Iowa Energy Center supports research aimed at building Iowa

AMES, Iowa - 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."

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."