Ames, Iowa – Researchers at Iowa State University are working on the development of a new, low-emissions burner and new catalyst that they say could improve ethanol production. The project is supported by a US$2.37 million grant from the Iowa Power Fund, a state program to advance energy innovation and independence.
Both technologies will use synthesis gas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, produced by the gasification of discarded seed corn, switchgrass, wood chips and other biomass. The burner will be designed to efficiently and cleanly burn biomass-based gas, while the catalyst will be designed to convert the synthesis gas directly into ethanol.
The project also includes two industrial partners: Frontline BioEnergy, which builds commercial-scale gasification systems, and ethanol producer Hawkeye Energy Holdings.
The project will move ethanol production beyond the fermentation of simple sugars in corn kernals. The researchers’ idea is to use heat and oxygen to gasify biomass and produce a synthesis gas that the new catalyst can covert directly into ethanol. The system will not replace grain ethanol production, but complement it, the researchers said, with the technology possibly able to replace natural gas in conventional ethanol production, providing ethanol plants with a clean and renewable source of steam and heat.