Researchers at Iowa State University are working with others to determine new methods of turning biomass and manure into fuel.
The key to the project is using anaerobic digestion to generate renewable natural gas, according to Mark Mba Wright, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State.
Iowa State joined with Penn State University and Roeslein Alternative Energy in getting a five-year, $10 million grant from USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture for the project.
The project has been dubbed the Consortium for Cultivating Human and Natural Regenerative Enterprise (C-CHANGE).
One of the items leading to the interest in renewable natural gas is a program in California incentivizing the product, Wright says. The large incentive would make the product much more lucrative, and researchers are looking at ways farmers may be able to take advantage of that market.
With new technologies, biogas can be upgraded to renewable natural gas. But there is much work to be done on what feed stocks for the digester (dairy manure or other types of manure, as well as grasses, etc.) would be useful in producing the renewable natural gas.
Some dairy producers in California are taking advantage, but the Iowa State researchers are looking to see if that effort could be expanded to include different feed stocks for the digesters.
Iowa, for example, does not have a large number of dairy operations but it has many other types of livestock farms that might benefit from the research. Adding grasses and other feed stocks to the mix would add flexibility and environmental benefits.
“That’s the long-term vision,” Wright says.
For example, Wright says, they are looking at whether native prairie grasses could be planted in unproductive sections of a farm and then harvested for use in digesters. If that were feasible, it would make the digester even more environmentally friendly and could lead to farmers getting even more credit in any future carbon market.
The project director is Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor of natural resource ecology and management and an associate director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State.
Researchers say anaerobic digestion has been around for 50 years, but it has been limited by high capital costs and high management requirements. The goal is to reduce costs, simplify operations and expand the list of feedstocks used in the digesters so that more farmers could take advantage of the technology to make money and improve the environment.