WSU Tri-Cities working to turn ag waste into energy

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerSeptember 4, 2010 

RICHLAND -- Washington State University Tri-Cities will be working on ways to turn local ag waste into bioenergy, thanks to a donation from Easterday Ranches and Easterday Farms.

Easterday donated $225,000 to support research being conducted in the university's Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, the university announced Friday.

It also unveiled the new one-of-a-kind research equipment that the university believes will be the bridge needed to convert laboratory research into the basis for a local industry producing useful goods from waste.

"We expect from this we will grow a new industry in Richland," said Birgitte Ahring, director of the WSU Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy.

BSEL opened in spring 2008 with staff from the university and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory conducting research and helping give students a hands-on education. A key part of the original vision for the lab has been to move research from the lab to commercial use.

To do that, the lab has needed a biomass pretreatment system to use as a pilot plant, Ahring said. She worked with other BSEL staff to design the $575,000 system, and it was assembled by Vista Engineering Technologies in Richland.

Ag waste, from straw to wine waste, can be fed into a high-pressure vessel of the system to produce the precursors of new chemicals, fuel or other bioproducts. The pilot-scale equipment will provide the proof of concept for smaller scale laboratory research.

That could include the research paid for by Easterday.

The donation, to be given over three years, will pay for an Easterday Graduate Research Fellow to focus on the anaerobic digestion of wastes such as those produced by Easterday's row crop and cattle feeding company: cattle manure and onion culls.

WSU approached Easterday to become a research sponsor and the family operation, which employs 300 people full time, signed on in part because of the "top-notch" people involved in the project, said Cody Easterday, president of Easterday Ranches and Easterday Farms.

"We want to be one of the leaders in environmentally sound food production," he said.

The corporation's goal is to be able to use its agricultural waste to produce fuel to replace the substantial amount of diesel and propane now used, he said. Easterday is known internationally for growing, packing and shipping onions and is heavily involved with the Washington Cattle Feeders Association.

"Don't ever waste waste," Ahring said. "Easterday saw that before others."

In addition to providing money, Easterday also will be providing waste to the university to use as biomass material.

Among the students who will be using the new biomass pretreatment system is Diwakar Rana, who moved to the Tri-Cities from Houston to work on graduate-level biofuels research at WSU Tri-Cities using the system.

"My task is pretreatment of biomass," he said.

The system, which is large enough that researchers climb four steps to access it, uses stem heat and high pressure to break biomass into sugars and other components that can be recovered and further developed into products.

"This equipment allows us to vary the conditions and evaluate different biomass feedstocks, so we can find the optimal conditions for degrading the material into valuable products," she said. "This advanced pretreatment process is more cost-efficient than traditional methods, making it more viable to use biomass to develop biofuels and bioproducts."

It was paid for by WSU's STAR researcher fund as part of the 2008-09 recruitment package for Ahring. When she left Denmark for the Tri-Cities, she had to leave behind a major biomass pilot facility, she said.

But she will have a pilot biomass pretreatment system to use again when it begins operating before the end of the year.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533;

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