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Pilot plant slated for a fast-pyrolysis process that converts biomass into fuels

By Scott Jenkins |

Plans are underway to build a pilot plant for a fast-pyrolysis process that will convert 10 ton/d of biomass into bio-oil and bio-char. The bio-oil can be used as renewable fuel oil or catalytically upgraded to transportation fuels, while the bio-char can be introduced into soils to improve nutrient and water retention in agriculture.

“We are developing a process for drawing down CO2 in the atmosphere while simultaneously deriving economic benefit,” comments Robert Brown, director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State University (ISU; Ames, Iowa; www.iastate.edu).

fast-pyrolysis process

The process (flowsheet) takes place in a pyrolysis reactor that thermally breaks down biomass at 500°C in the absence of oxygen. Particles of biomass, such as wood waste, corn stalks and others, are processed in a fluidized bed containing sand, through which inert gas is flowing. The cellulose and hemicellulose in the biomass break down into dehydrated sugars, which can be used in fermentation processes or catalytically upgraded to fuels. The lignin breaks down into to phenolic oils, which can be refined into transportation fuels or blended with coal to be co-fired in power plants.

The residue of the pyrolysis process, at 10–15 wt.% of the products, is a carbonaceous material similar to charcoal that is stable in soils for long periods, where it aids retention of water and fertilizers and promotes crop growth. “Bio-char is a great carbon sequestration agent,” Brown explains, “because the carbon is a stable solid, rather than a volatile gas [CO2].”

Brown also envisions blending biomass-derived heavy ends with coal in a 30/70% mixture to bring coal-fired power plants in line with proposed limits on CO2 emissions.

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