Cenusa project promotes regional advanced biofuels development

By Bryan Sims | March 30, 2012

An academic research project led by Iowa State University, coined Cenusa Bioenergy, is linking university researchers with enterprising farmers to create a Midwestern regional system for converting nonfood-based biomass grasses into advanced biofuels derived from bio-oil via fast pyrolysis technology. The project, launched last August, is funded by a five-year, $25 million grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

According to Ken Moore, Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of agriculture and life sciences and lead investigator on the transdisciplinary project, the team’s immediate focus is evaluating the feasibility of planting, cultivating and harvesting herbaceous perennial grasses native to the Corn Belt, such as big bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass, on or near marginal farmland unsuitable for food production. Upon harvesting of the grasses, the biomass would then be transported to a local pyrolysis conversion unit where it would be converted into bio-oil and then subsequently shipped to a centralized gasoline or petrochemical refinery using existing transportation infrastructure for further upgrading and refinement into a suite of fuels and chemicals.

“It’s been good having engineers in touch with agronomists who are growing the materials and the geneticists who are developing the new energy crops,” Moore explained to Biorefining Magazine. “Otherwise, people would be working in their silos and maybe not be aware of critical issues, particularly as they relate to feedstock composition and conversion technologies. We also have to think of other things like safety issues on and off the farm.”

Moore added that Cenusa Bioenergy will be leveraging ISU’s deep resources and expertise in pyrolysis technology pioneered by Robert Brown, professor of mechanical engineering and director of ISU’s Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies and the Bioeconomy Institute, throughout the five-year duration of the collaborative project. Brown has led a number of research activities in innovative technologies such as syngas fermentation, gasification of bio-oil, production of sugars, bioasphalt, cofiring pellets from the fast pyrolysis of biomass and the use of biochars as soil amendment and carbon sequestration agent.

“ISU is thoroughly committed to [pyrolysis] technology in terms of resources and research,” Moore said. “We thought fast pyrolysis would be ideal because then you could almost have them at the county or co-op level.”

Moore is serving as lead investigator for a network of nine institutions working alongside ISU on the Cenusa Bioenergy project: Purdue University; University of Minnesota; University of Nebraska, Lincoln; University of Illinois, Champaign; University of VermontUSDA Agricultural Research Service (Madison, Wisconsin; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Iowa State University).

The Cenusa Bioenergy project also has an advisory board with members that represent all links in the biofuel supply chain, including biomass cultivar development, seed production and marketing, crop production, transportation, storage, conversion, marketing, safety and education.

Agronomy, agricultural sciences or engineering undergraduate students are invited to apply for summer internships experience and to work directly with the Cenusa Bioenergy project, according to Moore, with internship opportunities expected to be offered every summer. Applications for summer 2012 internships are due by March 30.

“That’s one of the outcomes that we’re excited about,” Moore said. “We want to train students, potential employees, for this emerging industry.

For more information about the Cenusa Bioenergy project or how to apply for summer internships, visit the project’s website here