Iowa State team gets grant for biomass pretreatment research

By Kris Bevill | May 17, 2012

The Iowa Energy Center recently awarded three grants to research projects focused on improving thermochemical conversion of biomass to biofuels and renewable chemicals. The selected projects will receive one-year research and demonstration grants with negotiated renewal terms of up to three years. Projects will be conducted by research teams at Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute.

The Iowa Energy Center, which is based in Ames, Iowa, and administered by Iowa State University, awards grants annually to projects that are designed to improve energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies in the state. “Part of the Iowa Energy Center’s mission is to develop alternate energy systems that are based on renewable resources,” said Chitra Rajan, interim director of the center and associate vice president for research at Iowa State. “And so we’re excited about these grants because they support studies of technologies that produce and use biorenewable fuels and products.”

One of the projects selected for funding will research pre-treatment methods that can improve the fermentation of inedible biomass-derived substrates when subjecting them to fast pyrolysis conversion methods. The project is eligible to receive up to $315,000 for three years and will be led by Laura Jarboe, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State. The project will also include an economic analysis of the entire process to identify areas of improvement. “Our focus is on increasing the economic viability of this overall process so that the chemicals and fuels we produce will be economically competitive with petroleum-based products,” Jarboe said.

Red oak is being used as the model biomass for this project, but Jarboe said some research is also being conducted on corn stover. “There are many variables involved in our hybrid processing platform and at this time we are working mainly with the one biomass type,” she said. Eventually the team would like to expand its project to include other biomass types. The research project will experiment with a variety of chemical and biological pre-treatment processes, all targeting the contaminant compounds that currently inhibit the activity of biocatalysts used to ferment biomass during pyrolysis. One of the chemical pre-treatment methods proposed by Jarboe’s team is overliming, which Jarboe said has already been proven effective in decreasing hydrolysate toxicity. “In this manner, we can build on the results already established by cellulosic ethanol research,” she said. All of the pretreatment methods explored as part of the project will be considered in the team’s economic analysis.

Jarboe’s team includes Robert Brown, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering and the Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in mechanical engineering, Zhiyou Wen, Iowa State associate professor of food science and human nutrition, Zhanyou Chi, research associate for the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies, and Shengde Zhou, assistant professor of biological sciences at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill.