A research team at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SD Mines) is beginning work on pilot-scale testing of new methods that turn biorefinery waste into valuable products. The waste biomass or byproducts generated by ethanol plants and other biorefineries, such as corn stover, are normally thrown away, but finding cost-effective means of using this waste to make new products will generate extra revenue for the facilities, lower fuel costs, reduce carbon emissions and ultimately help farmers, according to a release from SD Mines.
“This is one more way SD Mines is pioneering research that helps the environment while increasing efficiency and profit margins for our industry partners. This is the kind of work that can have a positive impact on the economy,” SD Mines vice president of research Dr. Ralph Davis said.
Dr. Rajesh Shende, professor in the SD Mines chemical and biological engineering department, is leading the research. This work began in Shende’s lab with a $2.16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's Bioenergy Technologies Office awarded in 2017. This initial validation stage in the research proved successful; Shende’s team is now working on the effort to optimize processes at the laboratory level and scale up the work to prove that it can work for the industry.
“This is a great milestone in this project, and we’re excited,” Shende said. “We had been doing something on a lab scale looking at a few grams at a time, [and now] we’re moving to processing one ton per day.”
A pilot-scale testing facility for one of the processes is set to be established at SD Mines. Pilot-scale processing of corn stover will be performed at the Idaho National Laboratory, SD Mines and the Southwest Research Institute to make products such as carbon nanofibers, lactic acid, phenol and battery-grade biocarbon. These valuable products have wide-ranging industrial uses, from disinfectants to carbon fiber materials to batteries and fuel.
The products that can be created with these processes include clean-burning oils. “This can be blended with commercial biodiesel and used in diesel generators,” said Dr. Vinod Amar, SD Mines research scientist working on the project.
Some of the partnering institutions on this project will also have processing facilities, including Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Idaho National Laboratory and Southwest Research Institute.