biofuels Tag

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – A method of converting a biofuel waste product into a usable and valuable commodity has been discovered by researchers at Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Converting algae to biofuels is a two-step process. The first, developed by PNNL, applies high pressure and high temperature to algae to create bio oil. The second converts that bio oil into biofuel, which can replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

It’s that first step, called hydrothermal liquefaction, that produces waste — approximately 25 to 40 percent of carbon and 80 percent of nutrients from the algae are left behind in wastewater streams.

Bionatural gas and fertilizer

The wastewater is generally hard to process because it contains a variety of different chemicals in small concentrations, said Birgitte K. Ahring, professor at WSU Tri-Cities’ Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory. But Ahring and her team have found that adapting anaerobic microbes — microbes that live without oxygen — to break down the remaining residue is a viable option. Through this process, the material becomes degradable and gets transformed into a bionatural gas without the use of harsh chemicals. The solid material that remains can also be applied as a fertilizer or recycled back into the hydrothermal liquefaction process for further use.

Birgitte Ahring, left, with his research team
WSU Professor Birgitte Ahring, center, points to test sample, with her research team

The results of the team’s research are published this month in Bioresource Technology. The team also consists of:

  • Keerthi Srinivas, WSU postdoctoral research associate
  • Sebastian Fernandez, WSU research assistant
  • Andrew Schmidt, of PNNL’s chemical and biological processes development group
  • Marie Swita, of PNNL’s chemical and biological processes development group

Don’t waste waste

“It has always been my mantra that we shouldn’t waste waste,” Ahring said. “We had an idea that we could turn this waste product into something useful, such as a fertilizer. Our findings revealed that we could use this waste product as something much more.”

The ability to convert a waste product into a usable commodity provides algal biorefineries with a solution to a large problem, Ahring said.

“After removing the solids, about 10 percent of the output is bio oil, with the remaining 90 percent being a waste byproduct,” Schmidt said. “The fact that we’ve developed an alternative method to recycle or treat the leftover material means it’s more economical to produce the bio oil, making the potential for commercial use of the process more likely.”

Sewage sludge and wastewater

Ahring said the team’s results were so promising that they are now partnering with PNNL on its conversion of sewage sludge to fuel using a similar strategy for the wastewater.

“Today, sewage sludge is found throughout the world,” Ahring said. “Creating a process to produce biofuels, bio-natural gas, and nutrients from this material would be of major importance. The current study has demonstrated that nothing should ever be regarded as a waste, but instead as a resource.”

Schmidt said PNNL’s partnership with WSU allowed each team to focus on different aspects of the biomass conversion.  The collaboration is further enhanced by the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, a facility PNNL and WSU built together on the WSU Tri-Cities campus nearly a decade ago.

“PNNL and WSU researchers interacted frequently on the project,” said Schmidt.   “While PNNL engineers focused on converting the algae to bio oil, the WSU team was able to delve deeply into fundamental research of wastewater conversion with microbes, which included taking advantage of unique analytical capabilities on the PNNL campus.”

A WSU alumnus himself, receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from WSU, Schmidt said he’s excited to team on additional programs and projects aligned with goals to grow the collaboration between PNNL and WSU.

 

Contacts:

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – A team from Washington State University Tri-Cities took third place among 21 teams at the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge’s finals this week for their creation and business model presentation of a technology that converts lignin, a natural byproduct of plant-based materials, into biojet fuel.

Photo courtesy: Matt Hagen / UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship
Libing Zhang talks with people at the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge.

During the challenge, interdisciplinary student teams define an environmental problem, develop a solution, design and build a prototype, create a business plan that proves their solution has market potential and pitches their idea to 170 judges from throughout the Northwest who have expertise in cleantech, as well as to entrepreneurs and inventors, at a demo-day event.

The WSU Tri-Cities team, composed of postdoctoral researcher Libing Zhang and Manuel Seubert, a master’s in business administration student, advanced to the finals from an initial pool of 29 teams during the first round of the competition.

Paul Skilton, WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of management, and Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of biological systems engineering, advised the team. The WSU Tri-Cities team also worked regularly with researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to prepare for the competition.

The team was presented with the Starbucks $5,000 prize for their third-place ranking in the final round of the competition.

Advancing biofuels

Zhang, team leader for the challenge, said the main benefits for their technology is that it takes lignin, a waste

Photo courtesy: Matt Hagen / UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship
Manuel Seubert presents at the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge.

product in the biorefineries and pulping process that is considered one of the most abundant renewable carbon sources on Earth, and turns it into an environmentally-friendly, cheap jet fuel that can potentially reduce the carbon emissions for commercial airlines.

“I see several advantages of the technology and hope we can scale it up for commercialization, which will help commercial airlines to achieve their goals in reducing greenhouse emissions,” she said.

Developing a commercial product

Seubert, team co-leader for the challenge, said their goal with the competition was to capture people’s attention for the value of their technology, while using the experience as a learning opportunity for their future in developing the lignin-based jet fuel product into a commercial business.

“The next challenge is to secure funding so that we can scale it up to an industrial scale,” he said. “We are

Libing Zhang displays a container of lignin

Photo courtesy: Matt Hagen / UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship
Libing Zhang displays a container of lignin

actively looking for funding sources at this point and are thinking about establishing a limited liability company, which will allow us to pursue small business grants.”

Zhang said raising awareness about the product was a crucial part of the competition experience.

“We want people to know that the technology for converting lignin to biojet fuel has a commercial value,” she said. “It is encouraging knowing that people care about the technology and see its potential for reducing the carbon footprint. Now, we hope to take the technology to the next level in the business world.”

Zhang is also the entrepreneurial lead on a National Science Foundation I-Corps lignin-to-biojetfuel project, which was awarded to Yang and his team.

Skilton said the project represents an excellence illustration of the cutting-edge, hands-on programming students experience at WSU Tri-Cities.

“This is an example of the kind of integrated project team work our MBA students come to WSU Tri-Cities to do,” he said.

The Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge is the creation of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship in the Foster School of Business, in partnership with the University of Washington’s College of Engineering, College of the Environment, Clean Energy Institute, College of Built Environments and the Department of Biology.

Contacts:

Libing Zhang, WSU Tri-Cities recent doctoral graduate and postdoctoral researcher, libing.zhang@wsu.edu

Manuel Seubert, WSU Tri-Cities master’s in business administration student, manuel.seubert@wsu.edu

Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations specialist, 509-372-7333, maegan.murray@tricity.wsu.edu

RICHLAND, Wash. – Researchers at Washington State University Tri-Cities have been awarded a National Science Foundation I-Corps grant to explore the market potential of their biojet fuel research.

Bin Yang, associate professor of biological systems engineering and principal investigator for the grant, and his team have spent several years developing a process for transforming lignin, a polymer that makes plants woody and rigid, and currently a waste product in the biofuels production process, into hydrocarbon molecules that can one-day be certified as jet fuel.

Libing Zhang

Libing Zhang

Yang said by leveraging research results from projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation and The Boeing Company, he and his team have successfully demonstrated a new, water-based process for deconstructing and recovering lignin from biomass and converting it into jet fuel-range hydrocarbons that may be certified as jet fuel in the near future. Yang currently holds a patent on the process.

“Our ultimate goal is to demonstrate a flexible catalytic process that selectively converts all the carbon in the lignin into jet fuel-range hydrocarbons at minimal cost,” he said.

Libing Zhang, a WSU Tri-Cities postdoctoral research associate and the entrepreneurial lead of the project, said currently commercial airlines are facing pressure to reduce emissions, which is why they may have an interest in seeing a lignin-derived alternative fuel brought to market.

“The airlines see alternative jet fuel as a strategic need, helping guarantee smooth business operations and a long-term and sustainable jet fuel supply,” Zhang said. “Our conversion process can potentially reduce jet fuel cost to end users by using lignin waste from refineries and less expensive catalytic upgrading to jet fuel.”

Zhang said the NSF I-Corps program helps leading researchers develop a business platform for their research and technology that could one-day change the world, while not trying to “reinvent the wheel” by recreating processes and strategies that are already working well within the industry.

For the NSF I-Corps grant, Yang and his team are working under the mentorship of Terri L. Butler from the University of Washington for the business aspects of the project.

“The NSF I-Corps program encourages researchers to step out of the academic environment and listen to the needs of industry,” Butler said. “The researchers can then determine if their technology solves an important problem or if their research efforts should head in a different direction. This is the approach our team has taken as we work on possible business models for our biojet fuel technology while considering the needs of customer segments, key partners, cost structures and revenue streams.”

WSU is leading the nation in biofuel production. In November, Alaska Airlines made the first commercial flight using alternative jet fuel from forest residuals produced through WSU-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance. Read more here.

WSU also has an NSF I-Corps site led by the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture that provides training and funding to find commercial applications of new business ideas and technologies. The free site program promotes entrepreneurism of faculty, student and staff by preparing participants for submission of a proposal to NSF to become an I-Corps team. Learn more here.

 

News media contacts:
Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities biological systems engineering, 509-372-7640, binyang@tricity.wsu.edu
Libing Zhang, WSU Tri-Cities postdoctoral research associate, libing.zhang@wsu.edu
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations, 509-372-7333, maegan.murray@tricity.wsu.edu

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

elmar-villota
Elmar Villota

RICHLAND, Wash. – In Elmar Villota’s home country of the Philippines, as much as 15 percent of households do not have electricity. Villota, a doctoral student in biological systems engineering at Washington State University Tri-Cities, is motivated to close that gap with renewable energy.

“A simple light bulb could make a world of difference,” he said. “Without a sustainable source of electricity, students can’t have light or read comfortably at night. Imagine how much knowledge they would miss.”

elmar-villota-left-educates-filipino-residents-web
Elmar Villota, left, educates
Filipino residents on basic
maintenance and
troubleshooting for an
energy device.

With a population of more than 100 million scattered across more than 7,100 islands, the Philippines faces the challenge of extending power to everyone, he said.

“In the Philippines, we are end users in terms of technology,” Villota said. “Historically, we have purchased technology rather than making or innovating it ourselves for our own use.”

Renewable energy, he added, could help address the nation’s sustainable energy concerns and stimulate technological growth.

Turning biomass into fuel, other products

As part of the Engineering and Research Development for Technology scholarship program, which is offered to all Filipino engineers by the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology, Villota is working toward his doctorate at WSU Tri-Cities.

elmar-villota-with-residents-web
Elmar Villota with Filipino residents.

He is studying how to convert second-generation biomass, such as agricultural waste or woody crops, to biofuels and other useful products, such as bio-based polymers and chemicals. Working under WSU associate professor Bin Yang, Villota mainly is focused on enzymatic hydrolysis, a process that uses bacteria and fungi to break down plant cell walls to sugar, which is turned into fuel.

Villota has written a book chapter on the subject in cooperation with Yang and Ziyu Dai, a senior scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). He is also working with Rongchun Shen, a visiting scholar from China, on techno-economic assessment regarding methods for converting lignin—structural polymers in plants—into useful, high-value products like bioplastics.

Bioproducts lab, PNNL draw scholar

Villota was attracted to WSU Tri-Cities because of its national reputation for excellence in renewable energy research and its partnership with PNNL, a leading national innovator in the renewable energy sector.

elmar-villota-in-wsu-tri-cities-lab-web
Elmar Villota in a BSEL lab at WSU Tri-Cities.

“WSU is one of the best schools for renewable energy because of the WSU Tri-Cities’ Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory and the university’s relationship with PNNL,” he said. “That is what really encouraged me to go here.”

He also contributes to advancing Filipino renewable energy through his home university, serving as a lecturer at Central Luzon State University. He also is a technical expert in renewable energy for the university’s Affiliated Renewable Energy Center and Phil-Sino Center for Agricultural Technology.

Villota said he is hopeful that thousands of fellow Filipinos will benefit from his work, which could lead to basic electrification and light and even broader impacts.

“Through this experience, I hope to extend students’ learning capabilities, and in turn, extend the potential for them to make a difference in the world,” he said.

 

 

Contacts:

Elmar Villota, WSU Tri-Cities doctoral student, elmar.villota@wsu.edu
Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities biological systems engineering, 509-372-7640,binyang@tricity.wsu.edu
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations, 509-372-7333,maegan.murray@tricity.wsu.edu

RICHLAND, Wash. – Four Washington State University professors are pairing up with high school teachers in the Tri-Cities this summer to complete research in viticulture and enology, bioproducts engineering, plant pathology and biological sciences through the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust’s Partners in Science Program.

MJ Murdock Charitable Trust is providing $13,000 to each high school teacher participating, which may go toward research, professional development and other educational resources.  Each team will also receive $2,000 to cover the costs of lab supplies during summer research opportunities in WSU laboratories.

The goal of the program is to bring knowledge from the research lab into the high school science classroom, promoting hands-on science education. The WSU professors will serve as mentors to each of the high school teachers as they complete the research throughout the course of two summers.

Viticulture and enology

WSU Tri-Cities newsThomas Collins, a WSU Tri-Cities assistant professor of viticulture and enology, is working with Frederick Burke, a science teacher at Chiawana High School, to characterize different grape varieties by region, utilizing a process known as gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.

“The process allows us to identify specific chemical profiles in each grape type, which will be used to identify markers associated with the various grape varieties.” Collins said. “The markers will be incorporated into statistical models that would be used to predict the grape varieties used to produce an independent set of Washington state wine samples.”

Biological sciences

WSU Tri-Cities newsElly Sweet, a WSU Tri-Cities clinical assistant professor of biological sciences, and Jim Cooper, a WSU Tri-Cities assistant professor of biological sciences, is working with Amy Verderber, a teacher at Kamiakin High School, to study the impact of thyroid hormone on zebrafish jaw development.

The team is performing development shape analyses of the skull and record and analyze high-speed video footage of fish feeding, in addition to zebrafish husbandry, specimen collection, specimen preparation and photomicroscopy.

“This study is strongly relevant to human health, since there are a large number of human craniofacial disorders associated with alterations of thyroid hormone in blood levels,” Sweet said.

Bioproducts engineering

WSU Tri-Cities newsXiao Zhang, a WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of chemical and bioengineering, is working with Robert Edrington, a science teacher at Southridge High School, to synthesize new functional materials from cellulose, the largest renewable polymer on earth.

Zhang said there is large interest in the application of cellulose nanocrystallites (CNC), which are the elementary units that construct crystalline cellulose from plants.

“My group has previously synthesized a new biocomposite material from CNC for small-diameter replacement vascular graft application,” he said. “The objective of this research is to synthesize new functional materials from CNC.”

Plant pathology

WSU Tri-Cities newsNaidu Rayapati, an associate professor of plant pathology at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, is working with Emily Jordan, a science teacher at Chiawana High School, to study the gene sequencing and genome diversity of economically important grapevine viruses.

“The teacher will gain hands-on experience in molecular biology and state-of-the-art gene sequencing and bioinformatics technologies to elucidate genome diversity of the viruses for practical applications in vineyards,” Rayapati said.

“The experience will help the teacher introduce new concepts of scientific inquiry in the classroom to inspire students interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields,” he said. “We hope to pursue innovative strategies with the K-12 school systems in the Yakima Valley for strengthening higher education in STEM fields.”

Classroom application

The WSU professors are also working with the high school teachers to develop lesson plans, potential course projects and more based in the research they conduct at WSU.

“This partnership will strengthen both the high school program, as well as the research and college science program, by adding a new perspective to the research teach and new tools to use in the classroom,” Cooper said.