AMES - The BioCentury Research Farm at Iowa State University is a first-in-the-nation facility dedicated to research and demonstration in biomass production and processing.
Now in its in third year of operation, the ISU BioCentury Research Farm has been working on several projects for the use of different feedstocks in biomass production and different trials on harvesting, storage and transporting of the biomass.
"We are designed to bring all of the pieces together," said Lawrence Johnson, director of the BioCentury Research Farm. "Other places may be working on a particular piece, but nowhere else is there someone trying to bring those pieces together in one place. We go all the way back to plant genetics up to conversion. Having all of the pieces is very important."
-Messenger photo by Larry Kershner
Andrew Friend, graduate student in mechanical engineering, left, and Lysle Whitmer, program engineer for the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technology, work on the fast pyrolysis unit located in the thermochemical train.
A current project being researched in conjunction with DuPont Ethanol is helping develop a supply chain for the 560,000 bales the company will need each year at its cellulosic ethanol facility being built near Nevada.
Andy Suby, biomass processing facility manager, said handling that massive number of bales is quite an undertaking, and they are working together on figuring out the most productive way to harvest, bale, store and transport that much biomass.
Single pass harvesting
They are working on a single-pass harvesting system that will eliminate the customary three to four passes across the field, reducing compaction and the raking part of the process - which should dramatically reduce the amount of dirt raked up into the corn stover.
"With single pass harvesting, you pull the baler behind in the combine where it makes a square bale, in most cases, and all there is to do is pick up the bale later," said Suby. "This also allows for controlling the height of the cutterbar, to accommodate the ground you are going over and can be tailored site-specific to take the right amount of corn stover needed off of the field."
Suby said they have also been consulting with POET for its cellulosic plant in Emmetsburg, as well, and that this project has been ongoing at the BioCentury Research Farm practically since the farm's beginning.
Through research of handling corn stover, they have also found a merging market for the biomass for other uses than fuels.
For example, Johnson said, other companies are using the stover for other value-added products such as chemical, paper, construction products and the BioCentury Research Farm are helping to provide the material to those companies for the development and research of these products.
"We are the only source of clean stover for people," said Suby.
Suby added that they also have the capacity to meet any specification and size of the stover a processor wants and they do the majority of the drying and grinding of the corn stover used in these situations.
"We work closely with the companies," said Johnson. "We like to see these technologies commercialized."
Other forms of research include studying specialty crops, such as miscanthus and switchgrass, for use for biofuels and finding a market for those alternative crops; conversion processes of feedstocks; and one of the newest subjects being researched is the use of algae to be used eventually as biodiesel and for food in the aquaculture industry.
Martin Gross, graduate student at ISU is heading up the research of utilizing algae.
"The idea stemmed from some previous research that I read that used a biofilm to grow algae instead of just allowing the algae to be suspended in a culture," said Gross. "Other than that, the idea kind of developed piece by piece with no real influence by any one thing."
Gross said algae can contain up to 60 percent oils, which is much more than other oil crops.
"So algae is an ideal feedstock for making biodiesel," said Gross. "Many of these oils are omega 3 fatty acids which have significant health benefits. The reason fish are high in omega 3s are because they eat algae. Algae can also be used as a feed source for aquaculture, livestock or pet food. Researchers at ISU are looking into its potential as a thermochemical feedstock."
Typically, Gross said algal cultivation has been mainly performed in open ponds or closed photobioreactors in which those algal cells are suspended in liquid and harvested through costly sedimentation, flocculation and/or centrifugation devices.
The objective of his project at the BioCentury Farm is to develop a novel biofilm-based algal cultivation system to reduce the biomass harvest cost.
"In our attached growth system, algal cells are attached to a material that is rotating between nutrient-rich liquid phase and carbon dioxide rich gaseous phase for alternative absorption of nutrients and carbon dioxide," said Gross. "The algal cells can be harvested by scrapping from the attached surface, and thus, the expensive harvest procedures commonly used in a suspension cultivation system can be avoided."
Gross is hoping this algae harvesting process can go commercial soon and has started his own company.
"My company, Gross Renewables LLC, is currently working on this," he said. "It is hard to say when, but if our research is successful, we should be able to leverage money to commercialize the process."
"Some of our brightest students that have worked on projects at the BioCentury Farm are going out and starting up companies from their research," said Johnson.