Project in Tri-Cities using ag waste to create biofuel becoming commercially reliable

Herald staff writerJanuary 21, 2013 

A pilot project to produce biofuel using agricultural and organic municipal waste has reached levels that makes the process commercially viable, researchers say.

The project, paid for by the Department of Energy, is within six months of being able to demonstrate the capacity of the BioChemCat process to create biofuel, said Keith Thomsen, assistant director of Washington State University Tri-Cities' Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy.

This way of creating biofuel is fuel agnostic, and can be tweaked to use available agricultural waste from a variety of crops including hops, wheat and grapes, Thomsen said.

"We can take anything, and we are not competing with food," he said.

This also has the potential to allow farmers to generate revenue from something that has little to no value currently, Thomsen said.

The project is a joint effort by WSU Tri-Cities, the Port of Benton, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Clean-Vantage of Richland. Clean-Vantage holds the patents for the BioChemCat process.

It's one of the projects the Tri-Cities Research District and local officials plan to present to legislators as part of Clean Energy Independence Day in Olympia on Jan. 31, said Diahann Howard, the Port of Benton's director of economic development and governmental affairs.

The BioChemCat project takes agricultural waste, wood waste or organic materials from municipal solid waste. It uses a "novel" pretreatment method that requires heat and pressure to tear the structure of the waste apart, allowing microorganisms to convert it, Thomsen explained.

The pretreatment is the "heart and soul" of BioChemCat, Thomsen said.

Then, a mixed culture of different microorganisms is used to ferment the pretreated biomass, he said. Unlike with ethanol, the fermentation process is very robust, so sterilization is not needed. That cuts down on the costs, he said.

It takes 10 to 30 days to start the fermentation, but after that, it is continuous, with the process being fed and the platform molecules of carboxylic acid being extracted, he said. Platform molecules are chemical compounds that can be upgraded to more valuable chemicals or fuels, he said.

While those involved hope to increase the yield beyond the 40 grams per liter already achieved, Thomsen said that yield already makes the process promising.

The resulting carboxylic acid then goes through a thermochemical conversion where it can be upgraded to valuable chemicals or further upgraded to biofuels, he said.

PNNL is handling the thermochemical conversion, Thomsen said. That part of the pilot will start soon, and has already been done on a small scale in previous projects.

WSU Tri-Cities and Clean-Vantage will continue to work on removing separating the liquid acid and fermentation mixture efficiently, he said.

Once both those pieces are complete, Thomsen said they will have shown the process can work as the federal grant intended.

DOE provided a grant of $951,000 to the Port of Benton for the project and that was matched with $549,000, mostly from access to equipment at WSU Tri-Cities.

The next step for the process is for private enterprise to take the lead in a demonstration plant, Thomsen said. While that could happen as soon as funding is found, he's hopeful that could happen within five years.

The biomass could be pretreated in rural areas near where it is available, and then shipped to a large, central plant for the thermochemical portion, Thomsen said.

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-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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