When Robert Brown was perusing the early October publication of the National Academies of Sciences’ report on U.S. biofuels policy, his attention was drawn to its economic analysis. As he read on, Brown realized that this part of the report was heavily influenced by studies performed at Iowa State.
“I was surprised to discover that the economic assessment was derived almost exclusively from papers and reports published by our research team in the previous year,” explains Brown, who is the Anson Marston Distinguished Professor of Engineering, Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering, Iowa Farm Bureau director of the Bioeconomy Institute, director of the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies, and professor of mechanical engineering, chemical and biological engineering, and agricultural and biosystems engineering
Just over five years ago, the United States adopted policies to encourage the production of renewable fuels. In 2005, Congress enacted the Energy Policy Act, marking the start of the first renewable fuels standard (RFS1). RFS1 required that 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel be blended with gasoline by 2012 to reduce U.S. dependence on imported petroleum. These targets were exceeded considerably by the emergence of corn ethanol, but objections were soon raised about using food and feed crops for fuel production.
Two years later Congress revised the original legislation to create RFS2, which calls for increasing production of fuels from wood, grasses, and other kinds of biomass. These fuels have the potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 to 60 percent. Major milestones to achieve 16 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2022 have been missed, sparking concerns about the nation’s ability to adhere to the regulations set forth in RFS2. As a result, Congress directed the National Academy of Sciences to examine the RFS2 legislation and answer the underlying question: is the biofuels industry sufficiently developed to meet Congress’ expectations for advanced biofuels?
As Brown discovered, the resulting report by the National Academy based its economic evaluations on research performed at Iowa State University in collaboration with Conoco-Phillips and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The team looked at the cost to build and operate biofuels plants based on three prominent advanced biofuels technologies: cellulosic ethanol, gasification, and pyrolysis.
“We had three teams each responsible for evaluating the economic outcome of their assigned technology. They built models of the fuel production systems and calculated flows of mass and energy through them. From this data, they could estimate the size of the equipment and the cost to build and run the plants,” Brown explains.
Although several people contributed to the Iowa State-led studies, Brown credits much of the effort to Feroz Kabir, a post-doctoral researcher working for Prof. Rob Anex at the time, and two of Brown’s graduate students, Ryan Swanson and Mark Wright. Feroz is now on faculty at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. Wright, who received his PhD in mechanical engineering last year, is now a postdoctoral researcher at MIT. Swanson joined Sargent & Lundy in Chicago after completing his master’s degree. They were responsible for preparing the reports on the three technologies, which were released as archival reports by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and authored papers that were published last fall in Fuel: The Science and Technology of Fuel and Energy.
Brown says direct national impact is often difficult for graduate students to obtain because their research is usually focused on a specific issue within a larger context. “In this case, the students were working on system analyses in which they were evaluating whole fuel production systems to determine their commercialization prospects,” he adds. “Their work can be immediately used by decision makers to determine whether these technologies can help meet the RFS2.”
Wright was involved in the research team focused on fast pyrolysis—a process of quickly heating organic materials to create a liquid that can be made into synthetic gasoline, while Swanson focused on gasification—a process that uses heat to break down biomass into gases that are subsequently converted into liquid fuels. Both were honored to see their work in the report. “I was pleasantly surprised when I found out my work was used in the report,” says Wright. “It was flattering that they recognized my work as significant and chose to share it on a national level.”
Last fall, Iowa State’s research was already garnering attention. Brown received two emails from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). One informed him that Iowa State’s studies had influenced their decision to deemphasize gasification while the second message said DOE would be increasing its investment in pyrolysis on the strength of Iowa State’s findings.
The National Academy of Sciences report concludes that it is unlikely that industry will be able to provide the advanced cellulosic biofuels mandated by the RFS2 because of the high capital cost to build these plants and the relatively high cost of the resulting fuels. Brown is disappointed that the report and subsequent publicity painted a generally pessimistic future for biofuels compared to his own understanding of the technology. Brown wrote a guest piece for the Des Moines Register shortly after release of the report describing what will be required for wide-scale adoption of cellulosic biofuels. First, investors must be confident that petroleum prices will remain sufficiently high over the next several years for them to recover their investment in advanced biofuels plants. Currently, petroleum prices show wide fluctuations over time, making investments in biofuels a high-risk proposition. Second, the U.S. must remain committed to reducing dependence on imported petroleum through continued support of biofuels research.
“If we can find a way to improve the yield of energy from biomass, the biofuels product will become increasingly cost competitive,” Brown says. “There is plenty of scope for improvement, and that’s what we continue to work on at Iowa State.”
Late this year, Brown and his team of researchers received a grant from DOE to conduct high-level analyses of emerging fuel technologies in an effort to help DOE make decisions on future research investments.
Wright, whose postdoctoral research at MIT explores how pyrolysis technology can take advantage of existing fuel infrastructures to create biofuels, also believes advanced biofuels has a promising future.
“We know there are challenges ahead of us, but there is a lot of excitement in the industry to develop these technologies,” he says. “Although economic circumstances have slowed the introduction of advanced biofuels, we think there is good reason to continue to work towards cost competitive renewable fuels.”