UND endeavors to turn corn stalks into jet fuel as part of $3.75 million Department of Energy research project
Four-year effort aims to develop small-scale experimentation into economic viability.
You’ve heard of turning corn into ethanol to run a vehicle. Well, what about turning corn stalks and leaves into jet fuel?
Professors, researchers and students with UND’s College of Engineering and Mines will be leading a four-year, $3.75 million project to learn how to turn corn stover into jet fuel.
The project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office, will be taken on by UND Professor Wayne Seames and a team of scientists and engineers with UND’s ND SUNRISE (Sustainable Energy Research Initiative and Supporting Education) research center.
The project will focus on developing a process to convert the lignin contained in corn stover – the stalks, stems and leaves left over after corn is harvested – into jet fuel. Lignin is a polymer that, along with cellulose, forms the structural support of plants.
Early research on turning corn stover into jet fuel has been small scale, Seames said. Researchers at the University of Washington had been working in small, pencil-sized reactors, which is a good starting point, according to Seames, who said that “really doesn't tell you whether you have anything that will be useful for the public.”
That’s where UND steps in.
Seames and his team will develop ways to translate existing research and scale it up to figure out whether the process could work in the commercial market. That type of technology transition is something in which Seames and his colleagues have some experience, he said.
They will design a system that could fit on top of a desk to learn how the solution would behave in that type of environment, he said.
“We'll get it to work in that system and figure out what conditions now work for that, and then we're going to build an even bigger one that might fit in a room,” he said. “It's not the size you would use in the commercial, but that's another size up. And from that size, you can confidently predict what the big plant will look like and what its economics will be.”
At that size, Seames said, researchers can “confidently predict” its economics, including cost of materials.
“We have no idea if this will be a winner or loser, but, in the meantime, for me, the main thing is being able to use it as a platform to train students,” said Seames, who will use post-doctorates, graduate and undergraduate students from UND’s chemical engineering and chemistry programs on the project.
“If we don't prepare the next generation of researchers and scholars, we're not going anywhere,” he said. “That's one of our missions at the university to do that.”
Ian Foerster, a doctoral student in chemical engineering from Pisek, N.D., will work on the DOE jet fuel project as a postdoctoral associate after he graduates in December. He will design, build and operate bench-scale and engineering-scale reaction systems.
Foerster got involved in the project after the team won the grant. Seames pitched it as an opportunity to experience both academia and research at the same time.
Growing up on a farm in rural North Dakota, Foerster said this project gives him the chance to connect to his agricultural roots while also working in chemical engineering. The ability to access his agricultural background has been useful throughout his academic career.
“Usually, when you think agriculture and higher ed, you think NDSU, but UND does a lot of it, too. We just do it in a different way,” he said. “We're not so much focused on growing the plant, but we're focused on how do we get this crop that's been grown and turn it into something that's useful and beneficial.”
Foerster said he’ll also be taking on a mentorship role in the project with undergraduates and graduate students.