At Iowa State University’s (ISU) BioCentury Research Farm, a line-up of biomass and alternative energy projects has processing Facility Manager Andy Suby excited about moving from bench-scale research into pilot plants and commercial scale processing, as well as and cellulosic work to support the POET plant in Emmetsburg and the DuPont plant in Nevada is just part of the story.

"We’re sampling their bales and supplying them with data like moisture content, ash analysis and decay over time – what that bale was like when we got it and how it stores over time," he explains.

"Handling low-density, dirty, wet materials like this can be difficult, but once they prove they can handle this material, they have a market to move into, and you might see other markets develop."

Suby is also excited about Dr. Robert Brown’s work on fast pyrolysis.

"We rapidly heat biomass to about 500 degrees Centigrade, and it flashes into a vapor that we can then condense into an oil," Brown explains. "We perfected the process to make it more energy efficient ,and to intensify it so we get more output for less inputs."

With corn stover as a feedstock, the resulting bio oil can be fractionated into a variety of higher value products, including sugars that can then be fermented to produce butanol. The lignin in the feedstock can be converted to a solid fuel that replaces coal in boilers.

"It’s a lot cleaner," says Brown. "It doesn’t have the sulfur coal has and doesn’t have some of the ash fouling problems you can get from burning raw biomass."

Another byproduct is bio-char, a charcoal-like material that can be used as a soil amendment and for carbon sequestration.

The process has been demonstrated on a small pilot scale and is expected to move shortly to a larger pilot scale, using up to 50 tons of biomass per day, then advance fairly quickly to commercialization, according to Brown.

"Our goal is to do shakedown trials next spring, and have a full-scale demonstration operating at Stein Seeds by the fall of 2017."

Research in algae

Algae research at the BioCentury Farm is on another promising pathway.

"Algae uses sunlight, CO2 from the air, nitrogen and phosphorus to grow, just like corn and soybeans, but methods for growing it are not well developed," explains Martin Gross, one of the project’s researchers. "

"We’ve developed a system of growing it as a biofilm that is about 10 times more efficient than traditional methods."

The most common algae has a very high oil content, similar to soybeans, that can be used in livestock feed, pharmaceuticals, nutriceuticals and cosmetics, but Gross is especially excited about algae’s potential use in wastewater treatment to remove carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus from industrial or municipal systems.

"Current systems use chemicals or bacteria and are very energy intensive," says Gross. "You can grow algae with less energy, remove CO2 from the atmosphere and convert the algae you grow into biofuels and other products."

In contrast, not much can be done with the waste from the bacterial process.

The Metropolitan Wastewater District of Greater Chicago is currently testing this algal technology in a pilot project, and the research could move to the commercial stage by next year.

"Iowa is an ideal place for a technology like this to start up because so many of our key industries like corn processing and livestock produce large amounts of wastewater with high nitrogen and phosphorus levels," Gross explains.

Other projects at the farm continue to look at the potential in crops like miscanthus, switchgrass and cover crops. Always, the emphasis is on sustainability and economic return, according to Suby. "If it’s not sustainable, we’re not interested. Our goal is to bring jobs and industry to the state of Iowa."

Munro is a freelance writer in Windsor Heights.