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Iowa State Researchers Optimizing Production of Producer Gas from Biomass to Displace Natural Gas

Researchers from Iowa State University are working with Frontline BioEnergy to optimize a gasification process for the production of producer gas from biomass to replace the use of natural gas in ethanol plants.

Many ethanol plants use natural gas to produce the heat required to create the steam to liquefy corn starch, to distill alcohol, and to dry the leftover distillers grains.

Natural gas is thus the second largest expense at these plants, trailing only the cost of the corn used for ethanol production. One estimate says Iowa’s annual production of more than one billion gallons of ethanol accounts for about 16% of the state’s demand for natural gas.

Producer gas is made by injecting biomass—corn stalks, distillers grains, waste wood or other biorenewables—into a fluidized bed gasifier, a thermal system that pumps air up through a bed of hot sand, creating bubbles and a sand-air pseudo-fluid. A reaction between the biomass and the hot sand-air mixture produces flammable gases. The process also generates its own heat to sustain the reaction.

Producer gas is a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane and other flammable gases that can also be upgraded to syngas for further conversion to fuels or other chemicals.

The goal is to design a gasifier large enough to produce energy for an ethanol plant. The project is partially supported by a $132,274 grant from the Grow Iowa Values Fund, a state economic development program.

Iowa State will use X-ray radiography, X-ray computed tomography and X-ray stereography images of the flows within a 6-inch reactor to measure local conditions.

Researchers will then simulate the results of the X-ray tests using computational fluid dynamics and then run simulations and compare the results with data from the fluidized bed experiments. Ultimately the goal is to validate a computer model to enable appropriate design changes to optimize the delivery of the producer gas.



I like this better than unnaturally barn raised cows making manure for a methane digester to run the distillery. An alternative approach is to increase the temperature and pressure to go the methanol-ethanol route but I guess this needs millions of dollars in capital.


Advanced combustion of biomass for electricity and industrial heat production is well known for years. It does not matter how resulted heat is used – to distill the brew or heat a factory. It is well proven that combustion of wet wastes (like corn stalk) is uneconomical. Only relatively dry waste, like straw and wood could be combusted with economically recoverable surplus of energy. And it is good news, because wet organic is the best source for biogas digestion or cellulosic ethanol. Both processes consume cellulose, and lignin (30-40% of dry biomass) remains unused.


Most excellent. They can cogenerate to produce heat and electricity if they wanted and also use solar thermal heat to preheat or for distillation using concentrated solar thermal heat. Many ways to get to where you want to go without polluting nor wasting energy.

An Engineer

Brilliant! They are going to develop a computer model for fluidized bed systems. That is great basic research. It is even better marketing to find some dupe to pay for it! As a leading expert in the field describe it: Calculation show that the conversion in bubbling beds may vary from plug flow to well below mixed flow, and the perplexing and embarrassing thing about this is that we cannot reliably estimate or guess what it will be for any new situation. Because of this, scale-up is cautious and uncertain, and preferably left to others... Best of luck with that.

In the real world, Iowa could just buy the technolgy from people already doing it...


The xray stuff does seem a bit odd, when you can gasify in several different ways. Making gasification more reliable and predicatable is a good goal, but concentrating on only one methond seems limited. Maybe it is just underfunded.

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