Siemens, USDA seek improved biomass conversion

By Jerry W. Kram
Thermochemical methods of processing solid organic matter such as biomass or coal have been around for more than 100 years, but creating a system that completes the process economically and efficiently has been a significant engineering challenge. Siemens Energy and Automation Inc., a manufacturer of electrical and electronic products, is partnering with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service to improve the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass into liquid biofuel intermediates, such as bio-oil.

"This investment in the future of second-generation feedstocks is another example of Siemens' commitment to alternative fuel development and production," said Dave Hankins, vice president of Siemens Chemical and Pharmaceutical Center of Competence. "New feedstocks that can be quickly and easily processed will benefit the nation, and the biochemicals and biofuels industries."

The ARS and Siemens have entered into a cooperative research and development agreement to explore the use of nonfood-based materials for biofuel and biochemical production. "Siemens is a partner for technology," said Rich Chmielewski, the company's chemical and biofuels marketing manager. "What our partnership includes is providing the technology for them to do that research."

As part of the agreement, Virginia-based Logical Innovations Inc., a partner of Siemens, will work with researchers at the ARS Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pa. The company will install a distributed control system based on Siemens' Simatic PCS 7 Box technology on the ERRC's bench-scale fluidized bed pyrolysis system. "We think distributed control will help accelerate second-generation biofuels and biochemicals development by improving the repeatability, consistency and efficiency of our research processes," said USDA ARS Research Leader Kevin Hicks.

Siemens' technology will help control the reaction process by controlling variables inside the reactor. This will allow researchers to have a repeatable environment where heat, pressure and other variables are automatically controlled. Controlling these variables will make it easier to compare the bio-oil produced from various biomass materials. "What we are really concentrating on is taking low-density biomass, having a consistent reaction and then being able to put it into this bio-oil form we can use," Chmielewski said. One goal of the research is to identify the best feedstocks suited for specific end products.

The project is currently in the engineering phase. Chmielewski said it will be commissioned in January. The second step in the research agreement will involve a larger-scale fluidized bed pyrolysis system. That step is currently in the planning stages. "This larger system will have the added complexity of recycling and combusting all-or at least some-of the gases and charcoal," he said.