Seeking to Hike Biofuel Efficiency

Thursday, March 14, 2013 @ 06:03 PM gHale


Time is getting tight and the world surely needs a form of renewable energy and biomass is one form that can help.

Biomass is a renewable energy source typically made from plant materials. It can convert into biofuels, such as drop-in renewable biodiesel, and other energy sources. Drop-in biofuels are so similar to current transportation fuels manufacturers can develop them with the existing technology and infrastructure used to make petroleum-based fuels, saving on fiscal overhead for new technology.

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That is where a three-year $6.5 million biomass research project comes into play.

“This is a high-risk, high-reward project,” said Praveen Vadlani, , the Gary and Betty Lortscher associate professor of renewable energy in Kansas State University’s department of grain science and industry, is a co-principal investigator in a more than $6.5 million biomass research project between universities, industries and federal agencies. “The goal is to increase commercial industries’ interest in the products that are developed from biomass by adding value to those products. It will be a technical challenge because we want to optimize every component used in the production cycle and make sure that the production cycle is done in a closed-loop system without any emissions since we’re using a renewable energy source.”

The project is being led by Ceramatec Inc., a ceramic, fuel and electrochemical research and development company in Salt Lake City. In addition to Kansas State University, collaborators include Texas A&M, Rice University, Drexel University and Chevron Corporation.

Vadlani and colleagues are studying biomass made from switchgrass and sorghum, both bioenergy-rich crops. Switchgrass is a warm season grass that can convert into large amounts of biomaterial, while sorghum is a major grain crop, livestock feed and the primary source for biofuels production. Researchers selected biomass because it is a more cost-efficient sustainable energy source to produce.

Researchers are evaluating biomass made from these grasses, starting from their growth in the field throughout the production cycles.

Vadlani is focusing on pretreatment and fermentation steps in the production cycle to convert biomass into drop-in biodiesel, jet fuel and bio-lubricants. This includes deconstructing biomass to its core components; separating the sugars from the bio-contaminants; fermentation of useful products; scaling up the production levels from test tubes to liters; and evaluating the energy efficiency of the biofuels produced from the modified production cycle.

“My critical expertise comes in the form of essentially connecting the dots of all of the individual processes in order to make sure that the whole production cycle works efficiently from the first step all the way until the end,” Vadlani said. “Each step in the production cycle may work by itself, but once they are put together there may be conflicts and inefficiencies. That results in lower-quality bio-products being produced.”

In addition to advancing biomass research and bio-product development, the project has strong mentorship and educational aspects to it.

Vadlani will work with a graduate student and postdoctoral research assistant, who also will work with undergraduate students and students in the university’s summer research experience for undergraduates program.

“Along with making advancements to biofuels and industry, I’m looking at this as an opportunity to mentor undergraduate students who will one day go on to make future advancements in biofuels and eco-friendly materials,” Vadlani said.



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