MCR&PC and IREE join forces on five value-added ag research projects

The key to the future prosperity of Minnesota farmers and rural communities is value-added agriculture—by creating opportunities to add value to farm products, and to do so closer to where those crops are raised, will result in more dollars circulating in the local economy and it will create secure, rewarding jobs that keep rural communities vital. Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council recently announced cooperative funding of five research projects with the University of Minnesota.

“We are trying to do more than ever before through partnerships, because we can make our money go farther and get involved in more things,” said Rich Trebesch, the chairman of the Expanded Uses Team for Minnesota’s corn organizations. Trebesch, a farmer in Sleepy Eye, said, “Our goal is to find more uses, and ultimately to get a better price for our corn. Thanks to technology and scientific research, we are producing more corn every year. It’s a constant process to keep productivity and markets for our products in balance, to maintain the value of our corn.”

Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council has supported value-added agriculture for decades, channeling the proceeds from funds collected on every sale of corn in the state of Minnesota. They count farmer-owned ethanol as a major success story, but they know the industry still has a long way to go.

MCR&PC is pleased to have joined with the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE), a program of the Institute on the Environment, to share the cost of five research projects that continue to develop value-added agriculture.

“The philosophy here is that the fuel ethanol industry is still really a fledgling industry when you compare it to the oil industry,” said Rod Larkins, the associate director of IREE. “There are a lot of opportunities to add capabilities in the ethanol industry, to make a better economic picture, to create a better carbon footprint and, generally, to make it much more competitive with the oil industry. Our view is the University is one of the best places to make that happen. It’s our objective to partner with the corn growers to identify opportunities to dramatically improve all those areas. We believe it’s possible.”

Larkins came to IREE 18 months ago, after 40 years with 3M, and he brings an industry sensibility to the process of developing applied scientific research.

These five research projects are the first cooperative venture between the two entities. Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council will contribute more than $500,000, while IREE will bring $146,000 along with in-kind contributions of space, facilities and support staff at the various locations of the University of Minnesota system.

“All five of these projects are looking at how to make bioenergy the most effective it can be—it’s a wider scope than just biofuels,” said Riley Maanum, Research and Project Manager for Minnesota Corn Growers Association. These projects pursue that vision, whether it’s looking at the genetics of high-oil corn, or crop residue densification.”

Here are summaries of the MCR&PC/IREE funded projects:

Project Name: Catalytic Gasification of Corn Residues
University/Company:  University of Minnesota
Principle Investigator:  Lanny Schmidt
Current Status:  Ongoing
Description: The conversion of crop residues into transportation fuels is perhaps the greatest challenge in renewable bio energy.  We propose a research program to gasify corn stover, cobs, and dried distillers grains into syngas (a mixture of CO and H2) in order to produce transportation fuels, dimethyl ether, and ammonia.  We will accomplish this in short contact time reactors operating autothermally (no heat added) at sufficiently high temperatures that no char or tars are formed and impurities such as chlorine, sulfur, nitrogen, and phosphorous are volatilized and thus to not deactivate catalysts.  This technology could result in versatile and inexpensive processes to convert solid biomass into liquid transportation fuels.

Project Name: Corn Stover Densification as Renewable Fuel
University/Company:  University of Minnesota, Morris
Principle Investigator:  Lowell Rasmussen
Current Status:  Ongoing
Description: The University of Minnesota is researching the optimum scale of equipment to unbundle and prepare bulk corn stover for densification and uniform thermal characteristics. This includes rock and dirt removal to extend the life of the densification equipment downstream. This equipment would be integrated into the grinding and densification equipment at Morris.  The testing and refinement of this system will begin with design and installation in spring of 2010 and will provide the information required to develop onsite fuel processing stations within regions, or the opportunity to transfer this platform to a portable system to solve what still is a major impediment to low density biofuels, that is transportation.

Project Name: Ethanol Fermentation CO2 utilization as a direct feedstock component for commercial algae production
University/Company: American Algae, LLC.
Principle Investigator:  Lynn Jensen
Current Status: Ongoing
Description:  American Algae is developing a proprietary system to commercially produce algae on a large scale with a minimum physical footprint. American Algae believes that an ethanol plant can be a very complimentary host to this technology system.
American Algae has almost one full year of production data relating to the growth rate of selected algae.  The production system utilizes the proprietary LED light technology developed by American Algae and 3M. This environmental controlled and enclosed proprietary photobioreactor (PBR) system utilized commercially available compressed CO2 in a controlled temperature environment.
Our initial tests will collect raw CO2 from an operating ethanol plant’s fermentation system and transport it to our private lab in the Minneapolis metro area. The team will then run continuous tests to ascertain and analyze the results on our selected cultures, then start the process of algae strain selection and optimization utilizing raw fermentation CO2. These tests will be expedited through the use of 5 additional smaller PBR’s. Finalist of this stage will go on to the larger scaled PBR for further testing.
The University of Minnesota has an extensive database of algae strains that the company intends to use a one of the potential sources. We will then be testing for the optimum temperature for the highest growth rate of the algae.

Project Name: Transforming corn from a commodity crop to a higher-energy, multipurpose biofuel crop
University/Company: University of Minnesota
Principle Investigator:  Nathan Springer
Current Status: Ongoing
Description: A new strain of high oil corn (20% oil content) is being analyzed by the University of Minnesota to better understand the genetic control of high oil and how to efficiently transfer this trait to high yielding commercial lines.  The oil is largely in the embryo so the study also involves development of technology for separating the embryo from the remainder of the kernel, allowing the strain to be a dual biofuel source for both biodiesel and ethanol.  An economic analysis of the yield of oil versus starch will guide future research.
 
Project Name:  Adding value to ethanol production byproduct (distillers grain) through production of biochar and bio-oil.
University/Company:  USDA-ARS
Principle Investigator:  Kurt Spokas (USDA-ARS),  Roger Ruan and Robert Morrison (University of Minnesota)
Current Status: Ongoing
Description: The goal of this project is to increase the value of distillers grain by sequestering carbon and producing additional renewable energy resources (bio-oil and syngas) through microwave assisted pyrolysis.  More specifically, we will have an optimized process for capturing additional bio-energy, and at the same time producing a potential soil improvement agent from an existing byproduct.  We will examine the potential increase in soil fertility and carbon storage of this produced biochar.  The potential long-term outcomes of this research are the development and promotion of on-farm energy production using microwave assisted pyrolysis and distillers grain as a feedstock as well as improving the sustainability of corn production through returning carbon to the field.

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