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Thermochemical Processing: Converting Biomass into Fuels and Chemicals

By: Robert C. Brown, Director, Bioeconomy Institute, Iowa State University

The use of fermentation to produce ethanol from corn and other biomass is well known in the agricultural world. There are, however, other technologies that can convert biomass into fuels and chemicals. Foremost among these are thermochemical processes, which use heat and catalysis to break down biomass to intermediates that can be upgraded to transportation fuels.

Thermochemical processing uses heat and pressure to convert various types of feedstocks into fuels and chemicals.

Thermochemical processing uses heat and pressure to convert various types of feedstocks into fuels and chemicals.

One advantage of thermochemical processing is that the end result can be “drop-in fuels,” those that are fully compatible with the existing fuel infrastructure. While not perfect, these drop-in fuels are good enough to run in today’s engines without modification.

Another advantage to thermochemical processing is that most systems can work with a variety of biomass feedstocks. Often the feedstock is lignocellulosic biomass, such as corn stover, switchgrass, miscanthus, wood, etc. But thermochemical processing can also use lipid-rich biomass such as distillers dried grains and algae as well as mixed wastes from commercial and municipal sources.

There are two basic types of thermochemical processing, indirect and direct liquefaction. Indirect liquefaction includes gasification, where the solid biomass is heated to create synthesis gas, or syngas, that is subsequently upgraded to liquid fuels. Various catalysts are then used to convert the gas into alcohols or hydrocarbons. The advantages of gasification is that the process produces a uniform product and it is commercially proven. Gasification, however, requires technologies to clean the gases, which are still under development, and the capital costs can be high.

Direct liquefaction uses heat and pressure to convert the biomass into liquids which can then be further upgraded into finished products. Direct liquefaction includes pyrolysis and solvent liquefaction. In the case of pyrolysis, biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen. The process yields bio-oil, syngas, and a solid product known as biochar. The bio-oil can be upgraded to drop-in fuels. Pyrolysis can be performed at relatively small scales, allowing it to take place close to the source of biomass rather than moving biomass to one large, centralized processing facility. One of the major problems with pyrolysis is that the bio-oil is unstable, complicating its conversion into fuels.

Iowa State University researchers discuss a new pyrolysis pilot plant during its construction. The plant is now up and running and is used to research the multi-stage fractionation of bio-oil, a process that promises a way to economically convert biomass into many value-added products.

Iowa State University researchers discuss a new pyrolysis pilot plant during its construction. The plant is now up and running and is used to research the multi-stage fractionation of bio-oil, a process that promises a way to economically convert biomass into many value-added products.

At Iowa State University, we have invented a process to condense the pyrolysis gases in fractions, resulting in better, more stable products. The economics of fast pyrolysis are promising. In addition to producing fuels and chemicals from the bio-oil, the biochar may also have economic value. Consisting mostly of carbon, biochar can be used a soil amendment, helping retain moisture and nutrients. There is also research underway to use biochar as a filter medium for purifying water.

Solvent liquefaction, or solvolysis, is similar to pyrolysis except that it is performed in a solvent at elevated pressure. Though the fundamental chemistry of solvolysis is not well understood, the technology has promising economics. The process can upgrade bio-oil in a way similar to oil refining, and it can create sugars which can be further upgraded without expensive enzymes.

In addition to extensive research into thermochemical technologies, there are also many efforts underway to commercialize these technologies. Like all start-ups, these efforts have met with various degrees of success. There are, however, several pilot-scale systems being tested and commercial plants being built.

Bioenergy is a complex topic. There are many pathways from raw material to finished product. What’s more, bioenergy technology must be viewed in context of larger energy issues and policies. You can learn more in a book written for the general public, “Why are We Producing Biofuels,” by Robert C. Brown and Tristan R. Brown. The book is available on Amazon. You can read the first chapter for free online at: http://www.brownia.com/content/whyareweproducingbiofuels_excerpt.pdf.

AGCO China Wins Two Prestigious Ag Machinery Awards

Mr. Zhu Liang (1st to left), Deputy Chief of China Agricultural Machinery Testing Center, MOA and Mr. Liu Zhenying (2nd to left), President of Farm Machinery Magazine awarded prizes to AGCO China

Mr. Zhu Liang (1st to left), Deputy Chief of China Agricultural Machinery Testing Center, MOA and Mr. Liu Zhenying (2nd to left), President of Farm Machinery Magazine awarded prizes to AGCO China

China’s Annual Ag Machinery Top50 Awards were recently announced in Tianjin, China.  The collaborative  judging process and standards are handled by three different organizations:  China Association of Agricultural Machinery Manufacturers (CAAMM), Chinese Society for Ag Machinery (CSAM) and Farm Machinery Magazine.  Nearly 900 products were entered into the competition represented by 227 companies.  There are four categories of awards for which products could compete:   “Technology Innovation Award”, “Market Leading Award”, “Application Contribution Award” and the newest award titled “China Ag Machinery Top 50 Comprehensive Golden Award” the top prize to honor those that are achieving outstanding performance in all three of the previously mentioned award categories.

AGCO’s well-renowned HHP tractor MF7624 won the top prize “Comprehensive Golden Award”

AGCO’s well-renowned HHP tractor MF7624 won the top prize “Comprehensive Golden Award”

“As China’s agricultural mechanization increasingly deepens, innovation of technology has been significant for ag machinery enterprises to transform growth mode” commented Fred Yang, AGCO Vice President & Managing Director, China.  “Since AGCO entered China in 2009, we have been devoting ourselves into China’s agricultural mechanization construction, and have been committed to offering the most reliable, efficient and sustainable products to Chinese customers. The awards for MF7624 and MF1844N this time are not only recognition from the industry, market and customers, but also a reflection of AGCO’s achievements on tech innovations. In future, we shall continue exerting our innovation spirit on research & development of products and technology, further complete our full range of high tech agricultural solutions so as to better serve China market.”

Congratulations, AGCO China!  Well done.

AGCO’s outstandingly performed small square baler MF1844N received the “Market Leading Award”
AGCO’s outstandingly performed small square baler MF1844N received the “Market Leading Award”

Bringing Storage Technology to Life in Mkushi, Zambia

By Louisa Parker, Manager External Affairs, Africa & Middle East

central province_b2b_demo

In June Bags2Bulk held its first demonstration day showcasing the bulk storage technology to grain traders. GSI Africa and the installation team worked tirelessly to have the demo unit ready for the event held In Mkushi which was well attended. It was great to see the response of the traders now that they have been able to see and touch the technology as the project team was pleased to receive the local Agricultural Commissioner Mr. Luka Mwamba as guest of honour at the event.

This is the first of several demonstration events that will take place at five locations throughout Central and Eastern province in Zambia during the course of the pilot. The team is now following up on a number of sales leads and GSI is now looking at several candidates to take forward the role of sales assistant to support the project.

Speaking at the event, the Commissioner noted that he had seen the GSI technology and was impressed by what he’d seen.  He said “previously, this technology has only been available to large commercial farmers.  I am pleased that now this is available to farmers and traders both large and small.”  While he praised the technology, he was quick to state that the government supports the Bags2Bulk initiative and encourages other players in the agriculture industry to come on board.  Still, he cautioned “Of course nothing comes for free.  Financing will be key to accessing this technology.  It is good to see the banks here today.  My message to you is work hard to develop a finance solution so that the farmers can take advantage of this new technology.”  To the traders, he reminded them that farming is a business not a charity.  In closing, the Commissioner said “we look forward to seeing many shiny new silos on the small scale farms across Mkushi district in the months to come”.

For more information about upcoming Bags2Bulk events, please contact Louisa Parker:  louisa.parker@agcocorp.com.

Mkushi’s Agricultural Commissioner, Mr Luka Mwamba shakes hands with Louisa Parker of AGCO.  To their right, they are joined by Musika Central Region Manager, Mr. Mabvuto Chisi.

Mkushi’s Agricultural Commissioner, Mr Luka Mwamba shakes hands with Louisa Parker of AGCO. To their right, they are joined by Musika Central Region Manager, Mr. Mabvuto Chisi.

American Farmland Trust: I Love My Farmers Market

A farmers market in Shreveport, La.

A farmers market in Shreveport, La.

The I Love My Farmers Market Celebration kicked off its summer-long event on June 13. Now in its sixth year, the program, sponsored by the American Farmland Trust (AFT), promotes USDA-listed farmers’ markets across the nation. Customers are encouraged to pledge dollars online and to follow through with a commitment to shop at their favorite farmers markets.

According to the AFT, for every $10 spent on local food, as much as $7.80 is re-spent in the local community, supporting local jobs and businesses. During the 2013 I Love My Farmers Market Celebration, a total of $259,690 was pledged to be spent at farmers’ markets, the majority of which the AFT calculates went directly to farmers.

The celebration, which is part of AFT’s No Farms No Food® campaign, helps emphasize “how important it is to put money directly into [farmers’] pockets, to help keep them on the land and to keep their operations viable.”

For more, including how to vote, visit: http://www.myfarmlife.com/first-gear/i-love-my-farmers-market-good-food-good-cause/

AGCO Bag2Bulk Roadshow Kicks Off in Central Province, Zambia

By Louisa Parker, Manager External Affairs, Africa & Middle East

Central Province Bag2Bulk roadshow - March 2014 018

To support AGCO’s new partnership with USAID on the Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation project in Africa, the first kickoff Bags2Bulk Roadshow event was held in May and attended by grain traders from Central Province in Zambia.  Working with our Zambian distributor GSI Africa and local partners Musika and Ybema Grain Services, we were able to share details of the Bags2Bulk project and educate the traders on the benefits of moving from bagged storage for maize and soya to bulk storage via the GSI technology.  Benefits will not only be gained by the mid-size trader, but pass along to the small farmer as well – in the forms of reduced grain loss and better grain quality for longer storage periods allowing the trader to sell when the timing is optimal.

Traders received short presentations from a number of supporting organisations including two of the largest grain commodity traders in Zambia. The larger traders are keen to see this shift from bag to bulk as it also improves the efficiency of their operations. Ultimately, it means they can buy and sell more maize in a season also. For smallholders, the benefits are threefold 1) improved connections to the market, 2) greater transparency on pricing, 3) being able to recycle their grain bags and use them more than once.

Of course, we learned as much from the traders as they learned from us.  We got a much better understanding of the challenges they have with logistics, commissioning trucks, aggregating the harvested maize from the small holders and trading their harvest in time to hit the trading season all while monitoring the quality of the grain they are trading.  All of these aspects can be improved by moving to bulk storage and adding a portable auger.  Additionally, they’ll enjoy the added bonus of dramatically reducing post-harvest losses which continues to plague Africa today.

Next stop, Mkushi, Zambia.  Central Province Bag2Bulk roadshow - March 2014 013