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$1.7M DOE award will advance Ohio State bioenergy technology

The Ohio State University engineering researchers who pioneered chemical looping as a clean coal energy-producing technology have received a federal grant to apply a similar process for the thermochemical conversion of biomass to methanol.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded up to $10 million in funding, available through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI). The term biomass most often refers to plants or plant-based materials which are not used for food or feed.Switchgrass biomassSwitchgrass biomass

DOE selected two projects—one each from Ohio State and Massachusetts Institute of Technology—that integrate science and engineering research in biofuels and biobased product development. Led by Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor Liang-Shih Fan and Research Assistant Professor Andrew Tong, Ohio State’s “Biomass Gasification for Chemicals Production Using Chemical Looping Techniques” project will receive $1.7 million from DOE.

Chemical looping involves the delivery of oxygen from air—via a tailored iron-based oxygen carrier—to a fuel source to perform the chemical reactions. Ohio State’s approach partially oxidizes biomass, such as switchgrass and corn stalks, to form synthesis gas consisting of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, the building blocks used in methanol production.

According to Tong, the project’s focus is to prove the biomass-to-syngas chemical looping process is a highly efficient and economical approach to substantially reducing the cost of chemicals or liquid fuels production. “This single-step to high purity syngas from biomass process has the potential to reduce capital costs for syngas production by 44 percent compared to conventional thermochemical processes,” he said.
Andrew TongAndrew Tong

Primarily used as a feedstock in chemical manufacturing, methanol also is an emerging energy fuel for running our cars, trucks, buses and even electric power turbines. This simple molecule packed with hydrogen and no carbon-to-carbon bonds burns cleaner than most energy sources and provides a viable, readily available alternative to traditional fossil fuels. 

“Our goal is to optimize biomass utilization,” Tong said, “whether it’s for liquid fuels production or chemical manufacturing. We want to develop a technology that can help capitalize on the availability of this carbon-neutral source.”

He added that biomass’ relatively low energy density—compared to coal or natural gas—demands extreme efficiency in the energy conversion process in order to be cost-competitive to the traditional fossil fuel approach.
Liang-Shih FanLiang-Shih Fan

The economic assessment will be performed by project partner Nexant. Other collaborators include Shell Global Solutions, Peloton Technologies, Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, ZeaChem, Community Power Corporation, AdvanceBio, Gulf Process Gases, Kurtz Brothers and the Ohio Corn Market Program.

Project experiments will be conducted in a 15kWth demonstration unit to be built in the Clean Energy Research Laboratory on Ohio State’s West Campus.

BRDI-funded projects will help develop economically and environmentally sustainable sources of biomass and increase the availability of renewable fuels and biobased products to diversify the nation’s energy portfolio.


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