University researchers turn biomass into energy

11/6/2008 - By: Mike Wolterbeek

Charles Coronella and Victor Vasquez, associate professors in the chemical engineering department of the University of Nevada, Reno, are testing the viability of economically and efficiently converting any leafy or woody biomass into a commercially feasible fuel product. They are working on the pre-treatment portion of the biomass conversion process as part of a $4.6 million study by the Gas Technology Institute.

GTI research and development manager Larry Felix will be on campus Friday to give a free public seminar that includes an introduction to the thermochemical conversion of biomass into syngas, including the pre-treatment process the University researchers are studying. The seminar, titled “R&D Interests in Biomass Gasification” is in the Scrugham Engineering and Mines building, room 261, at 3 p.m. GTI is a not-for-profit research and development organization working to develop and bring to market energy solutions for more than 65 years.

“The development of technologies for cleaning syngas at high temperatures is an important current focus for research and development,” Felix said.

Coronella said they have experimented with wood and agricultural residue such as corn stalks and leaves, rice straw and switchgrass to make a product that is molecularly uniform and dense to optimize the gasification process of converting the biomass to fuel; to find a simple, efficient and cost-effective method.

“Biomass produces a dirty gas if it’s not pretreated,” he said. “The molecular composition of biomass is not ideal for gasification.” Their hydrothermal and dry heating processes produce a carbon-neutral black crumbly char, similar to coal but none of the problems of bad chemical compounds. The product is shaped and sized to behave more like coal, for use in existing processing equipment.

Experts note that reliable feeding systems must be engineered to accommodate different forms of biomass, a significant barrier that continues to hinder the global deployment of biomass-based energy production. Some abundant biomass materials are not feasible energy feedstocks by virtue of the difficulty or cost of handling and preparing them for use. Coronella and Vasquez hope to change that.

Computer modeling simulations and experimental evaluation in the lab tests the processes, which produce two products: the solid to be converted in the gasification process and a sugary water solution, which has promise for conversion to other biofuels.

“There’s a smarter way to use (biomass) fuels other than just burning it,” Coronella said. “We are using two processes to pretreat the biomass before its conversion. One process is hydrothermal – it uses hot pressurized water - and the other is torrefaction – it uses hot nitrogen to, in effect, roast the biomass.”

Principle Investigator for the study is Kent Hoekman, who heads up the Desert Research Institute’s renewable energy program.

"One group at DRI is doing a resource assessment to determine the type and amount of biomass within Nevada; another group is characterizing products resulting from the pretreatment process," he said. One of the most exciting parts of this project is the eventual deployment of a small processing plant here in Nevada that will demonstrate the conversion of biomass to useful products."

Other participants from DRI include Alan Gertler, Amber Broch, Curtis Robbins, John Arnone, Paul Verburg, Tim Minor and Richard Jasoni. Another partnering organization is the Renewable Energy Institute International which will conduct a techno-economic analysis of different biomass-to-energy options in Nevada.

"This work will directly address the nation's high priority of increasing the supply of domestic and renewable energy by integrating advanced technology that improves the conversion of biomass into fuels and power," said Sen. Harry Reid, who secured funding in an Energy and Water Appropriation for the project.


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