Workshop Draws Thermochemical Commercialization Roadmap

Over 60 people attended an Iowa State University workshop to create a roadmap to commercialize thermochemical processing of biofuels and bio-products. The workshop resulted in a series of recommendations to overcome hurdles, including feedstock development/logistics, conversion, public and policy support.

The workshop helped build relationships among researchers, industry, and agricultural producers in the Midwest,” said Jill Euken, deputy director of Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute. “The Roadmap to Commercialize Thermochemical Biofuels and Bio-products Processing in the Midwest Workshop” was held in December 2012 and was sponsored in part by Iowa NSF EPSCoR.

[PHOTO]Manuk Colakyan

Manuk Colakyan of Renmatix adds a discussion point to the board during a session to gather recommendations to speed commercialization of thermochemical processing in Midwest.

Thermochemical processing encompasses a number of technologies used to convert biomass such as corn stover or grasses into bio-oils, advanced biofuels, and bio-products. Such technologies include pyrolysis (heating in the absence of oxygen), gasification, and solvent liquefaction, among others. Thermochemical processing is key in the development of new technologies to create biofuels and other bio-based products, according to Euken. “These technologies will provide benefits beyond the biochemical processes traditionally used in the production of biofuels such as ethanol. And, they’re able to handle mixed biomass feedstocks, which is important in the Midwest,” she said.

Optimal Feedstocks and Commercial Pathways

The workshop goals included defining the optimal biomass feedstocks for thermochemical processing and identifying commercial pathways for the technologies in the Midwest. Representatives of ten companies working to commercialize thermochemical processing of biomass attended. Each described their company’s technologies, goals, desired type of feedstock, and amount of biomass needed for commercial operation. “These are leading companies in the biofuels processing industry,” Euken said.

Iowa NSF EPSCoR scientists made several presentations at the workshop. Robert C. Brown, leader of the bioenergy team and director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State, provided an overview of thermochemical conversion technologies. Mark Wright, a member of both the bioenergy and energy policy teams and a professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State, spoke about the impacts of facility scale and location on the costs of a thermochemical biorefinery. David Laird, also a member of the bioenergy team and a professor of agronomy and environmental science at Iowa State, explained his research into the use of biochar­ — a product of thermochemical biomass processing — as a soil amendment.

A panel of U.S. Department of Agriculture and Iowa State faculty members, all experts on plant breeding and agronomy, described how different agricultural approaches can be used to optimize the yield of biomass feedstocks while minimizing undesirable components such as ash, nitrogen, and moisture. Several Midwest biomass feedstock suppliers described their organizations, past projects, and criteria for new projects. Chris Williams, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at Iowa State, covered the production of bio-asphalt using thermochemical processes.

Attendees represented academia, industry, and state and federal government. One attendee said that the conference showed that “Industry involvement and interest has increased significantly in the last decade.” Another noted that “the thermochemical industry is moving toward commercialization and is robust enough to handle diverse feedstocks.” According to a survey of attendees, more than 85 percent said they had a “better to much better understanding” of the ideal feedstock characteristics for thermochemical processing after attending the event.

Along with Iowa NSF EPSCoR, sponsors included the Bioeconomy Institute, CenUSA Bioenergy (grant number 2011-68005-30411 from USDA NIFA CAP), USDA Central-East Regional Biomass Research Center, and the Iowa Energy Center.

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