Research Expertise

Cutting a switchgrass field for baling.

The BioCentury Research Farm brings together scientific expertise to address biomass production systems; harvest, storage, transportation logistics of biomass supply; and advanced biofuel and bioproduct processing. Researchers study systems to turn a variety of biomass feedstocks into bio-oil or synthesis gas using thermochemical technologies, and ethanol and industrial chemicals by fermentation, integrated systems using thermochemical and fermentation technologies, or plant fractionation and biomaterials manufacturing.

Digital Agriculture

Field plot photoDigital agriculture research is focused on the development and integration of technology to provide information to support agricultural decisions. Specifically, the program focuses on a continuous improvement approach for crop production and risk mitigation. The BioCentury Research Farm provides researchers with access to facilities for technology development as well as access to crop production demonstration plots to verify data-driven solutions. The research farm is a hub for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) research at Iowa State University and serves as both a development platform for UAV technology as well as a training station to educate producers on the uses of UAVs. Researchers are also actively engaged in the development of new crop sensing technology to precisely measure grain yield. Increased grain yield accuracy supports precise variable rate management plans, which can simultaneously increase profitability and environmental stewardship. The outcomes have been enhanced by the strong public-private partnerships developed with Iowa companies involved in agricultural technology.

Accomplishments

  • Yield technology improvements recognized with a Silver Medal at the 2015 Agritechnica Innovations Exhibit.
  • Eight patent filings and 17 technology license agreements in the past three years have facilitated broad access to technology innovations for agricultural producers.
  • An integrated extension program provides stakeholder education on UAVs, data security and digital agriculture tools.

Future Work

  •  UAV-based individual crop health assessment and real-time decision support.
  • Calibration of high-resolution aerial imagery for stable prediction of crop health impacts.

Digital Agriculture Website
Download the Digital Agriculture factsheet (PDF)

Principal Investigator: Matt Darr, BCRF Administrative Leader and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering

Biomass Supply Chain Management

A forktruck is lifting a bale onto a semi truck bed.The biomass supply chain management program focuses on sustainable and efficient methods of corn stover production for cellulosic biofuels. Researchers explore a range of topics including advanced harvesting machinery development, storage and quality preservation techniques for biomass feedstocks, machinery fleet management optimization and incorporation of biomass harvesting into a sustainable crop management plan. The BioCentury Research Farm provides the team a wide range of research tools including the high-capacity biomass analysis lab, data analytics tools, industrial-quality storage-testing facilities and instrumented machinery for analyzing biomass production operations. An integrated extension and outreach program supports the direct transfer of research results to the public and has served a critical role in increasing the knowledge of Iowans involved in the bioeconomy. The outcomes of this program have been enhanced by the strong public-private partnerships developed with Iowa companies.

Accomplishments

  • Biomass machinery development research has led to a 35 percent reduction in ash content in corn stover feedstock.
  • Biomass machinery fleet management solutions have reduced the cost of corn stover production by 40 percent compared to initial benchmarks.
  • Biomass storage research has developed best management practices to maximize the long-term quality of biomass to ensure year-round cellulosic biorefinery operation.
  • Twenty-three extension publications were developed to educate the public and the biomass supply chain industry on best practices for sustainable and efficient corn stover production. www.extension.iastate.edu/stover

Future Work

  • Integration of strip-till management with corn stover harvesting for sustainable biomass production.
  • Just-in-time delivery scheduling for consistent feedstock supply and quality to a cellulosic biorefinery.

Learn more about digital agriculture
Download the Biomass Supply Chain Management factsheet (PDF)

Principal Investigator: Matt Darr, BCRF Administrative Leader and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering

Biomass Feedstock Preparation

A researcher taking apart a bale.Biomass feedstocks can be dried, ground and sized in the Biomass Storage and Pretreatment Building at the BioCentury Research Farm. Various dryers, grinders, mills and sieves are available to process biomass for biofuels and biochemical projects. The building also features a fine particle biomass preparation lab that is used for fine grinding, sieving, pelleting, milling, briquetting and particle size distribution determination. The lab is designed to accommodate 12 independent equipment stations. The BioCentury Research Farm is one of the few facilities in the nation capable of grinding and sizing large quantities of research quality biomass feedstocks while still accommodating small-quantity projects.

Accomplishments

  • The BioCentury Research Farm received and processed 60 tons of biomass feedstocks for the National Advanced Biofuels Consortium. Approximately 50 tons of ground biomass were shipped to eight NABC members.
  • Developed methods to receive and process small and large quantities of various biomass feedstocks.
  • Became internationally known for providing clean, high-quality ground feedstocks.
  • Provided 100 micron stover to the U.S. Department of Energy.
  • Successfully torrefied several feedstocks including stover.
  • Mechanically depithed corn stocks.
  • Successfully prepared a variety of feedstocks: alfalfa, aspen, bagasse, bean stover, eucalyptus, corn stover, eggshells, oak, pine, poplar, refuse derived fuel, sorghum, switchgrass and others.
  • Provided over 100 tons of modified material to every major university, company and national lab working with biomass-to-fuels or chemical-related projects.

Future Work

  • Develop standards for biomass feedstocks according to initial condition and end use. » Provide energy use data and throughput information summary.

Download the Biomass Feedstock Preparation factsheet (PDF)

Principal Investigator: Andy Suby, BCRF Manager

Long-term Assessment of Miscanthus Productivity and Sustainability (LAMPS)

Researchers planting Miscanthus.Cropping systems that are profitable for farmers and balance societal needs for food, feed, fuel, energy, clean air and water are the focus of Iowa State University’s Long-term Assessment of Miscanthus Productivity and Sustainability project (LAMPS). Miscanthus has received widespread attention as a biomass crop in Europe where it is used primarily for combustion in power plants. It is desirable for this use because of its low water and ash contents and high-energy output to input ratio. The plant also uses nitrogen efficiently and is a perennial crop. Miscanthus is being investigated as a biomass crop for bioenergy and biofuels.

Learn more about LAMPS
Download the LAMPS factsheet (PDF)

Principal Investigator: Emily Heaton, Associate Professor of Agronomy

Autothermal Pyrolysis

Three researchers inspecting the autothermal pyrolysis unit.The fast pyrolysis process development unit (PPDU) located at the BioCentury Research Farm has been in operation since 2009 and serves as a test bed for pilot-scale deployment of technology developed within the Bioeconomy Institute. The PPDU is able to process a wide variety of feedstocks including both woody and herbaceous material into higher-value bio-oil intermediates using fluidized bed technology and a novel stage fractionation collection system. The pilot system can process 22 kilograms of biomass per hour continuously. Development of the stage fractionation process has resulted in several breakthroughs in the utilization or targeted upgrading of specific stage fractions into fuels, chemicals and products.

Accomplishments

  • Awarded a patent for multi-stage, online fractionation of bio-oil.
  • Completed ground up redesign and redeployment to integrate industry level
  • automation, controls and data acquisition systems.
  • Successfully accomplished continuous processing of pretreated biomass and online recovery of sugars, phenolic oil and biochar from woody and herbaceous biomass.
  • Achieved autothermal pyrolysis using 100 percent air fluidization.
  • Developed process intensification through autothermal operation resulting in tripling
  • the capacity of biomass throughput using the same reactor footprint.
  • Increase sugar yield from corn stover 15 times through successful pretreatment methods.
  • Became a test bed for ongoing research into material selection for corrosion resistance in thermochemical liquefaction environments.

Current/Future Work

  • Pilot testing for a 50 ton per day modular Autothermal Py-Refinery with integrated biomass pretreatment and product recovery for the production of fermentable sugars, phenolics, and high porosity biochar.
  • Ongoing large volume production of bio-oil for internal and external R&D customers.

Learn more about autothermal pyrolysis
Download the Autothermal Pyrolysis factsheet (PDF)

Principal Investigator: Robert C. Brown, Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Biomass Gasification and Syngas Cleaning

Researchers working on the gasification unit.Bioeconomy Institute engineers are conducting research to convert biomass into clean syngas using gasification. A pilot-scale 25 kilograms per hour fluidized bed gasifier and syngas cleaning system was built at the BioCentury Research Farm. The reactor vessel incorporates a novel guard heating system to simulate near-adiabatic operation of industrial gasifiers, and is effective for gasification temperatures up to 900°C and operating pressures up to 1 atmosphere. The system features continuous online sampling of both contaminants and gas species and a state-of-the-art control system. The cleaning system downstream of the gasifier removes the contaminants using several techniques: oil scrubbing is used to remove tars, sulfur compounds are removed via solid-phase adsorption and ammonia is removed by water scrubbing. The primary gasification feedstock is switchgrass, but other possibilities include corn stover, wood fiber, corn fiber and red oak.

Accomplishments

  • Produces Fischer-Tropsch quality clean gas:
    – H2S < 0.2 ppm, COS < 0.6 ppm, CS2 < 0.01 ppm
    – NH3 < 0.9 ppm
  • Continuous limestone injection system for extended operation with high ash content feedstocks.
  • Slipstream syngas conditioning system suitable for gas fermentation applications.

Future Work

  • Hybrid processing of synthesis gas through fermentation.
  • Gasification of refuse-derived fuel (RDF) and cleanup of produced syngas.

Learn more about biomass gasicfication and syngas cleaning
Download the biomass gasification and syngas cleaning factsheet (PDF)

Principal Investigator: Robert C. Brown, Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Solvent Liquefaction

A researcher looking at products made from solvent liquefaction.The pilot-scale solvent liquefaction system (1 kilogram per hour capacity) was an Iowa State University partnership with Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV) that demonstrated solvent liquefaction as a pathway to produce low cost drop-in transportation fuels. The solvent liquefaction system mixed a proprietary solvent with woody or herbaceous biomass which was extruded into a reactor and split into an upper stream that handled gases and vapors and a lower stream that handled liquids and small amounts of solids. Each stream had a series of filters and separators that recovered products that included bio-oil, small amounts of biochar and solvent for recycling. CTV hydroprocessed the bio-oil into refinery compatible biocrude and fuel blendstocks. The pilot plant test results were used to conduct a techno-economic analysis and develop a demonstration plant design. This work was done because continuous pilot-scale production and recovery of these materials is critical to demonstrate the commercial viability of solvent liquefaction for the production of drop-in hydrocarbon transportation fuels.

Accomplishments

  • Formed partnership that brought the CTV solvent liquefaction pilot plant ($1.4 million) to Iowa State University.
  • Acquired a four-year, $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Biomass Research and Development Initiative.
  • Achieved >65 percent oil yield in single-pass mode without the use of reducing gas or catalysts.
  • Bio-oil product produced with oxygen content of ≤10 percent. ≤1 percent when hydroprocessed.

Future Work

  • Continue commercialization of the solvent liquefaction process.
  • Work with new feedstocks, such as lignin, and solvents to create fuel and chemical intermediates.

Learn more about solvent liquefaction
Download the Solvent Liquefaction factsheet (PDF)

Principal Investigator: Robert C. Brown, Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Biochemical Processing

Two researchers using the Rotary Steam Tube Drying System.Biochemical processing research will further develop industrial fermentation and downstream processing strategies to enable successful commercialization of various bioprocessing technologies. Industry and faculty use the facility to scale‐up new biotechnology products and processes for crop seed technologies through finished consumer products. In addition, the BioCentury Research Farm is equipped to replicate the entire dry‐grind ethanol process at large pilot scale, allowing researchers to develop new technologies to reduce water and energy consumption in grain ethanol production.

Accomplishments

  • Worked with a leading algae technology company to develop natural food supplements.
  • Pilot‐scale work done with Pioneer Hi‐Bred International, Inc. to develop recombinant proteins productions.
  • Production of bioplastic materials and bio‐pesticide for the start‐up companies.
  • Worked with Kemin Industrial to develop processes to increase the efficiency of ethanol production.

Future Work

  • Establish the BioCentury Research Farm as the top research facility for large pilot‐scale fermentation for the food, feed, pharmaceuticals and fuels industries.
  • Develop hands‐on training programs on industrial processes.
  • Create fermentation‐derived products.
  • Provide platforms for the testing and development of bioprocessing‐related sensor, instrumentation and control technologies.

Download the Biochemical Processing factsheet (PDF)

Principal Investigator: Zhiyou Wen, Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition

Bio-Polymer Processing Facility

Two researchers working in the Bio-Polymer Processing Facility.The Bio-Polymer Processing Facility converts fats and vegetable oils into plastics. The facility allows Iowa State University engineers to research and develop their process for producing biopolymers. It also “de-risks” technologies for companies that could be interested in producing tons of biopolymers each year. The facility can make about 1,000 pounds of biopolymers per day, and will be used for evaluation in several different industries including asphalt paving, adhesives, coatings and packing materials.

Accomplishments

  • A $5.3 million facility was built at the BioCentury Research Farm by industry partner Argo Genesis Chemical LLC.
  • Commissioned the Bio-Polymer Processing Facility.
  • Produced asphalt binder for accelerated testing at the National Center for Asphalt Technology.

Future Work

  • Manufacture adhesives from co-products of the biofuels industry.
  • Scale up unique biobased monomers and polymers.

Download the Bio-Polymer Processing Facility factsheet (PDF)

Principal Investigator: Eric Cochran, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Algae Technologies for Water Quality

A researcher testing the algae in a raceway pond.Algae are being explored as an option to remove pollutants from industrial and municipal wastewater. The algae biomass requires nitrogen and phosphorus for growth, which can be supplied by industrial and municipal wastewater. Iowa State University is conducting research using biofilm-based algal reactors to scale up new algal biomass production technologies for wastewater treatment. One technology developed is the rotating algal biofilm (RAB) system, a series of serpentine belts that alternate between the wastewater and the air. The algal biomass grown can be manufactured into fertilizer, bioplastics and other products depending on the wastewater source. The team also has developed a portable RAB system that can be transported to industrial and municipal sites to treat wastewater.

Accomplishments

  • Awarded two US Patents (US Patents #9,932,549 and #10,125,341) for the novel algal reactor design and operation. Developed the RAB system for wastewater treatment that is being commercialized by a student-led startup company.
  • Received over more than $4,000,000 of grant funding and private investment to commercialize the technology.
  • Received a USDA Small Business Innovation Research grant to assist with commercialization of the technology.
  • Formed a partnership with the City of Chicago that implementing the RAB system for the wastewater at one of their facilities.

Future Work

  • Implement commercial RAB systems to treatment rural community municipal lagoon system throughout the U.S.

Download the Algae Technologies for Water Quality factsheet (PDF)

Principal Investigator: Zhiyou Wen, Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition