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Russ College researchers convert biomass to fuel with help of $1 million USDA grant

Marissa McDaid | Jun 28, 2019

Russ College researchers convert biomass to fuel with help of $1 million USDA grant

Marissa McDaid | Jun 28, 2019

An assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology has been awarded a $1 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to aid in the development of a sustainable energy source that could one day replace fossil fuels.

Toufiq Reza and his team aim to turn wet biomass, organic material, into a sustainable and efficient fuel. Ohio University is partnering with the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to create advanced biorefinery feedstocks from corn stover, the leaves and stalks of corn plants that are left in fields after harvest.

“Our research goal is to develop a green and sustainable technology that will reduce the cost of bioenergy in order to compete with cheap fossil energy,” Reza said. “There are more than a billion tons of biomass available in the United States that can be converted to bioenergy that will secure the future of energy.”

INL’s biomass Feedstock Process Demonstration Unit (PDU) mills the corn stover and then ships samples to the OHIO Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment (ISEE), where it’s heated to 260-300 degrees Celsius in a high-temperature, high-pressure reactor to produce solid hydrochar, a carbon-rich material that can be burned. Reza and team then pelletize the material.

Hydrochar pellets repel water and have a high energy density, so they’re more efficient to transport and store – and they can be co-fired in existing coal-fired power plant and gasification plants. By working to reduce the amount of inorganic material and ash in each sample, Reza’s team hopes to increase the efficiency of biorefineries that use biomass instead of natural gas or coal. They’re also working to meet the U.S. Department of Energy’s $3 per gasoline gallon equivalent (CGE) biofuel price.

Reza said the market is growing.

“Many European and Asian countries also have a rising demand for pelletized biomass for home heating or power-plants.”

Chemical and biomolecular engineering doctoral researchers Kyle McGaughy and Nepu Saha work alongside Reza. McGaughy’s research focuses on the value-added platform chemicals extraction from liquid byproducts from this project, while Saha’s research involves fundamental understanding of biomass conversion to solid fuel.

“If you’re using this, you’re still producing carbon dioxide, but the net-result is less pollution,” McGaughy said, comparing the pellets to fossil fuels. “The biomass would produce carbon dioxide at a landfill as well, so this gives us the opportunity to upgrade the waste into a higher-value product.”

Colleen Carow contributed to this story