A Kansas State University biochemical engineer has a key role in a research project among several universities, industries and federal agencies seeking to refine and improve the conversion of biomass into better drop-in biodiesel, biolubricants, jet fuel and other value-added products.
The project is being led by Ceramatec Inc., a ceramic, fuel and electrochemical research and development company in Salt Lake City. In addition to Kansas State University, collaborators include Texas A&M, Rice University, Drexel University and the Chevron Corp.
“Drop-in” biofuels is a term referring to renewable energy sources that can be brought to commercial production without major investment in new infrastructure in the U.S. where energy storage and distribution has long centered on petroleum-based products. Examples are renewable fuels that can be blended with conventional petroleum products such as gasoline or diesel fuel, and distributed using the existing infrastructure of pumps, pipelines and other equipment. It is hoped that eventually next-generation biofuels can be developed that can be used without a gasoline or diesel base.
Biomass used to produce drop-in biofuels is from renewable energy sources, typically made from waste and low-grade plant materials. It can be converted into biofuels, such as drop-in renewable biodiesel, and other energy sources. A major advantage of drop-in biofuels is that they are so structurally similar to conventional transportation fuels currently in use that they can be developed with existing technology and infrastructure used to make petroleum-based fuels, saving on fiscal overhead for new technology.
Praveen Vadlani, the Gary and Betty Lortscher associate professor of renewable energy in Kansas State University’s department of grain science and industry, is a co-principal investigator in a more than $6.5 million biomass research project between universities, industries and federal agencies. The three-year project, a jointly funded effort by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. DOE, seeks to refine and improve the conversion of biomass into better drop-in biodiesel, bio-lubricants, jet fuel and other value-added products.
“This is a high-risk, high-reward project,” says Dr. Vadlani. “The goal is to increase commercial industries’ interest in the products that are developed from biomass by adding value to those products. It will be a technical challenge because we want to optimize every component used in the production cycle and make sure that the production cycle is done in a closed-loop system without any emissions since we’re using a renewable energy source.”
As a biochemical engineer, Praveen Vadlani’s research interests include bioprocess science and engineering, fermentation, bioconversion of renewable resources to useful produces, applied biochemistry and metabolic engineering, bioprocess optimization and development, and bioprocess technology development. More specifically, working at K-State’s Bioprocessing Industrial Value Added Products facility, Dr. Vadlani seeks to develop valued-added products from agricultural resources and biofuels industry byproducts.
For example, distillers grains can be used as a partial replacement for corn and other feed grains fed to cattle. Part of Dr. Vadlani’s research looks at ways to make the distillers grains even more nutritious through a secondary fermentation process he developed, and to increase the variety of livestock that can eat it. He also studies ways to make advanced biofuels more eco-friendly, including the development of chemicals from biomass and cereal grains to replace those made from nonrenewable petroleum sources. This research in cellulosic ethanol also is through K-State’s Center for Sustainable Energy.
In addition, Dr. Vadlani is a member of a K-State research team for a biofuels proof of concept study on producing cellulosic ethanol from pelleted forage crops. Vadlani’s role in the study, supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Section, is to find ways to convert biomass pellets into ethanol.
Dr. Vadlani and his colleagues are studying biomass made from switchgrass and sorghum, both bioenergy-rich crops. Switchgrass is a warm season grass that can be converted into large amounts of biomaterial, while sorghum is a major grain crop, livestock feed and the primary source for biofuels production. Biomass was selected because it is a more cost-efficient and environmentally sustainable energy source to produce. Researchers are evaluating biomass made from these grasses, starting from their growth in the field throughout the production cycles.
Dr. Vadlani is focusing on pretreatment and fermentation steps in the production cycle to convert biomass into drop-in biodiesel, jet fuel and bio-lubricants. This includes deconstructing biomass to its core components; separating the sugars from the bio-contaminants; fermentation of useful products; scaling up the production levels from test tubes to liters; and evaluating the energy efficiency of the biofuels produced from the modified production cycle.
“My critical expertise comes in the form of essentially connecting the dots of all of the individual processes in order to make sure that the whole production cycle works efficiently from the first step all the way until the end,” Dr. Vadlani says. “Each step in the production cycle may work by itself, but once they are put together there may be conflicts and inefficiencies. That results in lower-quality bio-products being produced.”
In addition to advancing biomass research and bio-product development, the project has strong mentorship and educational aspects to it.
Dr. Vadlani will work with a graduate student and postdoctoral research assistant, who also will work with undergraduate students and students in the university’s summer research experience for undergraduates program.
“Along with making advancements to biofuels and industry, I’m looking at this as an opportunity to mentor undergraduate students who will one day go on to make future advancements in biofuels and eco-friendly materials,” he says.