Siemens, USDA to improve lignocellulosic conversion

By Erin Voegele
Web exclusive posted Oct. 17, 2008 at 11:47 a.m. CST

Siemens Energy and Automation Inc., a company that manufactures electrical and electronic products for the industrial and construction markets, along with the USDA Agricultural Research Service have entered into a cooperative research and development agreement to improve the process of converting lignocellulosic biomass into liquid biofuel intermediates, such as bio-oil.

According to Rich Chmielewski, Siemens' chemical and biofuels marketing manager, the main objective of the USDA is to develop strategies to help further the research into alternative energies, including research of non-food based materials for biofuel and biochemical production. "Siemens is a partner for technology," Chmielewski said. "What our partnership includes is providing the technology for them to do that research."

As part of the agreement, Virginia-based Logical Innovations will work with researchers at ARS' Eastern Region Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pa. Logical Innovations is a solution partner of Siemens, meaning they are an extension of Siemens delivery team. "They've been trained and qualified in the practice of our technologies," Chmielewski said.

Logical Innovations will install a distributed control system based on Siemens SIMATIC PCS 7 Box technology on ERRC's bench-scale fluidized bed pyrolysis system. The system heats biomass in a reactor and converts it to liquid bio-oil, bio-char and syngas. According to Chmielewski, ERRC's pyrolysis system takes any lignocellulosic biomass material, such as tree bark, bamboo, switchgrass or willow, and transforms it into pyrolysis oil, or bio-oil, which is a thick black substance that can be used to produce biofuels or biochemicals. The reactor contains an anaerobic digester, and essentially chars the biomass material and breaks it down with temperature.

Siemens SIMATIC PCS 7 Box technology, which helps control the reaction process and keeps it consistent, is able to control variables inside the reactor so that the process can be optimized and researchers have a repeatable action environment. Instead of manually controlling heat, pressure and other variables, the technology is able to automatically control them. The ability to control these variables will make it easier to compare the bio-oil produced from various biomass materials.

Chmielewski said one of the problems with using biomass is that it's difficult to transport in large quantities. "The idea is that you change [the biomass] into a liquid before you transport it," he said. The bio-oil is simply the raw form of biomass converted into a liquid. It can then be broken down into its component parts. Depending on the specific feedstock, it can be used to produce biofuels or biochemicals.

"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 gasses and charcoal."