Young scientists present next-gen biodiesel research in Tampa

By Ron Kotrba | January 28, 2020

Student scientists from universities across the country converged in Tampa, Florida, at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo Jan. 20-23 to showcase their work in biodiesel through poster sessions and a panel discussion, as part of the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel program. The program is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2020, and 15 NGSB students attended the conference this year. Four presented their work to an audience on a technical session panel.

Zenith Tandukar, a graduate research assistant at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, presented his work on improving pennycress for commercialization. He said pennycress, which exists mainly as a weed, has properties similar to rapeseed, including high oil content of between 27 and 38 percent, or roughly twice the oil as soybeans, and high erucic acid content in the oil, which provides improved cold flow properties in biodiesel made from pennycress oil. The weedy, wild varieties, however, are prone to pod shatter, which results in yield losses, and dormancy and germination problems. Nonuniform flowering and maturation issues also plague wild pennycress, in addition to its very small seed size and high glucosinulate content, making the meal undesirable for animal feed. Tandukar discussed how he and other researchers at the University of Minnesota, including partnering organizations, are working to decrease pod shattering, improve flowering, increase seed size and reduce glucosinulate content.

Tandukar said cover crops are only used in 3 to 4 percent of corn-soybean rotations. When improved pennycress varieties are planted as a cover crop in corn-soybean rotations, however, the benefits are innumerable. For one, pennycress planting as a winter cover crop in corn-soybean rotations can prevent spring nitrogen loss by 90 percent, he said, while reducing spring weed biomass by the same high percentage. Furthermore, pennycress does well in harsh environments and can successfully withstand cold environments such as Minnesota winters. Soybeans can be planted in the spring and then the pennycress winter cover crop can be harvested over the young soybeans as they are growing. Pennycress can yield between 75 and 100 gallons an acre, providing farmers with an additional $200 to $800 an acre in revenue.

Aamir Bashir, a doctoral student and research assistant at the University of Idaho, discussed a novel, patented liquid phase plasma discharge technology for continuous biodiesel production developed in the University of Idaho lab.

“Ninety percent of the universe is made of plasma,” Bashir said. He said pulse discharged plasma technologies are virtually unavailable in the market and stable discharge approaches can be problematic. He said the continuous flow biodiesel reactor developed at the University of Idaho is a breakthrough liquid plasma device that uses conventional AC power supply and emits a constant, stable plasma discharge using pin-to-plate design. Bashir said the applications are unlimited, including for biodiesel conversion, which features no need to preheat feedstock; ambient reaction temperatures; a 99 percent conversion rate; a low, 5:1 molar ratio that saves on methanol usage using 1 percent catalyst; quick 15-minute separation time and less washing needed during posttreatment; ease of scale-up; and high efficiency.

Bashir said the small bench-scale reactor developed at the university can process a large volume for such a compact design, featuring a flow rate of 8 milliliters per second, or 153 gallons per day.

Present and future work on the system, according to Bashir, includes optimizing reaction parameters, improving mechanics, and investigating applications with different feedstock and alcohol.

Jenny Frank, a doctoral student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, presented findings from her dissertation she hopes to have published soon.

Frank’s dissertation quantifies the comparative value of carbon abatement schemes over different investment timing scenarios exclusively for Class 8 heavy-duty applications. Frank considered financial costs and benefits, and the social costs of carbon, and calculated the 20-year net present value (NPV) for four different scenarios: 1) baseline diesel (100 percent petroleum diesel); 2) 100 percent biodiesel; 3) baseline diesel to battery electric; and 4) 100 percent biodiesel to battery electric.

All scenarios investigated took into account costs, such as the purchasing of new battery-electric vehicles and battery packs, as well as operational costs and the social cost of carbon; and revenues, such as the sale of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles when changing over to battery electric. Scenarios three and four also considered investment timing, starting in 2015 and under the assumption that Class 8 heavy-duty battery-electric systems would be commercially available in 2020.

Interestingly, scenario three—baseline diesel to battery electric—had the lowest NPV, demonstrating that, perhaps counterintuitively, ICE-to-battery electric conversion does not necessarily offer higher NPV than other scenarios.

Conversely, scenario two—100 percent biodiesel—has the highest NPV of $1.8 million when accounting for the social cost of carbon and the revenue stream from reducing emissions. Frank said the reasoning behind this, for instance, is if companies delay investment in clean technologies while waiting for advancements in heavy-duty, battery-electric systems to become commercially available, this leads to increased carbon emissions, increased climate change and increased costs. Thus, according to Frank and her research, it makes more sense to invest in low-carbon fuels like biodiesel now than to delay investment and wait for battery-electric systems to become commercially available.  

Frank said the second part of her investigation, which will begin soon, will take into effect the recently reinstated tax credit retroactive back to Jan. 1, 2018, and through Dec. 31, 2022. This, naturally, would increase the NPV of both biodiesel-related scenarios.

Rounding out the panel was Sam Kramer, a senior at Iowa State University, who is reviving the Biobus program, which was discontinued several years ago. The program involves collecting used cooking oil from ISU cafeterias, pretreating the oil, reacting it into biodiesel, and providing the fuel to the CyRide bus service in Ames, Iowa.

“The real value of the club,” Kramer said, “is the engineering skills, practicability and collaboration it offers, and the opportunity for failure—the availability and opportunity to fail has put some good engineers out there in the world.”

Kramer said the production unit on campus can produce 40 gallons every two weeks, if all goes well. He said the CyRide buses use blends of biodiesel produced through the ISU Biobus program between 5 and 20 percent.

Mike Haas, longtime USDA Agricultural Research Service biochemist and researcher, took the stage after the students presented to offer them words of encouragement and to introduce Rachel Burton, formerly with Piedmont Biofuels and Novozymes, and currently chief technology officer at Faster BioProcess and senior project engineer at ProcessWerx.

Haas mentioned that researchers had long been studying commercialization of biodiesel production using immobilized enzymes, having some 16,000 papers published on the topic, “and then in walks the diesel mechanic”—Burton—who developed a process at Piedmont, where a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2012 unveiled the system.

The students were offered three points to consider by Haas to help further their success in the world of biodiesel research. “One, don’t be bound by the dogma of your profession,” Haas said. “Two, Rachel’s work shows that you shouldn’t be prevented from walking into a new room without formal credentials. And the last is what I call the ‘get ‘er done’ philosophy. There is a culture of ‘publish or perish’ [in the world of academia, but don’t forget to] focus on solving the problem.”

Burton’s advice included reminding the students to leverage other industries for finding solutions to problems in their own field. She offered her own lessons learned in research and beyond to the NGSB researchers. She said extra effort does indeed pay off and suggested that they learn how to creatively deal with the word “no,” and to synthesize and build upon both good and bad experiences.


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