Ames, Iowa – Iowa State University researchers are working to produce clean, renewable energy by developing a new, low-emissions burner and a new catalyst for ethanol production.
Both technologies will use the synthesis gas — a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen — produced by the gasification of discarded seed corn, switchgrass, wood chips and other biomass.
The burner will be designed to efficiently and cleanly burn biomass-based gas. The catalyst will be designed to convert the synthesis gas directly into ethanol.
The project is supported by a two-year, $2.37 million grant from the Iowa Power Fund, a state program to advance energy innovation and independence.
Song-Charng Kong, an Iowa State assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is leading the project. The research team also includes Robert C. Brown, the Iowa Farm Bureau Director of Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute, an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering and the Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering; Victor Lin, a professor of chemistry, director of Iowa State’s Center for Catalysis, director of Chemical and Biological Sciences for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and founder of Catilin Inc., an Ames-based company that produces catalysts for biodiesel production; Samuel Jones, an assistant scientist for the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies; plus seven graduate students and two post-doctoral researchers.
The project also includes two industrial partners: Frontline BioEnergy, an Ames-based company that builds commercial-scale gasification systems; and Hawkeye Energy Holdings, an Ames-based ethanol producer with plants in Iowa Falls, Fairbank, Menlo and Shell Rock.
“We’re excited about this research,” Brown said. “This project partners the thermochemical conversion of biomass with ethanol production.”
The project will move ethanol production beyond the fermentation of simple sugars in corn kernels. The researchers’ idea is to use heat and oxygen to gasify biomass and produce a medium Btu gas (called synthesis gas) that a new catalyst can convert directly into ethanol. They’ll also generate the gas using air to make a low Btu gas (called producer gas) that can be used in gas-fired heating and drying equipment.
“We’re not intending to replace grain ethanol production,” Brown said. “We want to complement it.”