iowaIowa State University started a new project of developing a thermochemical system that combines production of ethanol and thermal energy. With a low-emission burner and a new catalyst for ethanol production, the technologies use synthesis gas produced from discarded seed corn, switch-grass, wood chips and other biomass.

The team from Iowa State University includes eminent persons, specialized in different domains:

Robert C. Brown, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Chemical and Biological Engineering and Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering

Song-Charng Kong, an Iowa State Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering who is leading development of the new burner and is overall project leader

Victor Shang-Yi Lin, a Professor of Chemistry, director of Iowa State’s Center for Catalysis is leading the development of a new catalyst for ethanol production

– Samuel Jones, an assistant scientist for the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies.

Biomass-derived syngas, will be efficiently and cleanly burned while the catalysts primary function will be to convert the syngas into ethanol. “This project partners the thermochemical conversion of biomass with ethanol production. We’re not intending to replace grain ethanol production. We want to complement it” said Robert C. Brown.

This technology could replace natural gas in conventional ethanol production. By this ethanol plants will get a clean renewable source of steam and heat. In contrast to natural gas and other fuels, biomass contains fixed nitrogen from the air or from fertilizers. This could generate a huge problem if the burner will not be efficient enough as nitrogen oxide will be released into the atmosphere as a pollutant. The scientists goal is to develop a burner that minimize emission of pollutants and maximize combustion.

The key to produce liquid fuel directly from synthesis gas are carbon-based nanoparticles. These particles carry a transition metal that produces a chemical reaction which converts synthesis gas to ethanol. The catalyst that can convert synthesis gas to ethanol was already discovered but is has low yield rates, produces greenhouse gases, needs to be heated up to 540 °F (282 ° C) and requires high pressure. The goal is to find a new catalysts that can work at lower temperature and pressure while ethanol output should be higher.

The project is supported by a two-year, $2.37 million grant from the Iowa Power Fund.

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