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Roving mobile processing plants to produce biofuels


July 8, 2010

The new method for processing agricultural waste and any available biomass into biofuels that could enable roving, mobile processing plants (Image: Rakesh Agrawal, Purdue University School of Chemical Engineering)

The new method for processing agricultural waste and any available biomass into biofuels that could enable roving, mobile processing plants (Image: Rakesh Agrawal, Purdue University School of Chemical Engineering)

Biofuels are seen as a more environmentally friendly fuel source than petroleum-based fuels, but transporting the bulky biomass used to produce them is expensive because of their volume. It’s much more economical to transport the liquid fuel after it has been processed but this isn’t possible if the processing facilities are located far from the source of the biomass. A new method to process agricultural waste and other biomass could enable the creation of mobile processing plants that would rove the Midwest to produce fuels where the biomass is sourced.

"Material like corn stover and wood chips has low energy density," says Rakesh Agrawal, the Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. "It makes more sense to process biomass into liquid fuel with a mobile platform and then take this fuel to a central refinery for further processing before using it in internal combustion engines."

The new method developed by chemical engineers at Purdue is called fast-hydropyrolysis-hydrodeoxygenation, which they have shortened to H2Bioil – pronounced H Two Bio Oil. It works by adding hydrogen into the biomass-processing reactor. The hydrogen for the mobile plants would be derived from natural gas or the biomass itself. However, its creators envision the future use of solar power to produce the hydrogen by splitting water, making the new technology entirely renewable.

Increasing the liquid-fuel yield

The researchers say their method would produce about twice as much biofuel as current technologies when hydrogen is derived from natural gas and 1.5 times the liquid fuel when hydrogen is derived from a portion of the biomass itself.

Biomass along with hydrogen will be fed into a high-pressure reactor and subjected to extremely fast heating, rising to as hot as 500 degrees Celsius, or more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit in less than a second. The hydrogen containing gas is to be produced by "reforming" natural gas, with the hot exhaust directly fed into the biomass reactor.

"The biomass will break down into smaller molecules in the presence of hot hydrogen and suitable catalysts," Agrawal said. "The reaction products will then be subsequently condensed into liquid oil for eventual use as fuel. The uncondensed light gases such as methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, are separated and recycled back to the biomass reactor and the reformer."

The researchers had previously invented an approach called a "hybrid hydrogen-carbon process," or H2CAR which followed the same general concept of combining biomass and carbon-free hydrogen to increase the fuel yield. Both H2CAR and H2Bioil use additional hydrogen to boost the liquid-fuel yield, but H2Bioil is more economical and mobile than H2CAR.

"It requires less hydrogen, making it more economical," he said. "It is also less capital intensive than conventional processes and can be built on a smaller scale, which is one of the prerequisites for the conversion of the low-energy density biomass to liquid fuel. So H2Bioil offers a solution for the interim time period, when crude oil prices might be higher but natural gas and biomass to supply hydrogen to the H2Bioil process might be economically competitive."

The Purdue University team’s findings are detailed in a research paper appearing online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Yes. This is very much needed. Many a time the transportation cost involved in moving Biofuel input like Jatropa is enormous. Decentralised/mobile processing units for biofuel extraction will be very popular.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

Anumakonda Jagadeesh

I think they are going down the wrong path. What is needed are not mobile plants, but smaller ones that can be put into place to service an area where the fuel is used..... Since these plants would be small, but not mobile, they could be manufactured by the hundreds to reduce cost. The problem with ethanol right now is they have to sell to the oil companies who own all the gas stations. These plants could become fuel stations also, serving up pure ethanol and skipping the oil man.


Sounds interesting. I\'ve been for portable units for the last I\'d like to learn more about this process. I have my doubts about raising the biomass temp to 900F in a second without wasting too much energy.

Getting H2 is easy by doing water gas which one hits 1500F carbon/biomass with steam breaking both down into H2/Co is a better way. Using NG just reduces real yield. Just save the leftover gases from the first batch to do the rest.

The largest benefit is returning the minerals back to the land and maybe carbon as fertilizer this can do.


Dennis, seriously, the \"oil man\" has distribution pipe lines. they have fuel stations, they have soda fountains, milk, and working bathrooms.

We have zoning in place, regulatory bodies which are suppose to monitor tank condition, fuel quality and the volume of a gallon.

The problem with ethanol right now is it is an alcohol. It has a lower energy density, it takes a ton of fresh drinking water and high quality farm land to grow, its expensive, its Hygroscopic, and its not very stable.

There is a lot of problems with ethanol. Of course there are other bio fuels that are better but still

How is building ethanol stations in the middle of farm country going to help anyone? What do you have against the guy down the street that owns a gas station? what do you have against the companies that find, pump, refine, buy and sell fuel?

Michael Mantion

It would help the farmers, the local economies and provide us with a safe, domestic, reliable source of cleaner burning fuel.

The oil industry is dirty, largely foreign and heavily subsidized by tens-of-billions in tax payers money. Biofuel can be produced here cleanly and efficiently (from algae) and will keep dollars in this country. It does require water for production, but does so without polluting it. In the case of algae biofuel, from sewage, the water used is actually cleaned by the fuel production.

Ethanol burns clean, has high natural 110-120 octane rating and is powerful enough fuel to run in IndyCar racing and dragsters. It excels in high performance engines designed for it.

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