Studious by Nature

How a BP-sponsored grant will optimize biomass use
By Bryan Sims | October 24, 2011

Determining how best to use a type of biomass material and in what application is sort of like figuring out which herb or spice is appropriate for a dish being cooked in the kitchen. This was the corollary that five undergraduates from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign originally drew when they titled a proposal, “The Engineering Spice Box,” for a $5,000 grant given by BP to the university’s Energy Biosciences Institute, an industry-university partnership sponsored by BP with UI and the University of California at Berkeley, to research engineering properties of biomass. The students wrote the grant to develop a virtual database that would explain to end users the properties of different types of energy crops such as sorghum, miscanthus, switchgrass, willow and energy cane, and their value for advanced biofuel, biochemical and other forms of energy production.

According to Luis Rodriquez, a professor at UI’s agricultural and biological engineering department overseeing the student-run project, the grant is being used to examine the specific properties of biomass itself such as moisture, the breaking point of each crop (if the material is hard and brittle or elastic and flexible), the compressibility of each crop and the angle of repose (the angle at which the material falls naturally, which determines how much can be stored in a given area). The students have worked with BP for four years, previously focusing on developing drop-in advanced fuels from biomass. Rodriguez says the project has since shifted focus to broader upstream utilization of biomass.

“Now, I think we’re looking at a wider suite of uses such as biomaterials, and certainly biopower is a big one as well,” Rodriguez tells Biorefining Magazine. “It’s that diversity that’s really necessary to get these things off the ground, and the students working with me are very aware of that, and I think that’s why they decided to take this challenge upon themselves—to try to enumerate these engineering properties of biomass.”

Rodriguez adds that the students anticipate biomass properties will change, depending on the form the biomass is in, which will tell them how it could potentially be used in biorefining applications.

“If they’re successful, they should be able to distill a finite set of numbers describing the biomass with an understanding of those quantifiable values that we use to measure the biomass, one might be able to select from a number of preatreatment options whether it’s a chemical decomposition of the cell well and so forth,” Rodriguez says.

The research project will take approximately one year, and the funds will be used for research equipment and presentations. With the help of the BP grant, Rodriguez says the students will present their research in a display at a campus open house for the agricultural and biological engineering department. 

—Bryan Sims