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EERC Partners to Develop Biomass Gasification Process for Ethanol Production

EERC plans to gasify biomass and process the syngas into ethanol. Click to enlarge.

The Centers for Renewable Energy and Biomass Utilization at the University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) are partnering with ICM, Inc., one of the leading companies involved in designing and building ethanol plants, to develop new gasification and conversion technology for the production of ethanol from cellulosic biomass materials such as grasses, wood, and straw.

The EERC’s technology gasifies biomass to create a syngas that is then converted to ethanol and other high-value products such as methanol or butanol. This thermochemical conversion process represents a different pathway than the biochemical process usually considered for the production of cellulosic ethanol via hydrolysis and fermentation.

Some scenarios for intergated biorefineries combine both pathways, however,with thermochemical conversion processing the lignin-rich residue from the primary pathway of bioconversion

Over the past several years, the EERC has made progress in developing small-scale biomass gasification systems that produce gas that can be burned to generate electricity. Earlier in January, EERC announced that it will demonstrate a biomass gasification power generation system at the Grand Forks Truss Plant in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The biomass gasification power generation system, developed by the EERC’s Center for Renewable Energy through several years of projects with the US Department of Energy and commercial industry, will convert the sawdust and wood waste from the building product plant into a combustible gas to produce heat and electricity. The system is designed to match typical power requirements of various manufacturing industries generating between 10 kW to 1 MW of power.

Research is now under way to further refine the system to produce an ultraclean gas with low contaminants which can be converted to ethanol, using additional new technologies that are simple and economically feasible.

In 2006, ethanol startup Xethanol acquired Advanced Biomass Gasification Technologies (ABGT) from UTEK. ABGT holds the exclusive worldwide license for MicroGasification technology developed at EERC. The MicroGasifier produces syngas from carbon matter to drive a portable, power generation system. Xethanol and EERC are mutually funding a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to further apply the MicroGasifier in the production of ethanol. EERC will perform system integration of the MicroGasifier for customers. (Earlier post.)




What is the EROI ?


I do not see where the term EROI is used in the article, but perhaps it would mean Expected Return On Investment.

I like the idea of this, an energy plant. Make electrical power and fuel. Combine the heat generated to cook and distill using other methods as well.

They are doing microgasification. I recall some people saying the the process is not scalable. It seems like it can be small enough to be close to the biomass, which is the idea.

Rafael Seidl

EROI = energy returned on investment, is closely related to EROEI = energy returned on energy invested.

Tese are economic rather than thermodynamic quantities and denote the amount of free solar energy delivered in the form of fuel per unit of money or fuel input. Unfortunately, the concepts are not yet properly standardized so some researchers include inputs such as fertilizer and the farm machinery itself while others do not, yielding wildly incongruous results. Even with identical methodology, results vary because some input parameters (such as future prices) must be estimated.

Biofuel projects are attractive only if the EROEI is sufficiently above 1. First-generation bioethanol from corn is a booming business for political/air quality reasons but its EROEI is actually only barely above 1. Depending on the vested interest that funds any given study, it may even come out as below 1.

It's important to realize that EROEI depends very much on the type of feedstock and where it is grown. In tropical countries, per-acre yields can be 10-fold those in temperate climes. Moreover, agricultural labor is much cheaper. Well-connected businessmen can often obtain land and water rights at low cost. Little-known dirty secret: often, land for energy crops becomes available only after clear-cutting virgin rainforest.

Processes such as this one that are able to turn not just the fruit but the whole plant into fuel achieve superior EROEI. However, as the presentation says, the economical production of biofuels for automotive use requires a fairly large biorefinery.

Portable small-scale units for simple CHP are desirable because transporting solid biomass - much of it water - is relatively expensive.


GM- read "majeasy." He's absolutely right. You need to do this for America right now. Millions would love to proudly wear the Bow Tie again.

An Engineer

If you are looking for a BTL technology, this has promise. Of course, producing ethanol for fuel has serious drawbacks (including the inability of existing vehicles to run on blends with a higher ethanol content than E10, ethanol's water absorbtion properties which leads to corrosion and related inability to pump ethanol with gasoline, etc. etc.) It only makes sense to produce ethanol as long as Uncle Sam distorts the market, thinking he's doing the powerful farm lobby a favor.

The logical endproduct is the top line in the diagram shown in green.


I downloaded the pdf (1.3mb) to see if it was advocating gasification followed by fermentation but all possibilities seem to be covered. I like the emphasis on scaling down these refineries so they can be set up next to the feedstock. That could mean poor countries can make some local fuel not just those who can afford tax credits.


BTL (syngas) yields roughly 50% more vs fermentation ethanol. For example, a ~400 ga/acre from fermentation corn ethanol may be ~600 ga/acre with BTL. This due to more effcient processes, and use all of the input material (otherwise for animal feed). With fermentation, you get DDG (and maybe some oil) as leftovers. You can also use the cob and stover as feedstock (in BTL), further improving yields per acre, and energy balance.


If they can make these micro units affordable, farmer cooperatives can be making ethanol and butanol from corn stover in no time.



Biomass gasification technology is just like steam-engined bicycles. Antique, well-researched, and totally inefficient. Prove me wrong: how much fuel is produced currently from biomass gasification?

Robert Rapier

Gasification followed by fermentation. A major strength of a gasification process is that you end up with water-free syngas. You could do FT on this and turn it into diesel, or convert it to methanol. Instead, they dilute it with water in a fermentation, which just kills the EROI. As I have argued before, gasification makes sense. I think it is the future. But subsidies are pushing people to make ethanol when it doesn't make good technical sense.

Cheers, RR

See my essay on this at:

Cellulosic Ethanol vs. Biomass Gasification



I don't get into the "prove it" stuff, that is for children. Now be quiet and be a good little poster.

Mike Z

Given the vast amount of waste heat currently resulting from eletrical gerneation and industry, why does anyone care about EROI?

Seriously, Who cares how much energy it takes if they can cogen with a powerplant and use waste heat?


Hi, Robert.

I enjoy a lot your thoughtful posts on energy subjects, thanks.

Biomass gasification. Current US and Canadian legislation in different jurisdictions more and more prohibits wasteful incineration of lumber and forestry wastes. Such wastes currently more and more are converted to different products, notably clean combustion firelogs and pellets. Using directly for space heating, wood wastes are too polluting. For electricity generation wood wastes are not very good: due to low calorific value and moisture content, wood-fired steam boilers produce low-parameter steam, and as a result thermal efficiency of electricity generation is very low – about 28% compare to coal fired boilers with efficiency close to 40%. The accepted solution is co-combustion of pulverized wood dust on coal-fired boilers, with wood calorific contribution at about 5%. This way parameters of steam are practically not affected.

It is very tempting to convert wood wastes to much more valuable product, like liquid transportation fuel. Unfortunately, it is extremely technically complicated. Any wood gasification technology suffers from very high level of fly ash and sticky tars, which choke upstream heat exchange and catalytic surfaces in no time. One company, Dynamotive, actually trying to use it to the advantage: they use partial combustion with high yield of pyrolytic liquids, and condense them to use as liquid fuel.

Hopefully, these technical hurdles will be overcome by somebody, but for now it is not the case, notwithstanding rosy claims of venture companies working in the field.

Now, I was talking about relatively dry biomass, already collected and posing high disposal costs. Collecting of dry biomass for sole purpose of gasification is not even on horizon of being economical. Wet biomass, well, you probably know the answer.

John Schreiber

As small gasification system is what the world needs. I envision converting the majority of invasive species into fuel. Local governments would pay you to use the feedstock. it would be a win win win. Everyone wants to build a huge plant but soon you would have to bring in the feedstock from 300 miles away.

An Engineer

Unfortunately, in America everybody seems to be drunk on ethanol when it comes to renewable fuel. The closer you get to Washington, the worse it gets. Great con job by the powerful Ag lobby! Have a drink, you deserve it!

You need to look accross the pond, at work being done in the EU, notably the Netherlands and Germany. The German company, Choren, is building a 4,500 bbl/d biomass gasification plant. We'll see how it pans out, but calling gasification a steam-engined bicycle is quite inappropriate. And asking how much fuel is currently produced this way is equally so.

How much CO2 are we currently producing? Are we just going to sit on our hands and keep doing the same things, or are we going to try and improve things a bit?

Cheryl Ho

There are developments in DME in China today:
DME is an LPG-like synthetic fuel can be produced through gasification of Biomass. The synthetic gas is then catalyzed to produce DME. A gas under normal pressure and temperature, DME can be compressed into a liquid and used as an alternative to diesel. Its low emissions make it relatively environmentally friendly. In fact, Shandong University completed Pilot plant in Jinan and will be sharing their experience at upcoming North Asia DME / Methanol conference in Beijing, 27-28 June 2007, St Regis Hotel. The conference covers key areas which include:

DME productivity can be much higher especially if
country energy policies makes an effort comparable to
that invested in increasing supply.
National Development Reform Commission NDRC
Ministry of Energy for Mongolia

Production of DME/ Methanol through biomass
gasification could potentially be commercialized
Shandong University completed Pilot plant in Jinan and
will be sharing their experience.

Advances in conversion technologies are readily
available and offer exciting potential of DME as a
chemical feedstock
By: Kogas, Lurgi and Haldor Topsoe

Available project finance supports the investments
that DME/ Methanol can play a large energy supply role
By: International Finance Corporation

For more information:


this was a little help but it didnt realy provide the adequate information about the production of ethanol from biomass gasificaton...
the links are not clearly hightlight to related material, however it wa some help thanks.. if you find info on ethonal production processes derived from plants... include PLEASE

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