Iowa receives $20 million for renewable energy research

By Kris Bevill | September 13, 2011

Iowa’s research community has been awarded $20 million through the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research with the goal of establishing the state as a leader in renewable energy technology and production. The program directs funds toward states that have not previously received significant funding for research and development. While Iowa is already a leader in renewable fuels, renewable power generation has not received as much attention, according to Robert Brown, an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in engineering at Iowa State University and leader of the NSF research program. The NSF grant will allow Iowa to improve its research capacity regarding renewable energy, much of which will also ultimately directly benefit biofuels producers.

The five-year research program will be split into four platforms: bioenergy, wind energy, energy utilization and energy policy. The bioenergy platform, which Brown will lead, will focus on the challenges associated with producing large quantities of biomass and applying thermochemical processes to produce liquid or gas products for power or transportation fuels. Brown said researchers elected to target the thermochemical conversion pathway because it has not been studied as extensively as biochemical methods have. Other research institutions, such as the federal bioenergy centers, focus mostly on biochemical conversion processes. This project will evaluate claims that burning biomass is the best use for it, he said. Other projects carried out under the bioenergy platform will explore potential nutrient loss as a result of removing ag residues such as corn stover from fields.

One of the goals of the bioenergy platform is to identify how best to use the lignin produced at cellulosic ethanol plants for process heat. Technologies researched through the program have the potential to advance current approaches to cellulosic ethanol production, according to Brown. Additionally, he pointed out that not all biomass is suitable for cellulosic ethanol production and having the ability to apply thermochemical processes to low-quality biomass to generate energy could be an efficient use of that biomass.

The energy policy platform of the program will focus on training engineers and economists to develop cohesive relationships in order to better advise lawmakers on renewable energy issues. Brown said because engineers and economists are trained differently, they approach problems differently and sometimes find it difficult to collaborate. Under the leadership of Bruce Babcock, ISU professor of economics and director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, the energy policy platform will establish an Energy, Economics and Engineering program to train engineering and economics faculty to work in a complimentary fashion.

Most of the NSF-funded research will be conducted at ISU, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa, but the program will also include all other Iowa educational institutions as well as state agencies and private industry. “This project is a unique opportunity for collaboration among all three Regent universities, Iowa’s community and private colleges, K-12 schools, state agencies and regional businesses,” Brown said. “I look forward to working with colleagues from across the state who are interested in helping build research capacity in renewable energy and energy efficiency in Iowa.”

The grant allows for the addition of five new faculty members at the three universities to improve energy research and will support the transfer of energy inventions to private companies. “This investment in Iowa by the National Science Foundation will position our state as a research and technology leader in renewable energy and energy efficiency,” said Sharron Quisenberry, vice president for research and economic development at ISU. “The project’s vision of a transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy systems matches the state’s aspirations to use science, technology and human creativity to meet the challenges of the 21st century and to build an innovative Iowa economy.”