Purdue receives $1.8m to solve biorefinery blockages

Goal is to transform solid biomass into slurry that can act more like a liquid flowing freely through material transportation systems in biorefineries.

May 29, 2018

2 Min Read
Purdue receives $1.8m to solve biorefinery blockages
Yu Liu, a mechanical engineering doctoral student working with Carl Wassgren and Marcial Gonzalez, works on computer simulation of biomass particle movement through a screw conveyor. His research will contribute to solving biorefinery blockage issues as part of a $1.8 million Department of Energy grant to Purdue.(Purdue Ag Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

One of the biggest problems facing biorefinery operations is the flow of biomass into and throughout facilities. Lignocellulosic biomass, often made up of post-harvest agricultural materials such as corn stover and soybean hulls, frequently accumulates and compacts while moving through augers, forcing costly shutdowns for cleaning and repairs, according to an announcement from Purdue University.

A team led by Purdue scientists will receive a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office to solve that problem.

Researchers from the Purdue departments of agricultural and biological engineering, mechanical engineering and materials engineering, Discovery Park Energy Center, the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering (LORRE) and the Center for Particulate Products & Processes (CP3) will work with scientists from the Argonne National Laboratory and the Idaho National Laboratory as well as industry partners Forest Concepts and AdvanceBio Systems.

The goal is to transform solid biomass into a slurry that can act more like a liquid flowing freely through material transportation systems in biorefineries. To do that, the researchers will create models to predict the physical properties — particle shape, size and surface charge — necessary for a liquid-like flow of solid materials.

“We plan to use these models to create regime maps for robust operation, which would tell engineers and operators how to adjust screw feeder and reactor operating parameters given measured biomass characteristics so that the inlet portion of the biorefinery can operate without difficulty,” said Carl Wassgren, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering and CP3 director.

From there, scientists will develop methods for modifying the biomass to meet the models’ specifications, changing particle size, shape and charge.

“We’ll use small amounts of enzymes to reduce particle size and some surface characteristics so that they become moveable as a fluid with the same amount of moisture,” said Michael Ladisch, the project’s principal investigator, Purdue distinguished professor of agricultural and biological engineering and LORRE director. “Materials handling issues are very important in being able to scale up technology for converting cellulosic materials into ethanol. These advances will give biorefineries the tools to overcome one of the most difficult logistical issues they all face.”

Researchers will start with corn stover, but Ladisch said the work could be the foundation to develop similar technology in the future for other biomass products, including woodchips, soybean hulls, wheat straw and sugarcane. The funding, which will amount to $2.3 million total with cost share from partners, will cover three years.

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