Iowa State University Alumni Association| online edition | spring 2008

Crops used in biofuel production




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>>Iowa State & the Bioeconomy

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Main feature
Sidebar: Biorenewables 101
Sidebar: Asking the tough questions
Sidebar: The New Century Farm
Photo: Campus-wide involvement
Sidebar: A leader in biorenewables education

Ken Moore walked from research plot to research plot on a sunny fall day, showing off what could be the future of agriculture and the foundation of a new bioeconomy.

First stop was a plot of 36 short perennials – some of them the same grasses found in an Iowa lawn – that researchers were testing as a possible second crop to grow with corn. The idea is for the perennials to grow with the corn over the summer. After the grain harvest, they’d grow through late fall, cover the ground over the winter, and provide a spring harvest. All that would do a lot for farmers, the environment, and the bioeconomy: capture more of the sun’s energy, reduce erosion, provide a second crop, and deliver more biomass to feed the next generation of biorenewable fuel plants and chemical refineries.
That project is one of dozens at Iowa State University that’s dedicated to advancing the development of a bioeconomy. All across campus, researchers are looking for ways to improve the science, the economics, and the impacts of replacing petroleum with plants that can be processed into biorenewable fuels, chemicals, and products.

The research initiative has had an impact on campus in many ways: It has attracted millions in research funding. It has gained partners in industry. It has brought Iowans to campus to think about Iowa’s leadership in a bioeconomy. It has raised Iowa State’s profile in the state and country. It has provided educational opportunities at the edge of innovation. It has built interdisciplinary research teams that tap into the expertise of more than 150 faculty and staff. It has prompted Iowa State President Gregory Geoffroy to say, “Iowa State is one of the world centers in renewables and renewable fuels.”

And Moore’s tour of the research plots west of Ames was one example of how all of that is playing out at Iowa State.

His next stop was a plot of sweet sorghum. The plant has corn-like leaves and is topped by a tan and tufted seed head.

It has been called the closest thing to sugar cane that can grow in Iowa. And it sure grows: The skinny stalks can reach 12 feet and the plants can produce 16 tons of dry matter per acre, about twice what corn plants produce. The stalks are also about 20 percent sugar, the basic ingredient of biofuel production. The plants are well adapted to Iowa, and Iowa State researchers are figuring out how to optimize their production.
Then Moore, an Iowa State University professor of agronomy who’s just about as tall as sweet sorghum in September, talked up the virtues of other crops that could be grown for the bioeconomy. Some were exotic, such as subtropical and fibrous kenaf; others were Iowa natives, such as bunched and branched switchgrass.

The point of all those plots is to find “the best thing for bioenergy crops in Iowa,” Moore said. “This gives us an opportunity to optimize crop systems with a positive environmental impact.”

Combining hot-weather plants with cool-season plants on the same ground, for example, is the kind of thing nature does all the time. Just think tallgrass
prairie, Iowa’s native ecosystem.

And now it makes sense for a new agriculture that’s devoted to biorenewables as well as to food, feed, and fiber: “This would produce a natural grassland system for Iowa,” Moore said, “and still allow us to produce corn.”

Last fall, Stuart Birrell and a team of students tested their new stover harvesting system. The goal is to produce a flexible, single-pass system that will allow farmers to bring in grain at the same time they harvest stover for biorefineries.

The front office
Robert C. Brown has a bright, new office suite on the fourth floor of Marston Hall, near the center of campus. It’s a nice step up in visibility and comfort from his old digs in a corner of the Metals Development Building on the north side of campus.

But the Bioeconomy Institute that Brown leads is about to get an even bigger boost: a building of its own.

Last spring the Iowa Legislature approved the first $5.6 million installment of a $32 million appropriation for a Biorenewables Laboratory Building to be built between Howe Hall and the College of Design. Construction of the 60,500-square-foot building is expected to start this fall with move-in at the end of 2009.

The building is one of many signs that advancing the bioeconomy is a major initiative – and strength – for Iowa State. Other signs include all kinds of big numbers in the initiative’s 2007 annual report: The institute includes more than 150 faculty and staff from 27 academic departments, six colleges, and 20 other centers and institutes; the institute’s affiliated faculty generated more than $17 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2006; since Iowa State’s bioeconomy initiative was launched in 2002, it has attracted more than $43 million in research funding.

Then there was the announcement in April 2007 that ConocoPhillips, the country’s third largest energy company, would establish an eight-year, $22.5 million research program at Iowa State. The company is turning to Iowa State researchers to help produce viable alternatives to diversify America’s energy sources.

And there was last fall’s upgrade of Iowa State’s Office of Biorenewables Programs to its Bioeconomy Institute. Brown said the move gives the initiative the clout, staff, and resources to grow an even larger research program around campus.

Can the institute keep growing like switchgrass in summer?

“It depends on the price of petroleum, doesn’t it?” Brown said last winter as the price of oil was moving to $100 a barrel.

“We’re going to have to [develop alternative fuels] sometime. Why wait until it truly causes financial distress?”

A second harvest
The big, broad John Deere 9750 STS roared into dry, tan rows of Iowa corn. Combines do that every fall all over Iowa, but not quite like this.

Attached to the back and bottom end of that combine was a green box filled with knives rotating at 900 revolutions per minute. Their dusty job was to chop up the corn stalks, leaves, and cobs (known as stover). Conventional combines dump that stuff out the back and spread it on the ground. But a blower attached to the chopping box threw the stover pieces into a wagon pulled by the combine. As the stover shot out the back, the body of the combine worked like it always does to gather the golden grain.

This was a test run of a stover harvesting system developed by Stuart Birrell, an Iowa State associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, and his students. The goal is to produce a flexible, single-pass harvesting system that would allow farmers to bring in grain at the same time they harvest stover for biorefineries.

Birrell has been working on the project for three years and last year’s equipment was the second generation to be tested in the field.

This particular bright and breezy day, Birrell’s students were working with John Deere engineers to test the equipment’s performance at different speeds and settings. Each time they filled the wagon with stover, they’d dump another half-ton pile on the ground. Then they’d fill a burlap bag with the stover so they could measure the density, particle size, and yields produced by each run.

The goal is a system that can take all the grain and stover off a field while running a combine at least 80 percent of the speed it takes for a conventional grain harvest. Birrell said the machinery’s was hitting 60 percent to 70 percent last fall when the researchers collected a full stover harvest.

So there’s still work to do.

“We want a machine that’s flexible,” Birrell said. “That way a farmer can do a conventional harvest or add a 100 percent or lower stover harvest, or only collect the cobs and spread the rest on the field. Flexibility of operation is so important to us.”

Not only is Birrell’s research producing new technology for a bioeconomy, it’s producing new workers. Ben Schlesser, who earned his master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Iowa State, worked on the stover harvesting project as a graduate student. He’s now working on the project as a product development engineer for John Deere. And Mark Dilts, who also earned an Iowa State master’s degree while working on the harvesting project, is now working as a feedstock development engineer for South Dakota-based POET, the world’s largest ethanol producer.

Test plots of crotalaria, sorghum-sudangrass, and corn on an ISU research farm

In the beginning
In the fall of 2002, President Geoffroy announced the university would launch six new academic initiatives that could respond to critical needs of the state and the country. They were picked from 31 proposals developed by faculty groups.

“These initiatives build on Iowa State’s strengths and fit the university’s land-grant mission,” Geoffroy said at the time. “They are also likely to generate significant amounts of external financial support as they progress, and by developing world-class research components, each of the initiatives will strengthen our academic programs.”

The Bioeconomy Initiative made the cut.

Robert Brown, leader of the resulting Bioeconomy Institute, thinks it was the last one in.

The proposal was developed by Brown; Larry Johnson, a professor of food science and human nutrition; George Kraus, a professor of chemistry; Brent Shanks, a professor of chemical and biological engineering; Basil Nikolau, a professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular biology; Paul Gallagher, an associate professor of agricultural economics; and Tom Richard, now an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State University.

Brown said university administrators were concerned it would be difficult to blend the faculty’s diverse and sometimes disparate interests into a coordinated biorenewables program. Administrators asked Brown to somehow bring cohesiveness to that effort.

Well, the idea was to build a program around research platforms that would benefit from expertise all over campus. Initiative leaders met weekly over the first year to get to know each other and build interdisciplinary research teams.

So now it’s not unusual to have mech-anical engineers working with biochemists and economists. And that’s considered the unique strength of the biorenewables work at Iowa State.

That kind of collaboration isn’t happening at other universities. As Brown tells it, “When companies visit campus they remark, ‘We can see that your faculty members are collaborative and interdisciplinary. When they walked into the room they didn’t introduce themselves to one another, as occurs at other schools.”

The science of biofuels
Larry Johnson sat up in his chair and explained some plant science.

Johnson is coordinating the ISU Plant Sciences Institute’s work with the Bioeconomy Institute. There are about 25 plant scientists working in biorenewables. Johnson said their efforts are focused on two areas: They want to develop plants that produce oils that can be used as fuels and bio-based products. And they want to develop plants that are better producers of plant fiber and biomass for conversion into fuels and chemicals.

Then – placing a jar of dark, acorn-shaped jojoba seeds on the table in front of him – he explained the science of plants actually producing biodiesel within their seeds. That would eliminate substantial processing costs as well as do away with the glycerol byproduct of biodiesel production.

The oil within jojoba seeds is made of long chain fatty acids and long chain fatty alcohols, Johnson explained. The chains are about 20 to 22 carbon atoms long and are hooked together with what’s called an ester bond. If scientists can figure out a way to make those chains of fatty alcohols a lot shorter – like all the way down to one carbon atom – methyl ester can be squeezed right out of the seeds. And that’s biodiesel.

Getting the chains down to two carbon atoms would produce ethyl ester. Again, that’s biodiesel.

If you get them down to five carbon atoms, Johnson said you’re producing some very good biolubricants.
No, Johnson said, plant scientists aren’t going to make that happen next week.

But he said those discoveries could be commercialized within five years.

And Iowa Staters are working on it.

About the Writer | Mike Krapfl is a writer for Iowa State University News Service, specializing in the areas of natural sciences and engineering.

Biorenewables 101: A Definition (Return to top)

So what are biorenewables?
A good place to turn for an answer is Biorenewable
Resources: Engineering New Products from Agriculture,
the textbook written by Robert C. Brown, director of Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute. Biorenewable resources, Brown writes, are organic materials of recent biological origin. They’re crops, forests, prairies, marshes, and fisheries. They collect energy from the sun and convert it into chemical bonds that produce proteins, oils, and carbohydrates. That “stored chemical energy,” Brown writes, can be used as the raw material for power, fuels, chemicals, and fibers.
Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute is focusing its biorenewable research on six basic programs: corn to biofuels; biorenewable chemicals; thermochemical technologies such as gasification and fast pyrolysis; harvest, storage, and transportation of biomass; feedstock production; and biorenewables education.
And so Iowa State researchers are working on all kinds of biorenewable projects. They’re studying fast pyrolysis of biomass (heating in the absence of oxygen) to produce a bio-oil that can be used for heating or further processed into transportation fuels. They’re investigating chemical pre-treatments to break down the tough cellulose in switchgrass and release the simple sugars that can be fermented into ethanol. They’re developing high-speed, laser-based sensors that can analyze – and potentially improve – the combustion of biofuels. And they’re winning grants and building industry partnerships to do much, much more.

Asking the tough questions (Return to top)

cornIowa State researchers look at the potential consequences of biofuels production
Ethanol produced from corn has become a big target lately.

One day the New York Times is publishing an editorial about the high cost of subsidized ethanol production. Another day the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – a group of 30 countries, including the United States – is criticizing ethanol production for driving up food costs. And yet another day the Des Moines Register is reporting that state regulators are concerned some parts of Iowa won’t have enough water to supply ethanol plants.
Those reports – and there are lots more like them – raise some questions about the economic and environmental sustainability of biofuels production.
Iowa Staters are trying to answer some of those questions. Here are just three examples:

- Iowa State economists David Swenson and Liesl Eathington studied the regional economic values of ethanol production in Iowa. The two found a direct correlation between local ownership and job creation. With no local ownership, a new ethanol plant creates or stimulates 133 jobs in a region. For every 25 percent increase in local ownership, another 29 jobs are created.

- Robert Anex, an Iowa State associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, is leading several studies examining the sustainability of a bioeconomy. What happens when farmers grow crops for fuel as well as food? Will soil lose fertility? Will erosion increase? One study found that a new and integrated process for producing ethanol from plant fiber could recycle some nutrients back to farm fields. Another project has developed a Web tool that helps farmers estimate how growing crops for biorefineries could affect their operations.

- William Simpkins, a professor of geological and atmospheric sciences, is studying the potential of the Ames aquifer to continue supplying drinking water to Ames. As part of the study, Simpkins and graduate student Evan Christianson are constructing a 3-D computer model of the entire aquifer, which covers most of Story County. The model will help determine the sites for new wells and show how the water demands of a nearby town and ethanol plant could affect availability of groundwater from the aquifer.

The new century farm (Return to top)

Iowa State's new research and demonstration farm will showcase biomass production and processing
The first-in-the-nation integrated research and demonstration farm devoted to biomass production and
processing is being created by Iowa State University.

The New Century Farm was launched with a virtual groundbreaking at Hilton Coliseum during the 2007 Biobased Industry Outlook Conference on Nov. 5. ISU President Gregory Geoffroy led university administrators, government officials, and industry representatives in symbolically breaking ground brought in from the farm site.

“This facility will give us the opportunity to integrate directly into agricultural fields the connections with harvesting, transportation, storage, and processing,” says Wendy Wintersteen, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The New Century Farm will not only provide a venue for cutting-edge research, it also will allow us to educate the next generation of scientists in this critical growth area.”

The site is the existing Agricultural Engineering and Agronomy Research Farm along Highway 30 between Ames and Boone. It was selected for its high visibility in a rural setting. The main biomass processing facility should be completed by fall 2008. Field, harvesting, and storage research infrastructure will follow.

Biomass crops destined for use as bioenergy and bioproducts will be grown onsite and at other area Iowa State research farms.

The facility is on a fast track. In March 2007, the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, allowed the project to enter the planning phase. In August, the board granted construction approval.

Research at the 23,000-square-foot facility will address some of the most critical questions facing biorenewables.

“The biomass processing facility will allow researchers to study systems to turn a variety of biomass materials into bio-oil or synthetic gas by using thermochemical technologies, or into ethanol and industrial chemicals by fermentation,” says Larry Johnson, director of Iowa State’s Center for Crops Utilization Research. “This facility will allow Iowa State researchers and industry partners to test and demonstrate processing system technologies before going commercial.”

Planners say the New Century Farm will incorporate four key components. Those are:

- Research that brings together scientific expertise to address biomass cropping systems, biofuel and bioproduct processing, logistics of biomass supply, and positive environmental effects such as recycling nutrients back to the land

- Teaching that serves as a laboratory and resource for educating future scientists, producers, and extension experts

- Extension that demonstrates economic, social, and environmental viability of biorenewable energy and bioproducts production to producers, policymakers, and the public

- Outreach with companies that will work with Iowa State in collaborative research and development

The project costs are estimated at $19 million, with funds coming from state, federal, and private sources. Annual operating costs will be covered by research projects.

-- Susan Thompson

New Century Farm

Campus-wide involvement (Return to top)

Campus involvement with biorenewables

The number of faculty and staff at Iowa State with direct involvement in biorenewables is staggering. The Bioeconomy Institute maintains an ever-growing list of faculty and research staff with whom they communicate on a regular basis: at last count, 289 of them, all across the campus. And you could very easily throw out an even broader net and collect more than 80 additional staff and faculty who identify themselves as having an interest in the university’s bioeconomy initiatives. The Bioeconomy Institute itself includes more than 150 faculty and staff from 27 academic departments, six colleges, and 20 other centers and institutes; it is led by a Science and Engineering Board headed by Robert C. Brown (front row, second from the right) and composed of 13 other members. This photo (taken on Dec. 12, 2007, inside the Center for Crops Utilization Research’s wet pilot plant in the Food Sciences Building) includes 63 faculty, staff, and graduate research assistants representing five academic colleges, University Extension, and seven other university centers and units.

Special thanks to Mark Reuber and Tonia McCarley for their help in organizing the group photo and to Brent Pringnitz, Andy Heggenstaller, and David Sundberg for their assistance with the crops photos.

Iowa State: A Leader in Biorenewables Education (Return to top)

Andy Hegenstaller

The first graduate program in biorenewable resources in the United States was established at Iowa State University five years ago.

The Biorenewable Resources and Technology (BRT) graduate program offers students advanced study in the use of plant- and crop-based resources for the production of biobased products, including fuels, chemicals, materials, and energy.

While other universities offer certificate programs or minors related to biobased products and bioenergy,
Iowa State offers master’s and doctoral degrees in this new field, as well as a minor for students obtaining degrees in other majors.

Raj Raman is the BRT director of graduate education, associate director of educational programs for Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute, and an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering.

“A common question company executives ask me is what kind of major they should look for to run their plant. My answer is you don’t hire majors, you hire people,” Raman says. “I believe our four-year and graduate programs in biorenewables must educate students broadly, even when a student is focused on a particular major.”

About two dozen students are enrolled in the BRT program at any given time. Most faculty serving as major professors and on student committees are based in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering, although bioeconomy-relevant courses are offered in many departments and colleges across campus.

“The BRT graduate program promotes interdisciplinary research and a collaborative attitude among faculty,” Raman says.

Patrick Murphy of Long Grove, Iowa, has already earned three degrees at Iowa State – a bachelor’s in agronomy plus bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering. Now he’s in his final year of a doctorate in agricultural engineering and the BRT program.

Murphy says he likes the program’s flexibility, which allows students to take graduate courses in their research areas plus senior and graduate courses in other areas in which they have limited experience.
Melissa Montalbo-Lomboy is from the Philippines, where she earned a bachelor’s in chemical engineering, followed by a master’s in bioprocessing technology in Thailand. Now she’s working on her doctorate in the BRT program.

“I like the program because it keeps you learning, not just from your own research but also work going on at other universities and industries,” she says. “The program provides a good balance between research and coursework.”

Last fall, faculty at Iowa State received a USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant to create an interdisciplinary undergraduate certificate program in biobased products combining technology and entrepreneurship education.

Faculty from the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Business, and Engineering are involved. The goal of the $139,000 grant is to prepare students entering the biobased product industry to discover new business opportunities and ultimately create businesses to meet the needs they identify.
A biobased fundamentals course will be offered on campus and online starting fall 2008, with the certificate program available fall 2010. A course on entrepreneurship also will be developed with a focus on discovering and responding to opportunities in the biobased product industry.

The 20-credit undergraduate certificate will provide a way for students to receive formal recognition of focused study in a specialized area that is less comprehensive than an undergraduate major, yet more comprehensive than a minor – sort of a “super minor.” It will be awarded in addition to a degree after a student completes a core set of courses and approved electives.

Tom Brumm, agricultural and biosystems engineering associate professor, says, “This undergraduate certificate will be a nice parallel to the BRT program. Prior to this, there was nothing formal at the undergraduate level for students interested in biofuels and biorenewables.”

In July 2006, Cargill announced a $600,000 gift to help Iowa State students prepare to enter the growing biorenewables industry. The funds are supporting curriculum development, lab improvements, and an upcoming international program.

Iowa State also is planning a biorenewables option in a new biological systems engineering degree, distinct from the new certificate. The program has cleared departmental and college curriculum committees.

-- Susan Thompson

Susan Thompson is a communications specialist for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.