will study how activated carbon from biochar can be used to
clean the synthesis gas produced by gasification and to detoxify
bio-oil from fast pyrolysis. They’ll develop different types of
activated carbon for other applications, including production of
commodity chemicals, carbon sequestration and soil enhancers for
agriculture. They’ll also analyze how the activated carbon affects the
economics of fast pyrolysis of biomass.

“Biochar is an inevitable
co-product of the thermochemical production of biofuels,” Brown said.
“Thus, the prospects for biofuels are improved if we can find high-value
applications of the biochar. Conversion to activated carbon would be
such a high-value product.”

After all, said del Campo, “It is the
same carbon in the charcoal that could be turned into a precious
diamond. Thus, researchers are studying the conditions and processes in
which this precious material could thrive in a prosperous bioeconomy.”


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